Sunday, March 3, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful ★★★½


Australia: 7th March 2013; USA 8th March UK 8th March
Other Countries:  Release Information 

Decades ago my Mother leaned into my room and, with a twinkle in her eye, declared her favourite childhood movie was showing that Saturday night on TV.  This is before DVD players and the ability to record a programme, so at the appointed time our family gathered around our wood-cabineted box and marvelled at the wonderful 1939 ‘Wizard of Oz’.  It became my favourite movie too.
Then came the numerous incarnations of Oz, including the Muppets, Ice Capades, animated versions and even Michael Jackson with his own unique take.  Now Disney presents the prequel, "Oz the Great and Powerful" produced by Joe Roth (“Snow White and the Huntsman,” “Alice in Wonderland”) and directed by Sam Raimi (Spiderman Trilogy). 
L. Frank Baum wrote fourteen novels, from 1900-1920, set in the Land of Oz but he never fully portrayed the wizard character’s background in any of his books. Roth found that fact fascinating. “I love origin stories and I liked the idea of how the wizard came to be.  So, going back to Baum’s books to research and imagine his beginnings seemed like a great idea.”
Oscar Diggs (James Franco), his friends call him OZ, begins his journey (in black and white) as a vaudeville circus magician.  He’s a part-seducer, part-conman and a selfish chap.  As in the original, a freak storm lands him in Oz where the film opens to wide screen and our view erupts into vibrant color.  Before he crash-lands we are treated to a 3D roller-coast ride of thrills as we travel through gorgeous CGI landscapes, over massive waterfalls, through stunning forests, to land in a grove infested with nasty river fairies. Very few films warrant the extra expense of 3D but do hand over your money this time. It’s worth it.
Enter leather-pants-wearing witch Theodora (Mila Kunis). Theodora (who is a truly poor judge of character) mistakenly believes Oz is the legendary great wizard come to save Oz from the devastations wrought by the wicked witch.  Who actually is the wicked witch remains to be seen. 
On their journey to the Emerald Castle, they meet Finley (Zach Braff), a delightful, talking, flying monkey who becomes Oz's assistant of sorts.  The trouble starts when Theodora introduces Oz to her sister Evanora, played malevolently-well by Rachel Weisz.  Oz is offered a fortune in gold if he will destroy the wand of the supposedly evil witch Glinda (Michelle Williams).  Oz sets off down the yellow brick road, on the way picking up, literally, the gorgeous China Doll Girl (Joey King), who, undoubtedly has the best lines in the film.  The rest of the film and the liberation of Oz involves smoke and mirrors and good use of imagination.
Franco was the third choice to play Oz, behind Robert Downey Jnr and Johnny Depp (both declining due to other commitments) and he loved his character. No doubt, the $7 million pay-check proved endearing too.  
 “In some ways he touches on many aspects of Americana, while being a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable," says Franco.  He also enjoyed another aspect of playing the magician character: he had to learn to perform magic tricks. He explains, “I actually came out two weeks early to work with the great Las Vegas magician Lance Burton. We worked every day. I learned dove tricks and fire tricks as well as pulling things out of hats and making things levitate. And I think I got pretty good!”
Oz is Disney's $200 million dollar bet that they can pull off another “Alice in Wonderland” success (with international grosses of $1 billion).  Whilst I don’t think Disney’s version of Oz will go on to become a favourite childhood movie of many, it still has enough of the right magic to warrant a visit to the cinema.  Whether it was the great idea Joe Roth imagined will be shortly judged at the box office.