When I was a kid, nothing – absolutely nothing – scared me more than Miss Almira Gulch, aka The Wicked Witch of the West, from the classic 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer masterpiece, THE WIZARD OF OZ. Arguably the most-watched movie in history, there was something about her sinister sneer and evil cackle that gave me the willies, especially when Dorothy spies her inside the tornado, peddling outside the window of the uprooted Gale home. Despite having seen STAR WARS, JAWS, SUPERMAN and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, there was something visually beguiling about THE WIZARD OF OZ that made it opulent, captivating and undeniably ageless. There really could never be an equal or another, and failed movies like JOURNEY BACK TO OZ (1974), THE WIZ (1978), and RETURN TO OZ (1985) were testimony to THE WIZARD OF OZ’s once-in-a-lifetime greatness. Imagine my distaste when Sam Raimi (SPIDER-MAN, SPIDER-MAN 2 and SPIDER-MAN 3) was tagged to direct the Walt Disney Pictures-produced, OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL. I had to choke down the dry-heaves seeing Raimi’s muse, James Franco (127 HOURS), in one of the worst teaser trailers in recent memory. Coupled with it’s early-March 2013 release date, OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL looked like a traveshamockery.
I’m happy to say that I couldn’t have been more wrong. OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL isn’t a traveshamockery and it won’t have L. Frank Baum spinning in his grave and coming back to Tobyrize the Raimi household. It’s not even close to the landmark 1939 movie, but it’s pretty good – it’s full of magic and beauty, and is, without-a-doubt, a bright, unexpected surprise in early March as audiences and the box-office crawl wearily from the cinematic doldrums that is the month of February.
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL begins, aesthetically, like the THE WIZARD OF OZ, in the 4:3 Academy ratio and in black-and-white, only transitioning to widescreen (16:9) and color when the aforementioned Oz (James Franco), aka Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs, is swept away by a twister while escaping a jealous boyfriend at the traveling circus he works at as a magician. Facing imminent death, Oz shouts to the heavens to whomever is listening that he’s not ready to die, that he can be a better man. And suddenly he’s through the storm and surrounded by the lavish landscape of Oz, crash landing, conveniently near a would-be rescuer, the lovely Theodora (Mila Kunis). She’s dressed in some maroon and black get-up that looks like a cross between something from ZORRO THE GAY BLADE and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. After Oz introduces himself, Theodora, somewhat smitten by his charm and his prophetic arrival, is determined to get him to the Emerald City to see her sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who is caretaker of the green metropolis since the city lost its ruler and has been under siege by a wicked witch. Along the way, Oz gains a companion, a talking, winged monkey wearing a bellhop uniform, named Finley (Zach Braff), and the party of three makes its way to the capitol city of Oz.
While Theodora is head-over-heels for Oz in more ways than one, Evanora smells a fraud. She shows Oz the copious amounts of gold and treasure waiting for him and his potential lordship over the Land of Oz, but with one catch: He must kill the wicked witch living in the Dark Forest and destroy her wand. Seems straightforward enough, so Oz and Finley travel down the famed yellow brick road toward the nefarious forest and an impending showdown with the villainous witch. As they journey, they gain another companion, an orphaned girl made out of China, called China Girl (Joey King), and meet Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams). All of the sudden, as the proverbial curtain is pulled back and true intentions are discovered, what seemed so clear-cut and uncomplicated becomes indefinite and hazy. One thing is certain, though. Oz, a cocky, selfish, con-man is on a course to be that better man he promised to be during his near-death tornado balloon ride.
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is rated PG and a a movie the entire family can enjoy. Some small children may find the witches and the flying baboons a little terrifying, but all-in-all, Sam Raimi’s Oz adventure is full of heart, humor, magic and beauty.