Prequels to classic movies are all the rage these days. There is plenty of them out there, but the problem is that few of them are complete successes. For every unquestionably good one, like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” there are at least a few less-than-fully-satisfying ones like “Hannibal Rising” and the new “Star Wars” entries. This is understandable, as it is much harder to create the buildup to an already existing movie than it is to continue off said movie in a sequel. Still, Hollywood keeps on trying, which leads us to the most recent inclusion in the craze, “Oz: The Great and Powerful.”
Positioned as a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz,” “Great and Powerful” follows the story of how the wizard himself came to power in the eternally green land. It turns out he was not really a wizard, but rather a magician at a traveling circus. His womanizing ways get him in trouble with the other circus mates, and in the midst of chase, a tornado arrives to pull him away in a hot air balloon. Once the storm dies down, he finds himself in the strange fantasy land of Oz (which is also his name), where he is greeted by the witch Theodora. She reveals that a great wizard was prophesized to save the land from destruction, and that he must be that very wizard. Reluctant as he is, Oz plays along with this, until he soon realizes that he will have to step up and be the hero of Oz everyone hopes him to be.
The basic storyline is nothing new; prophecies in fantasy plots, especially ones with witches, have been done to death. The real thrill is in the details that update the famous world for the 21st century. The Oz land presented here is much more detailed than the one imagined for Dorothy Gale in 1939, and while plenty of it is done with (impressive) computer effects, the use of real sets and props whenever possible grounds the movie in its established reality. From a technical standpoint, between the special effects, costumes, and art design, “Oz” is near perfect.
When it comes to the casting, things get a little uneven. All of the supporting players are great in their roles, notably Rachel Weisz as the evil witch Evanora and Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch. Williams arguably has the tougher job, since she has to compete with Billie Burke’s portrayal in the ’39 movie. She acquits herself well though, displaying both innate sweetness and wit as Glinda sees through Oz’s sham attitude. For Weisz, given that her character is not in the original film, she is able to act free of expectation and provides a sense of seething menace.
This a slight heads up, as the next paragraph will have some spoilers, so if you want to go into the movie completely blind then you can skip to the end of this review. I’m thankful that Weisz was present on villain duty, as Mila Kunis (Theodora) is not able to convey the same evil presence. She is fine at first, where her wide-eyed persona fits Theodora’s naïve nature very well, but once her character transforms into the Wicked Witch (yes, THAT Wicked Witch), her performance is less than convincing. Even without unfavorably stacking her against Margaret Hamilton’s iconic iteration of the character, Kunis is simply miscast for this part. She never quite finds the right tone in her voice to be a considerable threat, and the post-transformation makeup is less than great.
Meanwhile, James Franco, as the titular Oz, is the opposite of Kunis. Oz is meant to start out as a fake and a put-on, but Franco overplays the smarminess to a degree where it is hard to get into the character. Although as the movie and Oz’s character arc moves on, Franco settles into the role with his easy charm and humor. As good he gets, he is often upstaged by the sidekick characters, who are perhaps the best part of the movie. They may not be as memorable as the Scarecrow, Tin Man, or Cowardly Lion, yet Zach Braff’s flying monkey Finley is a consistently funny comic relief and Joey King’s China Girl provides an emotional backbone to the grandly surreal visuals.
Speaking of flying monkeys, the evil ones make a return here, and will most likely terrify children even more so than before. They also signify another successful part of this prequel, which are the references to the classic film. While most prequels crowbar in references as pure fan service simply to get reaction out of the audience, director Sam Raimi and writers David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner manage to successfully integrate them into the story without feeling forced. The sleeping poppy field is neatly incorporated into the third act conflict, the yellow brick road is ever-present without a character awkwardly pointing it out to the audience, and the wizard’s smoke illusion has a clever setup along with many more Easter eggs to find.
All in all, even with a couple acting issues, few prequels are as good as “Oz: The Great and Powerful.” It manages to both avoid the trap of predictably linking up perfectly with the original and at the same time setting up many of the elements that will come into play later in the story of Oz. Although it has the impossible task of living up to an untouchable piece of cinema, “Great and Powerful” is a competent follow-up that finds the right tone to appeal to both audiences young and old. It is certainly better than 1985’s disturbingly traumatic “Return to Oz.”