Sam Raimi, proving that there is no statute of limitations on prequels, has given us Oz: The Great and Powerful, 74 years after the original The Wizard of Oz. Yeah, the books are older than that, and this film is legally a prequel to those classics, but it’s pretty obviously a prequel to the cinematic masterpiece which took us on the grandest of adventures whilst reminding us “there’s no place like home.”
Oscar, otherwise known as Oz, is a simple magician who finds himself thrown from his familiar, Black & White (for some reason, not sepia), world, into the merry old Land of Oz. Early in his adventure through this CGI wonderland, he is rescued by Theodora, played by Mila Kunis, and, upon reaching the Emerald City, is sent on his mission: prophecy states that a man bearing the name of the land, Oz, will vanquish the wicked witch and usher in an era of peace as king. Not all is Kosher on this mission, however, and some clever plot twists and interesting turns in character development lead to an exciting story which intelligently sets the stage for The Wizard of Oz, offering new perspectives on familiar characters, and new characters with whom to relate as they discover this amazing world; the advances in technology since the original film allow for Oz to come to life in a different, more expensive, and nearly-as-effective way from the 1939 classic.
Through CGI technology, Sam Raimi and his team breathe life into impossible characters and the world they inhabit. The animated characters, from flying monkeys, to other flying monkeys, to an assortment of floral monsters, all shine, brimming with personality and emotion. The highlight of the entire film is easily the character of China Girl, an adorable little china doll from the small, doomed village of China Town, who is the most photo-realistic animated character in the film, and really feels alive, more so than any other CGI film character in recent memory. The sound her eyelids make when she blinks, and the pitter-patter of her feet as she runs down the yellow brick road is nothing short of a revelation, and she comes close to bringing the audience to tears with her helplessness, determination, spunk, and her sweet adorable voice, provided by Joey King, who also plays the role of a little girl earlier in the film. In fact, just like the original film, actors play characters in Kansas and Oz with thematic connections, but I’ll leave it to the viewer to put those pieces together.
The CGI world, however, is a little bit less amazing. It’s not as static a backdrop as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, but it’s definitely not as alive as Pandora from James Cameron’s Avatar. Sometimes it looks a little too clean, a little too neat, a little too fake, and one can immediately tell that it’s because some scenes were probably just James Franco, charming as ever, alone in front of a green screen. Sure, the background is pretty, but when there’s nothing to connect it to our real characters, the whole scene ends up feeling fake. Compare, for instance, the Dark Forest in this film to the Dark Forest in the original film. The fog, the big trees, and the sense of danger and the unknown, that anything could come popping out of the dense woods, permeated the scene in the original film. Here, computer-animated predators stalk our posse as they slowly sneak through the forest. Ultimately, the static perfection of the CGI monsters is less scary than the shot of the Cowardly Lion jumping out to scare Dorothy and her friends. Perhaps sensing this, the film does decide to play it slightly more for comedy than adventurous fear, maybe reflecting the differences between Judy Garland’s Dorothy and James Franco’s Oz.
On the other hand, the scenes in Emerald City shine as among the best in the film, with extravagant sets, tons of extras, and some of the best scenes in the whole movie, including a climactic confrontation that sets up the Oz that Dorothy would visit years later. Additionally, Emerald City is the source of the most heart-breaking and intense sub-plot in the film: the birth of the Wicked Witch of the West, easily one of the most iconic villains in film history, and handled with grace and respect in this origin story.
The film certainly has a deep reverence for the source material (the original film, not the text), and the returning elements, from a few characters to updated CGI versions of classic effects, such as Glinda traveling via bubbles, and a nostalgic recreation of the town square set where Dorothy landed in Oz, used here as good witch Glinda’s base of operations, all serve their own purpose to this film while still tipping their hats towards their original source.
At the end of the day, Oz: The Great and Powerful fits snugly next to The Wizard of Oz, certainly not as an equal, but at least as a worthwhile successor and supplementary piece, being able to incite the joy and nostalgia of youth in older viewers, along with a little bit of subversive humor that will fly above the heads of most little ones, while giving younger viewers plenty of eye candy, high adventure, and entertainment which, if you’ll forgive my ancient stock terminology, is fun for the whole family.