Oz the Great and Powerful (Photo courtesy Disney)
Ignoring the Wizard's famous plea to "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," Disney's new movie "Oz, The Great and Powerful", instead strips the curtain away to give us a look at just who the Wizard was before he dropped into Oz.
He turns out to be a second rate magician with a traveling circus named Oscar Diggs (James Franco), called Oz for short. In the famous 1939 movie and original book, he was (or at least, insisted he was) "a very good man, just a very bad wizard." That doesn't quite sum up Oscar Diggs, who turns out to be a man of somewhat questionable character.
He's a con man with an eye for the ladies. And, despite a beautiful Michelle Williams for a love interest, doesn't try to dissuade her when she tells him someone else has asked her to marry him. He doesn't feel he's worthy of her, he says, and we believe him.
Meanwhile, his dalliances with other pretty members of the troupe come back to haunt him, providing the cautionary tale that it's probably best when flirting with other people's girl friends to make sure you don't pick one whose boyfriend happens to be the circus strongman.
We all know the Wizard came to Oz in a balloon, and this movie provides a reason for the flight. Escaping for his life (or at least to avoid a punch in the nose), Oscar hops into the balloon and takes off, only to get swallowed up by a tornado which whisks him to the colorful (and widescreen) land of Oz.
Mimicking the 1939 movie, this one starts off in black and white and adds an extra wrinkle by also adopting the old Academy Ratio film format (similar to the dimensions of a TV screen). Once the balloon hits Oz, however, black and white turns to color and the screen goes wide.
Once in the Emerald City, Oscar discovers he's shown up at an opportune moment. In chaos and disarray because of a Wicked Witch, the people of Oz have been waiting for a great Wizard to come to solve their problems and they take Oscar for the Wizard. Once Oscar sees the gold that could be his if he would just get rid of the Witch and become the King, he doesn't mind if they do.
There's a lot to like about OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL. By turns humorous and adventurous, scary and fun, it's full of beautiful imagery and 3-D effects. Director Sam Raimi does a good job of recapturing the ambiance of Oz from the 1939 film.
New Oz characters include a talking, flying monkey who becomes the Wizard's sidekick and a little girl made out of china who makes it very clear very early on that she is not as delicate as she looks!
The filmmakers here are obviously trying as best they can (within copyright boundaries, of course) to revisit and continue the world of the 1939 musical, but, since it's a movie most people have seen over and over again, I'm not sure dredging up the Munchkins and all those overly familiar Oz elements really works they way they want it to.
After all, OZ creator L. Frank Baum had a boundless imagination and peopled the 14 OZ books he wrote with a wide variety of characters.
Even the Wicked Witch element here is pretty much "been there, done that," although they try to re-invent that part of the story, too, and leave it a mystery as to who the Wicked Witch really is and how she got that way. That part of the movie, however, is not entirely satisfying because part of the fun of the Wicked Witch is how utterly evil and nasty she is. As a viewer, do we really want to know there might be more to it than that?
The other loose end of the movie is the set up of two problems in the beginning of the film that, while resolved in Oz with similar characters, can not be resolved in the world the Wizard has left behind because, as everyone knows, he doesn't go back there.
But, if the film is a success, maybe he will in a future installment. Also, I suggest paying close attention to the Wizard's journey in the balloon and later, in a flying bubble. A coming ride at Disneyland, perhaps?
Three stars out of four.
By Jonathan Mumm, firstname.lastname@example.org