Oz the Great and Powerful, directed by Sam Raimi (Spiderman), and based on the books of L. Frank Baum, was always going to be, at least to a certain extent, a victim of nostalgia.
While it is effectively a prequel of sorts to the iconic and much-loved 1939 MGM classic, The Wizard of Oz, Disney has been at pains to position as an entity unto itself, as much to escape any litigious action from MGM (no ruby red slippers thank you very much!), as to pull it out from under the enveloping cloud of nostalgia that has wrapped itself around what is arguably the most loved movie in history.
And it makes sense that they would do that.
For, nostalgia, charming and warm & fuzzy as it is, is a curious thing.
On the one hand it celebrates and recalls with fondness a perfect moment, or a significant event, or a show/movie/song that left its mark, and who doesn’t want that?
Yet it also has the habit of comprehensively warping our memories, creating a rose-tinted recollection so overwhelmingly perfect and unimpeachable that everything that follows it pales in comparison.
It is a fate that could have so easily befallen the latest entry in film adaptations of Baum’s books which began as early as 1910 with the silent movie, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a scant ten years after the publication of his first book.
The good news is Oz the Great and Powerful is its very own grand adventure, and more than holds its own against the powerful pull of nostalgia.
It does though, of course, sensibly tip its hat (more than once I might add), much like the “wizard” himself, Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a two-bit carnival magician, and self-admitted conman in 1905 Kansas who doesn’t go anywhere without his hat, to what has gone before it.
And that, as far as it goes, makes perfect sense.
To completely dispense with nostalgic recollections of The Wizard of Oz would have been foolish, and akin to ignoring the bright pink pop culture elephant in the room.
It begins for instance, much like The Wizard of Oz before it, in classic black and white 4:3 Academy ratio, where we meet Oscar Diggs, his much put-upon but loyal assistant, Frank (Zach Braff)and the love of Oscar’s life to whom he sadly cannot commit, Annie (Michelle Williams).
Both Frank and Annie reappear in Oz as respectively, Finley the flying monkey, who becomes a loyal companion to Oscar (or “Oz” as he is often referred to) after he is, in short order, unentangled from clinging vines and rescued from from an attack by a roaring lion (who is so traumatised by his attack he runs off whimpering … Cowardly Lion anyone?), and Glinda the Good Witch of the South, with whom the “wizard” forms a close and romantic bond over the course of their crusade to free Oz from the evil that has enslaved it.
We also meet a tinker who can create any manner of metal contraption (cue the eventual emergence of the Tin Man, though not in this movie), witness the use of scarecrows as decoys in the attack on The Emerald City (in a red poppy field no less), and watch as Glinda, Oscar, Finley and China Girl (a porcelain girl, voiced by Joey King, who is rescued from her destroyed town in one of the more touching scenes in the film) traverse the land in giant bubbles.
There are a myriad of other smaller, quite clever subtle references scattered throughout the movie that admittedly use people’s nostalgia for The Wizard of Oz as a connecting movie to this new entry in the tales of Oz.
So far, so nostalgic.
But then in a welcome sign that Disney won’t be beholding – indeed it can’t be lest it be accused of riding on the coattails of the 1939 classic – to the powerful pull of fond memories alone, the movie makes a deliberate and quite concerted attempt, which it pulls off successfully, to tell a story that is fresh, original and reflective of the times we live in.
While it does follow the classic flawed-protagonist-to-redeemed-hero model with Oscar convincingly moving from charlatan to genuine saviour in small but believable steps, he doesn’t vanquish the evil threat facing the land – to reveal too much about what constitutes this threat would be to give away some key plot points but suffice to say that Mika Kunis and Rachel Weisz as witchy sisters Theodora and Evanora (the latter rules The Emerald City less than benignly) are not innocent bystanders in this epic tale – entirely on his own, relying heavily on his new companions, Glinda and the good people of Oz to secure the victory (all of whom discover fairly quickly that he is not a powerful wizard at all but rather just man without any real powers to speak of).
And in keeping with the modern idea of a flawed hero – although to be fair Baum did paint the wizard as a man of basically good but misguided character way back in 1900 – Oscar doesn’t rally to the cause immediately, taking some time to warm up to the idea of looking after others with anything like the same care he takes for himself.
But become a hero he does, and while I wonder whether other actors like Joseph Gordon-Levitt may have brought more nuance to the role and perhaps may have made us care for the wizard and his great transformation just a little more, Franco largely acquits himself well, delivering just the right amounts of gravitas, self-doubt, empathy and determination as the story calls for it.
The real star of the show though is Michelle Williams (yet again) who manages to invest The Good Witch, a character who could have been just another bland goody-two-shoes caricature, with just enough shades of grey and humanity that her imprisonment and torture – yes the movie does go there although obviously not in a Zero Dark Thirty-kind of way – later on the film is visceral and real.
Weisz and Kunis meanwhile deliver just the right amounts of doe-eyed sweetness and pantomime menace when needed, in a movie that isn’t afraid to be dark and troubling, and sometimes downright scary at times (Disney’s version of the Flying Monkeys for instance are every bit as vicious as the baboons you see in wildlife documentaries although their attacks are leavened somewhat by Keystone Cops slapstick on occasion).
Oz the Great and Powerful may suffer slightly at times from a rather obvious narrative and some dodgy CGI-work – the scene where Oscar and Theodora walk towards the Emerald City against a backdrop of vivid yellow sunflowers is almost cartoonish in its execution – but it is at heart a rollicking grand adventure with characters you believe in and love, edge-of-your-seat thrills and spills, and the sort of rousing ending that makes you skip out of the cinema down your very own yellow brick road …
Just leave your ruby red slippers at home.