If I were to choose a colour to depict the last week of my life it would have to be green. Not only did I follow the yellow brick road to London (it was more like a railway track to be honest) to watch the hit stage show Wicked, based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, I also found time to slip into my ruby slippers and catch up with Dorothy in the classic 1939 film version, The Wizard of Oz.
So it seemed like a good idea to complete a hat-trick of sorts (everybody else is doing them so why can’t I?), don my 3D glasses, jump into the nearest hot air balloon and cook up a storm with Oz The Great and Powerful, directed by Sam Raimi (The Spiderman Trilogy) and starring James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis.
Your brain would melt if you tried to keep up with the contradictions, continuity and inconsistencies of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in all its guises. There are so many differences between each version, both minor and major, ranging from name changes, family lineage, plot developments and death defying (not just gravity) denouements. Hell, even the ruby slippers were silver shoes in the original novel. Oz The Great and Powerful makes subtle changes too but it mostly plays like a prequel to the 1939 movie, depicting the magical birth of a less than powerful ‘wizard’.
It’s another origin story then, much like the Broadway Musical that has taken the world by storm. The Wicked Witch of the West is sidelined (though not for long) in favour of James Franco’s narrow-minded magician, cock-sure and transparent but not without a certain charm. He’s a womanising, conniving charlatan for the most part, but don’t forget this is a Disney movie, so it’s safe to say he’ll be coming around in the end.
Early scenes mirror that of the Judy Garland movie, with the opening sequence presented in black-and-white, moving to colour when our protagonists arrive in Oz. Several characters have dual roles too, much like they did in Victor Fleming’s star studded spectacle. Zack Braff (Scrubs) plays Oscar’s assistant in both worlds, lending his voice to a debt-ridden winged monkey in Oz, and the long suffering Frank back home in Kansas.
Joey King is an adorable addition to the world of Oz, playing a sweet natured China Doll from the beautifully realised China Town. In Kansas she appears as a wheelchair bound girl in the audience of Oscar’s magic show. Michelle Williams is probably the least memorable of the three witches Oz has to offer, but she too has another part to play in the opening act of the movie. Annie is one of Oscar’s many love interests, who somewhat intriguingly receives a marriage proposal from an unseen John Gale, hinting at perhaps a perplexing part to play in Dorothy Gale’s eventual arrival.
Other nods are littered throughout, much like they were in the ever-popular stage show. So be sure to keep an eye out for the scarecrow, an ever so cowardly lion, the Master Tinker who might just specialise in Tin, and watery tears capable of scarring the wickedest of witches. It’s not always subtle but it nicely done, and in the hands of Raimi the world of Oz is nothing short of spectacular. For those who shun the CGI world of modern fantasy drama, Oz will likely frustrate. The same can be said for those who find 3D redundant. In Raimi’s world though they really do put on a show like no other, adding layers of depth to an experience that’s arguably lacking elsewhere.
Much has been made of Franco’s interpretation of Oscar, and of course it would’ve been interesting to see what Robert Downey, Jr. could’ve done with the role, but James is a likeable onscreen presence, particularly in the first half of the movie when he’s asked to play mean. The script doesn’t help him out as much as it could, providing Oz with few genuine laughs, but Braff’s flying monkey and the little China Doll make for a strong double act even if they’ll never compare to the stars of the 1939 version.
The real stars of the show – besides the luscious 3D effects – are the wicked witches of the East and West. Rachel Weisz is perfectly cast as the diabolical Disney villainess, both in appearance and performance, but it’s Mila Kunis who lingers longest in the memory. In a neat twist on the tale – reminiscent of the path they took on stage – it is Mila’s Theodora, not Evanora, who bags the best part. Not only does she look great once the transformation is complete (she looks pretty good before it too), Mila’s Theodora lets out the mightiest of screams at every opportunity, fully embracing the wickedness within.
A sequel has already been confirmed but Raimi will unlikely play a part, even if he has opened the door to further adventures. Raimi brings his usual visual trickery to the table and coupled with a typically zany Danny Elfman score, much of Oz The Great and Powerful has a Burton-esque vibe to it. It’s probably no coincidence that producer Joe Roth had a hand in both this and the rebirth of Alice, Oz and Wonderland share a similar tone and palette after all. Raimi’s vision may lack genuine substance but on the big screen it really is a sight to behold.
Oz The Great and Powerful might not win the purists over but how many contemporary versions could? With two bewitching performances guiding the way, Raimi’s journey to the Emerald City is more than just a case of smoke and mirrors; it’s a frightfully enjoyable movie in its own right. Colourful, creative and just that little bit syrupy, Oz The Great and Powerful almost lives up to its name. AW