Fair warning: I am not deeply in love with The Wizard of Oz. I mean, yeah, it’s good. And clearly a huge technical achievement for its time. But I don’t cherish it, and so, I was not offended when Disney decided to let the Evil Dead guy create a prequel. So, there’s that.
I went into the film hoping it would be good. And it really is. I liked James Franco’s Oz, a small-time magician working the circus circuit in the Midwest in the early 1900’s. Reviews I’d read underlined how horrible his character was. I don’t see it. He has big dreams, and he makes his money fooling people into thinking he has magical powers… but… that’s kind of what magicians do, right? When, in the middle of a show, a young paraplegic girl asks to be cured, he does what any sensitive person would do. He tells her he can’t do it. I’m not sure why I am supposed to hate him for that. I’d have said the same thing. And when he brushes off the advances of a young woman he’s clearly had a relationship with, it’s not with malice or bad intent. He really doesn’t want to stay in Kansas and be, in his words, “a good man”. At least he was honest with her. The third person he interacts with in the opening is his valet/partner/whipping boy, and I guess he’s a little mean to him, but it’s far from abusive.
So, right off the bat, I’m sort of annoyed at the other reviews I’ve read, because Oz is a pretty decent guy. Maybe a bit too pie-in-the-sky, but considering where the movie is about to take him, can you really blame him?
A tornado arrives just on cue, and Oz is magically transported to… Oz. Yes. He and the land he’s supposed to save (because of one of those super-convenient movie prophecies) have the same name. I guess that’s okay, since he soon meets and befriends characters played by the same actors as that poor little girl, his assistant, and the old girlfriend. Of course, in Oz, they’re a tiny girl made of china (for which the effects were stellar), a flying monkey in a bellhop’s outfit (marginally less stellar, but funny) and Glinda the Good. These characters serve the same purpose in this film that the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion served in the original. They’re his helpers, his foils, at times his conscience and guide. In fact, they provide some conflict, too, something you never saw in Dorothy. She was a purely good character, and didn’t need to be convinced to take the heroic path. For that reason alone, I think I might enjoy this film more than the original.
Another way the film veers a bit from the original’s template is the portrayal of the other witches. Glinda (played by Michelle Williams) is all sweetness and light, as you’d expect. But Theodora (Mila Kunis) is a bit of a wide-eyed, naive girl, and Evanora (Rachel Weisz) is her older, more worldly sister. I’d rather not get into the details of how these fetching women become the decided less fetching creatures we see in the 1939 movie. That’s part of the fun of the story, watching everything shift into more familiar territory.
And that’s one of the reasons I did like the film. They handled the prequel-ness of it so much better than something like, say Revenge of the Sith (which sucked, BTW).
All in all, a solid piece of film-making.