The folks at Disney are sleeping soundly I think. “Oz: the Great and Powerful” lives up to its $300 million price tag. There will be no repeat of past hellacious failures like “John Carter” or Warner’s current “Jack the Giant Slayer.” Everyone who kept calling me up saying “James Franco is miscast” or “It’s terrible” will be eating their words on Saturday morning when the first box office returns come in. Snarky buzz is not going to carry the day. Sam Raimi’s made a hugely entertaining, very involving tribute to “The Wizard of Oz.” Especially effective, besides the actors, is the knockout 3D and gorgeous set design.
So Franco plays Oz, the would be Wizard, who comes in a hot air balloon from Kansas carried by a tornado. And there is the first grand touch: the Kansas scenes are in black and white. It’s not until Oz (that’s his name) lands in this fairy tale land, that the movie bursts into palettes of color. Nice. And of course, many of the people he meets in Oz are played by actors who also appeared in the Kansas scenes–it’s very much a parallel to the original film. One neat plot point is that Oz the magician has had some kind of fleeting romance with the woman who will be — in years to come–Dorothy Gale’s mother. Again, nice.
Raimi brings us a lot of familiar touch points– flying monkeys, the Yellow Brick Road, wicked witches, a nod to lions and scarecrows, the poppy field, and the munchkins. Audiences will feel very much at home as the story of how the Wicked Witches of East and West grew to hate Glinda the Good Witch and the Wizard. Oz is a frisky fellow, so we can just about attribute the inception of the Wicked Witch of the West to her being a scorned ex- of the Wiz. Think about that.
Franco heads a very attractive and highly capable cast, starting with Michelle Williams as Glinda, Rachel Weisz as the Witch of the East, and Mila Kunis as the Witch of the West. The women are shot beautifully and well drawn by David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner. Oz certainly has his hands full with all of them. Williams stunningly recalls the original Glinda, Billie Burke. There’s also some nice work by Zach Braff as Oz the magician’s right hand man in Kansas and the voice of Oz’s charming monkey assistant. Bill Cobbs and Tony Cox are the most notable of the character types, although everyone is well cast.
The one character I didn’t quite get is a miniature animated China doll–I guess she’s Disney’s marketing tool. We’ll look for her on store shelves soon. Remember– this is a Disney movie. We are not in Kansas anymore.
So what about James Franco? Oz is a carnival magician and con man, as he readily admits to Glinda. Before he comes to the Land of Oz, he’s always just getting away with something. As we know from Dorothy’s later story, he doesn’t change that much. Franco really grasps Oz’s charms–he’s got a twinkle in his eye as he pulls his little tricks. He’s got the character down, and I expect he will lead this whole group to one or two sequels. I had my doubts, but “Oz” is a winner.