Image © Disney.
Disney does not have a great track record with L. Frank Baum’s Oz tales. Their “Return to Oz” had some cool visuals but disappointed me in many ways, including being too dark for the true spirit of Oz to emerge. I hadn’t heard much about this film other than that it was coming, despite being a longtime member of the “International Wizard of Oz Club.” I read one review Friday that seemed mixed, and one from a friend on Facebook that was pretty negative. I was torn about seeing it, but decided that I should. It’s an Oz film. I love Oz. How could I pass it by? So Ellen and I saw it this afternoon.
I went in not expecting too much, and came out feeling I had a good time. It’s billed as a prequel, telling how the man who became the Wizard of Oz got there. The story begins in Kansas in 1905, where we see Oscar Diggs performing his magic act in a small travelling carnival, and not getting along too well, except with the ladies. An angry husband who is also the show’s strong man wants Oscar’s head, but Diggs just manages to escape him in a hot air balloon. A tornado approaches…well, you get the idea. The opening is purposely subdued, black and white and square screen. As in the MGM classic film, it opens up when Oz Diggs arrives in the land with his name, launching dazzling 3D effects and vibrant colors. It’s almost overdone at first, but as the story unfolds, Oz and Oscar both steady down and become more appealing. I felt James Franco did fine in his role, starting out as a suave but uncaring con man, and being changed gradually by his circumstances.
Three witches form an important part of the cast. Only one is familiar at first glance, Glinda, but we meet her last. Before that there are two sisters. One, Theodora, meets Oscar when he first arrives, and helps get him to the Emerald City, where everyone proclaims him as the mighty Wizard who can help them defeat the Wicked Witch. Sister Evanora shows up there too, ostensibly to help, but with her own agenda. Glinda is the one pegged as Wicked in this story, or so Oscar is told as he’s sent off to look for her in the Dark Forest. Of the three actresses in these parts, I thought Michelle Williams was best as Glinda. Mila Kunis as Theodora was not convincing to me either in her original good witch state, or later after things go wrong for her. Rachel Weisz was okay as Evanora except for her British accent, which kept pulling me out of the performance.
There are two CGI characters that befriend Oscar, a flying monkey and a china doll. The monkey is clearly comic relief, and as such I thought worked well. Zach Braff, as his voice, made me laugh a few times, and acted as a good sidekick. The living china doll voiced by Joey King was meant to bring out Oscar’s soft side, and that worked okay, though it did slow things down too much at times. Fortunately there’s enough action and excitement elsewhere to make up for it.
This film could not attempt to get too close the the MGM film visually, they didn’t have the rights for that, but clearly its heart and center is much closer to that film than the books, though things were picked out of the books here and there. Other things were added not from either. There was nothing that I found troubling as an Oz fan, though. The payoff—where Oscar puts together his greatest con ever to take back the Emerald City—was a success in my eyes. In short, I liked the film, as did Ellen. Not a classic perhaps, but certainly an enjoyable journey to a magical place, and a few hours well spent.