Having only properly watched The Wizard of Oz last year, this new version of an episode in the tale of Oz held some attraction, though I’d really intended to watch Return to Oz first, and there were other cinema releases higher in my watch-list. Nonetheless, cinema release schedules demanded that this was the one that I watched, so how did it stand up, both as a prequel and in its own right?
A quick precis of the set-up; Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a young travelling stage magician in Kansas, struggling to make a career, hampered by both his weakness of character and his overweening ambition. He wants to be great but lacks the talent to be so. After a visit from his sweetheart, Annie (Michelle Williams) who tells him she has received an offer of marriage from another man, Oscar tells her to marry the other guy, knowing that Annie can’t wait around for him forever, and is then immediately forced to run for his life from a fairground strongman for flirting (and possibly more) with the strongman’s wife. Climbing into a balloon, Oscar is congratulating himself on his clever escape when he sees that a tornado is about to hit. Sucked into the tornado, the balloon is swept away into the land of Oz, where Oscar meets Theodora (Mila Kunis) who identifies him as the fabled and prophecied Wizard, come to save them, and takes him to meet her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) who tells him that to prove who he is, he will have to kill the evil witch Glinda. Accompanied by a flying monkey and a timid little china girl, “Oz” sets out to do the deed and achieve the greatness he never could at home.
Firstly, it’s obviously been made with a lot of love and some care. Raimi has said that copyright disputes deprived him of the right to use anything unique to the classic film and so he was forced to go back to books. In part, he seems to have cheated a bit on this, as the shift from Kansas black and white to Oz colour is a straight pinch from the film (surely this can’t be in the original books?), as is the sound of the laugh of the Wicked Witch. Perhaps it’s only specific images he’s banned from using. And I have to say, I much prefer the colour palette used in this film to that in the original, being both more complex and more unearthly, giving me an impression of some of the classic fantasy novels I read decades ago (and written decades before that) which imagined weird and alien worlds. The only part of the film that I thought utterly extraneous was Oscar’s entrance to Oz, an overlong and overdramatic balloon descent along rivers and down waterfalls that seemed inserted solely with an eye on the Disneyland ride that will follow, and seemed out of character with the rest of the film.
Secondly, it has, on paper, a strong cast. James Franco proved in 127 Hours and Rise of the Planet of the Apes that he can carry a movie, while Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams are all ‘proper’ actresses as well as beauties. But only Kunis really shines. She has the ability to do sweet and innocent as well as dark and dangerous necessary in such a transformative character as Theodora. Franco simply lacks the charisma necessary to convince as the stage huckster that Oscar has been, and that he needs to recreate in Oz, though he is much better when not required to ‘sell’ his big act. Weisz is fine but is the least prominent of the ‘big four’ characters. Williams is the real disappointment. I really do have a lot of time for her but something just doesn’t work here. I know she can do ‘sweet’ and, as Annie, she’s fine but, as Glinda, she is simply boring and bland. I know a lot of it is in the way the character is written in the books – she’s simply too ‘nicey nicey’ – but I’d have liked to see a little more fire in her.
Then there are bits of this film that don’t really add up, if you try to reconcile it with the 1939 film. Again, this might be a problem with the source material but it still bugged me. The original film worked as a standalone because it had an ambiguity – did any of it really happen, or was it all a dream? Once this film is added, that ambiguity is lost and some moral issues arrive (such as the fate of Theodora) as well as plotholes (what was Oscar doing back in Kansas, when he should be in Oz, and what about his relationship with Glinda?). It’s probably better to consider each in isolation and not try to reconcile them.
Lastly, I have to give a thanks to the character of Oscar. In the original film, the overlong and uninspired welcoming song of the Munchkins almost made me lose the will to live. Here, they had only just begun to sing and dance when he cut them off brusquely. For that I must be eternally grateful.
Not a really great film, but a fun one which passed an evening very pleasantly.
(Slight edit: one thing I forgot to mention was the 3D. Done very well, particularly in the extended opening credits, which played up to 3D’s tendency to resemble old-fashioned ‘Viewmaster’ stereoscopy, with the appearance of layers of 2D rather than true depth of field, to create a beautiful animation, worth seeing in itself)