“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” “Follow the yellow brick road!” “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” “There’s no place like home.”
“The Wizard of Oz” is so much more than an iconic movie. It has been absorbed into our cultural DNA to the point that any one of those quotes is fully understood even by people who haven’t seen the movie.
This sacred status has made the Land of Oz a perilous place to try to make a buck. Oh, sure, there have been plenty of books and a wildly successful musical that has taken us back to this magical realm of witches and munchkins, but in an era when we can’t even wait 10 years to reboot a superhero franchise, it’s kind of amazing Oz has remained untouched until now.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” is the first serious attempt at an Oz movie (aside from the occasional, ill-fated curiosity like “The Wiz” or “Return to Oz”) since the 1930s and the result, while far from iconic, is still an enjoyable, wondrous, family-friendly adventure.
Cynics will be quick to dismiss this movie as a shameless grab for cash, trading on an established, beloved property. This may be true to a point, but I don’t get too bent out of shape about it simply because the original “The Wizard of Oz” was itself a shameless grab for cash.
After witnessing the wild success of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” MGM was desperate to horn in on the emerging family market and rushed “The Wizard of Oz” into production.
“Oz” was a bankable commodity in 1939 because the “Oz” books written by L. Frank Baum were such a literary phenomenon in the early years of the 20th Century they would have made J.K. Rowling feel inadequate by comparison.
Baum created an Oz that was much wider and richer than even hinted at by the movie and “Oz the Great and Powerful” is much more in step with Baum than with the Oz Judy Garland and Ray Bolger sang and danced their way through.
The movie is a fairly straightforward prequel, introducing us to the wonderful wizard (gamely played by James Franco) when he was little more than a huckster magician with a traveling circus before being sucked to Oz via tornado.
When he lands, he finds a magical world politically divided between three witches: Glinda (Michelle Williams), Theodora (Mila Kunis), and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz).
He is immediately mistaken for a prophetic wizard foretold to bring unity to the land that shares his name. Oz must quickly take sides, sort out his loyalties and figure out if he has it in him to be more than just a con man.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” was directed by Sam Raimi, who is best known for helming the “Spider-Man” trilogy. Raimi’s movies always have kinetic energy that whisks you along at such a thrilling pace you don’t really have time to dwell on any flaws.
In a lot of ways, Raimi is the perfect choice to direct this movie. He clearly has a lot of reverence for the source material, as proven by his mirroring the original movie by starting the film in black and white before widening the screen and switching to glorious three-dimensional color.
He’s also not afraid of special effects, of which this movie has boatloads, including a couple of fully rendered supporting characters, like Finley the friendly flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) and the fragile China Girl (voiced by Joey King).
And even though I usually find it unnecessary, Raimi shows he has a knack for using 3D, which isn’t all that surprising considering he’s been throwing the camera at actors ever since his “Evil Dead” days.
A lot like its main character, “Oz the Great and Powerful” isn’t as dazzling and wonderful as we want to believe it is. But it also has just enough tricks up its sleeve to make us clap and laugh, just as long as we promise not to think too much about it.
At the very least it has proven that the Land of Oz is somewhere worth revisiting as long as we are taken over the rainbow by the right people. Very truly, there is no place like it.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” is rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language.