It goes without saying that the original Wizard of Oz is a beloved classic and one of the great American films. When the idea of a prequel was first announced, I rolled my eyes. We have seen too many uninspired and bland prequels lately, such as the first two Star Wars prequels and any number of horror duds. Hollywood seems to be remaking tons of highly regarded films and forcing out unnecessary follow-ups to old favorites.
Fortunately, Oz the Great and Powerful does not belong on the increasingly long list of bad prequels. While it's no masterpiece, it's definitely more clever than many other big budget Hollywood films of this type. The movie boasts truly gorgeous visuals that are CGI-heavy, but manage to feel real within the film's universe. Entire characters are created very effectively with CGI, such as Finley the monkey and the China Girl.
Through these two characters, the film gets its humor and its heart. Zach Braff voices Finley the monkey and he steals the show. Braff gets to deliver the funniest lines and makes Finley a sweet and energetic sidekick. China Girl is a tiny doll made of china who is rescued from her broken village by our hero, Oz. Without these comedic and touching scenes, this movie would just be pretty to look at and not much more.
Fans of the original will notice subtle winks and nods to the first film throughout this one. Unlike many other prequels/sequels, this film does not feel the need to shoehorn in obvious references to other films in the series. The homages and references are certainly here, but they are done with subtlety and affection.
As a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, this film shows us just how The Wizard got to Oz and how he came to be its ruler. James Franco plays the titular Kansas con man who wants to be a great man one day. Franco is fine, but he does not stand out, despite being the main character.
Like the original, this film starts out in black and white and transitions to color when we visit Oz. Another similarity to the first one is the presence of witches and flying monkeys. Glinda the good witch is played here by Michelle Williams, who doesn't have much to do, but embodies the part perfectly for what she has to work with. The other two witches are wicked ones, played by Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis. Weisz has fun with this somewhat throwaway part and gives off a campy vibe director Sam Raimi is all too familiar for. A major weak point of this film is Mila Kunis, who is usually pretty good. Her line delivery in the film is stilted and forced, especially later in the movie when she seems to be shrieking half her lines.
Other than mentioning the performances and visuals, there's really not much for me to say about this movie, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The film's story is ultimately very simple and there are not many surprises along the way. Sure, there are some nice comedic moments and moving scenes, but it is not until the climax that I was really surprised by something that happened in the plot.
At the very least, Oz the Great and Powerful will entertain families, especially with children who enjoyed the first film. Fans of the original should know this movie does not try to replicate everything about the first one and stands on its own. This film succeeds at having some fun side characters, impressive visuals and some well thought-out throwbacks to the 1939 classic. I admire director Sam Raimi's attention to detail here and his clear affection for the original film, but I wish the plot was more engaging and the runtime just a bit shorter. I also think that original choice Robert Downey Jr. would have done a better job as Oz than Franco. That being said, the film as a whole is pretty good, if somewhat forgettable.