No, I wasn’t around for the original release of The Wizard of Oz, but I watched it faithfully during the holidays on NBC beginning in the early 1970’s. I even read Frank Baum’s original novel to The First and Second Beautiful Daughters. The differences in the book compared to the movie were fascinating and, when we finished reading, the whole family sat down during a family movie night and watched the Dorothy, Toto, and her band of enchanting misfits do battle with the Wicked Witch of the West.
Given my history with the 1939 classic, it should come as no surprise that I took The Favorite Son and two of his eight year old buddies to see Disney's Oz the Great and Powerful on its day of release at a nearby AMC Loew's Metroplex.
Like the television version of the six time Academy Award nominated original, the prequel begins with a short black and white sequence during which Oscar Diggs (James Franco), or “Oz,” distinguishes himself as a guileless and grifting circus magician. Predictably, Oz’s circus is performing in Kansas. After Oz is caught with his hands in one too many cookie jars, he attempts an escape in a hot air balloon in which he is, again predictably, swept into a prairie zizzer, which wisks him to Land of, yes, Oz. (For folks who appreciate allegory, the similarity is more than a coincidence.)
Once Oz has safely landed in, ahem, Oz, he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), a beautiful witch who has awaited the prophesized arrival of a great wizard to bring peace and safety to the people of the Land of Oz. Theodora falls hard for Oz, but it soon becomes obvious that “something is rotten in the land of” . . . Oz. Theodora leads Oz to the Emerald City where he meets his guide’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who goads him with riches and power to kill the witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams) who, claims Evanora, killed the previous wizard. It’s not until Oz meets Glinda that he begins to comprehend the complex politics in the apparently matriarchal society. (More metaphor, perhaps?)
Oz the Great and Powerful has a few nice moments, like the inclusion of a broken China doll, “China Girl,” whose home had been destroyed by the wicked witch and who Oz magically repairs with a bottle of glue. In addition, "Finley" the good flying monkey provides some comic relief and a cute and cuddley character for the enjoyment of young viewers. Later, as the previously self-absorbed Oz learns empathy for the people of Oz, including the tinkers, the farmers, the munchkins, Oz declares to Glinda, “I may not be the wizard you expected, but I may just be the wizard you need.”
With only a few notable exceptions, The Godfather and Star Wars among them, prequels and sequels risk unfavorable comparison to the original. Unfortunately, Oz the Great and Powerful was not spared. The story, which clarifies a few minor details about the MGM classic, fails to enthuse. The performances tendered by the four stars, Franco, Kunis, Weisz, and Williams are uninspired and the screenplay is unimaginative. Of course, "Over the Rainbow," performed by Judy Garland won the Oscar for "Best Song" in 1939, but no such charming tune was included in this one. On the bright side, however, the special effects are quite a bit better than those available to the original film makers.
Regardless of this reviewer's opinion, there were plenty of folks in the theatre on Friday who wanted to gain insight into Oz and into Oz before Dorothy showed up. In my opinion, however, a single father won’t be missing much if he waits until Oz the Great and Powerful is available through another magical medium, pay-per-view television.
☺☺☺ out of five.