Dorothy had it easy: It only took one cyclone ride to whisk her away to the land of Oz. By comparison, Walt Disney Studios has had a much tougher time getting its act on the yellow brick road.
It’s been more than 50 years since Walt Disney himself tried and failed to produce The Rainbow Road to Oz, starring the “Mickey Mouse Club” Mouseketeers. The studio issued a few Oz-themed records in the 1960s, but they did not lead to any film projects, and when the studio finally spent a fortune on the lavish Return to Oz in 1985, the result was a box-office disaster; the dark mash-up of L. Frank Baum’s The Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz terrified much of its target audience and has since joined Song of the South on the short list of films Disney doesn’t like to talk about.
Now Disney has turned to Spider-Man director and Evil Dead creator Sam Raimi to find gold in the Emerald City. Oz the Great and Powerful arrives just as the musical blockbuster Wicked is preparing to celebrate a decade on Broadway and one year before the 75th anniversary of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz.
Although the credits indicate that Oz the Great and Powerful is inspired by the works of Baum, Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire ’s screenplay borrows very little from the author’s 14 novels and, despite a few fleeting references to the 1939 “Wizard,” Raimi’s film is not a musical and has little in common with Wicked.
The most obvious salute to Judy Garland’s version of “Oz” comes early on, as cut-rate carnival conjurer Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) is introduced in a black-and-white prologue, set in 1905 Kansas. Spirited off to Oz after he jumps in a hot-air balloon that gets caught in a tornado, Diggs quickly wows self-professed “good witch” Theodora (Mila Kunis), who believes he is the glorious savior mentioned in an ancient prophecy.
Theodora, doe-eyed and slightly dopey, is easily bamboozled by Diggs, but Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), a power-hungry schemer with a talent for malicious manipulation, correctly suspects the new arrival is an opportunistic fraud. To prove himself, Diggs agrees to destroy the Wicked Witch, who has all of Oz in a grip of terror. His quest leads him to the saintly, luminous enchantress Glinda (Michelle Williams), which in turn complicates his standing with the sorceress sisters. When it’s time for him to step up and save Oz from evildoers, the phony wizard is ultimately forced to learn there’s more than one way to make a little magic.
Franco, who took over the part after Robert Downey Jr. bailed, is amiable and occasionally funny, although he doesn’t give Diggs much in the way of depth or dimension. As for the witches, Williams smoothly undercuts Glinda’s sweetly supportive nature with a few teasing hints of sensuality, while Weisz endows the no-nonsense Evanora with the barely buried impatience and carefully controlled cattiness of an overworked executive ready to seize the CEO’s office.
Puzzlingly, Kunis has the most mercurial role and gives the thinnest performance; innocence, vulnerability and vengefulness are not qualities the actress expresses easily. Neither great nor particularly powerful, the movie settles for being engaging and opulent instead as Raimi expertly balances the jokes, shocks and whimsy; it’s superior to director Tim Burton’s uneven adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.
Although the film is awash in special effects and computer-generated imagery, the performers aren’t overwhelmed by the scores of luscious landscapes and breathtakingly dreamy backdrops. In fact, if anything, this “Oz” might have benefited from a few more bursts of imagination: At certain points, the story calls to mind the sunny, romantic mythical kingdoms in a 1930s Jeannette McDonald operetta instead of a fantasy land full of surprises and dangers.
The familiar Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion don’t show up, and neither do Baum’s lesser-known creations like the Patchwork Girl or the Hungry Tiger. The movie does, however, make maximum use of a fragile but feisty living doll known as the China Girl (voice provided by Joey King) and a comic flying monkey named Finley (voice provided by Zach Braff).
The savage, screaming winged baboons that threaten our heroes are genuinely scary, and the digital craftsmanship used to bring these characters to life is flawless. Kapner and Lindsay-Abaire cleverly and admirably combine the archetypes of Oz with a few nods to Disney classics as well. For instance, not only does the Wicked Witch of the West wear a headdress similar to the outfit of the evil queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a poisoned apple also plays a pivotal part in the plot.
While Oz the Great and Powerful almost certainly will not have the staying power of the original Oz books or the MGM musical, it’s entertaining, eye-pleasing and persuasive proof that Disney has finally made it over the rainbow at last.