Disney has definitely tried to capture the success of its live action adaptation of Alice in Wonderland with this prequel to the famous Wizard of Oz by imagining the origins of L. Frank Baum’s beloved wizard character.
The results on screen are wondrous, if a little less edgy than Burton’s reimagining of Wonderland.
With its tag “The land you know, the story you don’t”, Oz trades on the obvious love of the source material. The Wizard of Oz, made in 1939, is still a technical marvel and, although today the recreation of Oz is substantially easier given an elaborate special effects budget, director Sam Raimi has carefully captured the feel of the original film.
Oscar Diggs’ (James Franco) story is that of a small-time magician and con artist who is trying to make a living with a travelling circus. Ever the ladies’ man, he consistently woos then leaves a trail of women in every town, so when via a narrow escape and requisite tornado, he is whisked to the vibrant and colourful Land of Oz it makes sense that the first lady he meets — Theodora the witch (Mila Kunis) — falls for his simple charms and magical tricks.
Theodora instantly believes that Oscar is the new prophesised king of the Emerald City, come to liberate Oz from the clutches of the wicked witch.
It’s when Oscar meets her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) — who isn’t quite as convinced as her sister and sets him a task to find and kill the wicked witch in order to prove he is the answer to prophecy — that Oscar hits a snag.
It’s going to take more than sleight of hand to save a kingdom and prove that he can be the great and powerful magician he believes himself to be.
Motivation in character is an important part of storytelling and, although the origins of both Oz and the wicked witch are explored in the film, it’s the parallel characters — in Oscar’s real life and in the Land of Oz — that are perhaps the strongest narrative connections made by the script.
A young disabled girl attends Oscar’s magic show in Kansas, asking to be able to walk and unintentionally revealing him as a con artist. Once in Oz, though, while on his quest to kill the wicked witch, Oscar meets China Girl (voiced by Joey King), who during an attack by the wicked witch’s minions, has broken her legs. Oscar is able to mend her legs with some glue and help her to take her first steps.
China Girl is one of the many supporting characters, like Finley the flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff), that provide the story with its most engaging and emotional scenes and ultimately give the film the heart that some of the main characters lack.
The main characters portraying the witches are less compelling and a little underwritten, with the exception of Glinda (Michelle Williams), who has a Kansas counterpart to give depth, nuance and motivation to the narrative.
Glinda’s belief in Oscar’s goodness, rather than being great and powerful, is an important connection made throughout the film.
Theodora and Evanora are a little undersold by the script, which doesn’t give them enough light and shade to really carry the film. And Mila Kunis doesn’t seem totally comfortable in her role as the jilted Theodora who holds a fairly large — albeit misguided — grudge against Oscar.
James Franco has just the right amount of self-doubt and winking irony to pull off the role of Oscar Diggs.
One solid recommendation is to see this in 3D. IMax would even be more impressive. Like Alice in Wonderland before it, the film has been designed with the format in mind — all the better to make the most of its sumptuous colour palette. The film is at its most captivating when the camera is travelling over the landscape of this beautiful fictional world.
You will be astounded by the visuals. When the film travels with Oscar from Kansas to the Land of Oz, the transformation from the monochrome to full colour is a glorious achievement in visual effects.
Adrian Drayton is the Director of Reel Dialogue. A film buff and critic for 20 years, he believes in the power of cinema and the power of God to start conversations.
He is also a massive Star Wars nerd.
First published in Insights magazine