Disney have been afraid to wander down the Yellow Brick Road ever since they originally bought the rights to the books and made the 1985 flop Return To Oz but now they have found the heart, brains and courage to brave the journey again. But have they learned from their mistakes?
I once heard that you can't go through a day without hearing a Wizard Of Oz reference. Whether it be 'pay no attention to the man behind the curtain', 'follow the yellow brick road' or of course 'there's no place like home'. So when I saw the trailer for Oz The Great And Powerful I was interested to see if Disney could pull off a prequel to the 1939 classic which could be the most well known and beloved film of all time.
I was worried that, in an effort to follow the influence of Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland, Disney would darken the land of Oz to make it more modern and edgy. I was happy to see that most of the camp and cheerful iconography from the original film was still there. It was a little less vibrant but Munchkin land and the Emerald City were still as I remembered them. And the elements that Disney added in like the China Town were in keeping with the Oz style and brilliantly imaginative.
The story has a similar structure to the original Oz film. We start off in a black-and-white Kansas and travel with carnival magician Oscar 'Oz' Diggs (James Franco) via tornado to a colourful world coincidentaly also called Oz. Oscar then goes on a adventure where he meets loveable characters such as the little China Girl (Joey King) and Finlay the Flying Monkey (Zack Braff) - who are both brilliantly comical but with a lot of heart. Apparently the Director Sam Raimi originally wanted Johnny Depp to play James Franco's lead role. This sounds like another obvious attempted to emulate the success of Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland. I'm glad they used James because I'm sick to death of Johnny's wide-eyed quirky crap. James is like a breath of fresh air and he makes a fantastically original Oz. I find it strange that so many studios want to copy Tim Burton because even though the film made a lot of money it wasn't very well liked.
The three Witches were excellently cast. It was nice to see Mila Kunis showing off her acting ability in the serious role of Theodora. Her journey will make you look at the story of Oz in a whole new light. Michelle Williams as Glinda the good witch is motherly and sweet but never too sickly. And the relationship between her and James's Oz develops nicely with him discovering his good side and Glinda discovering a little bit of trickery can be surprisingly effective.
Over The Rainbow
The design of the film – and particularly the witches – seems quite heavily influenced by Wicked and it's hard not to believe that one of the reasons Disney was so keen to make this movie was because of the success of that stage show. Speaking of musicals one of my main disappointments with this film was that it didn't have any musical numbers. I realise Disney were probably scared of emulating the original film too much and there by drawing unfavorable comparisons but this really felt like a missed opportunity and as they were aligning themselves so closely with the design and the storyline anyway why not just go for it? I think the word musical has become so tarnished in recent years that studios are scared the addition of songs will risk cheapening their movies... But I think if the songs are well-crafted and well-performed they can enhance the story so much – and this story, with all its heightened emotion and good-versus-bad fairytale mythology would surely have been a perfect opportunity. I had a sudden urge to walk out in disgust when the Munchkins started to sing a song and Oscar stopped them – this was obviously supposed to be a joke at the expense of the original film but it fell a bit flat for me (especially as it was such an awful song!).
The parallels between Oscar's real-life in Kansas and then his experiences in the land of Oz are cleverly integrated into the story just like they were for Dorothy in the original film. It's details like this that can give fantasy and adventure movies more substance and help them to linger in the mind a lot longer.
Oz The Great and Powerful fits alongside the original film nicely as a modern addition to the story. It had a heartwarming and fascinating plot and some good characters but it did lack the whimsical delights of the original and for this reason it isn't a classic - but it is very watchable. This film proves that if there is one place better than home it's Oz.