James Franco is quickly becoming Hollywood’s King of the Prequels. First came “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which provided the backstory to how a monkey named Cornelius took over the world. Now he stars in a mega-budget, all-star prequel to one of the most beloved films of all time.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” aims to let you know everything you always wanted to know about “The Wizard of Oz” but were afraid to ask—how the wizard became the wizard, why the wicked witch is so wicked and what was up with the giant projected head.
Set decades before the original film, Franco dons a tattered top hat to play Oscar Diggs, an egotistical traveling circus magician. According to his inflated sense of self he should be playing the Orpheum circuit making big bucks instead of amazing the yokels with parlor tricks. He has ambitions–“Kansas is full of good men,” he says. “I don’t want to be a good one, I want to be a great one—Harry Houdini and Thomas Alva Edison role into one.”–but an ill advised dalliance with the circus strongman’s wife causes him to put his ambitions on hold.
Jumping into a hot air balloon to escape the big man’s wrath, Oscar drifts into the eye of a tornado and into the heart of Oz, a magical land in search of a leader. A good witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis) rescues him from the toothy water fairies, and convinced he is the savior her people have been looking for, takes him to the Emerald City to meet her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and claim his throne. Enter a third witch, Glinda and Oscar’s ascension to the throne becomes very complicated. He must prove he isn’t “weak, selfish, slightly egotistical and a fibber,” as Glinda says, and worthy of the title Oz the Great and Powerful.
Oz’s journey echoes Dorothy’s in “The Wizard of Oz.” Both begin in black and white until a tornado transports them to a luminous, beautiful color world where they learn about themselves. Dotty learns about the importance of home and what she left behind. Oz rediscovers a sense of self, lost to years of conning audiences with his cut-rate magic and smarmy charm.
Both are large-scale epics for children, but “Oz the Great and Powerful” doesn’t have the magic of the original. There’s no shortage of imagination on screen—just a deficiency of star power to equal the high voltage images.
Franco and Kunis are a-listers with Oscar nominations and big hits on their collective resumes, but they seem out of their league here, like two hipsters cast back in time to a more formal era. Franco plays Oz like some kind of stoner wizard, and despite his habit of yelling, “Simsalabim,” his performance isn’t nearly flamboyant enough to carry the magic of the movie.
Kunis, as the wannabe wicked witch, hands in a performance that relies on cackling and the limpid pools that sit where you and I have eyes. None of her crack comic timing is required because she isn’t given any laugh lines. Pity.
Some of the fanciful creatures are more interesting than the human ones. A broken ceramic doll that gets a second lease on life courtesy of the Wizard’s glue pot is the kind of character needed to bring this material to life. Ditto the wise cracking Finley, a monkey butler voiced by Zack Braff.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” will suffer in the inevitable comparison to “The Wizard of Oz,” but movie wouldn’t? It’ll make your eyeballs dance but, but no amount of ruby red shoe clicking could fix the central casting problems.
Years ago I asked one of the original Wizard of Oz munchkins to explain the movie’s enduring appeal.
“Everybody can enjoy it,” said Karl Slover who was just two feet tall when he played the first trumpeter. “There’s no filthy language in it. I don’t see no bikinis! No nudist colonies! Kids can watch it and parents don’t have to worry because there’s nothing bad in there.”
I recently asked Zach Braff the same question in an interview to promote Oz the Great and Powerful, a prequel to the most beloved movie of all time.
“It reminds us of our childhood,” says the former Scrubs star, “and it reminds us of this magical place where crazy things happen. It is innocent and it is pure and it is amazing that it holds up. It was made in 1939, most kids don’t see other movies made in 1939.”
The new flick, co-staring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Wiliams, is a state-of-the-art film, but it’s something that has been gestating for some time.
“I heard that Walt Disney always wanted to make an Oz movie,” he says. “There’s 13 books, so why not go back to that world and tell it from a 2013 perspective.”
The new film echoes the original, starting with black and white scenes shot in Kansas before moving to the eye-popping fantasy world of Oz. The movie’s modern twist is the addition of high tech tricks to make your eyes and ears dance. Braff calls the film’s visual and audio tweaks — increasing the depth of the 3D and adding in surround sound for the Oz scenes, for example — “Sam Raimi at his finest.”
Raimi, the director behind the Evil Dead movies and a little franchise called Spider-Man, was the big reason Braff signed on to the project.
“I heard Sam wanted to meet me in his office. That’s a good call to get.”
Braff, who made his directorial debut on the 2004 indie film Garden State, calls Raimi a “wonderful mentor who let me watch this whole process.” Even on his days off the actor would go to the set to learn about big budget filmmaking from watching the old pro work on Oz’s enormous sets.
“Sam’s the biggest mensch on earth. The guy’s a saint. He’s too good to be true.”
When New Girl star Zooey Deschanel was two years old she watched The Wizard of Oz every day. “I had a hard time understanding that I couldn’t go into the film,” she said, “because it felt so real to me.”
She’s not alone. It is one of the most watched and universally adored Hollywood films ever and the L. Frank Baum book it’s based on has been called “America’s greatest and best-loved home grown fairytale.”
“We always say the age range for The Wizard of Oz is from fetal to fatal,” jokes Oz expert John Fricke.
This weekend Disney hopes to add to the legacy of the original film with Oz the Great and Powerful, a Sam Raimi directed prequel starring James Franco and Mila Kunis. Ever wondered why the wicked witch was so wicked? Or how the wizard became the wizard? With a click of its ruby slippers this movie fills in the blanks.
It’s not the first movie to try and woo an audience based on the goodwill of Oz and its citizens.
According to the Wonderful Wiki of Oz there are dozens of movies featuring Dorothy, Toto and friends, dating back to almost the turn of the last century.
1910’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was the first Baum book to hit the screen. The film was made after the author’s stage show, Fairylogue and Radio-Plays, had failed, leaving him in the hole. To settle his debt with the Selig Polyscope Company he gave them the rights to his best-known work. The result is a thirteen-minute short that sees Dorothy and Toto (played by a child in a dog suit) ride a haystack to the magical world of Oz.
Almost seven decades later two very different musicals were inspired by the Oz folks.
20th Century Oz is a 1976 Australian rock musical that reimagines the classic story set in 1970s Australia.
Two years later director Sidney Lumet adapted the Broadway hit The Wiz for the screen, casting Motown superstars Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as The Scarecrow. Although it was, at the time, the most expensive film musical ever made, it wasn’t a hit in theatres.
Oz may be the most American of stories, but that hasn’t prevented foreign adaptations. Ayşecik ve Sihirli Cüceler Rüyalar Ülkesinde is a Turkish retelling of the tale, starring a girl named Ayşa who has adventures with Korkuluk the Scarecrow.