A clever prequel that enchants without offending.
Small time carnival con-man and magician Oz (James Franco) dreams of greatness but has a small-time mentality (not to mention a weakness for pretty faces). When circumstances force him into a hot air balloon that gets sucked up by a tornado, he is transported to a magical land that bears his name: Oz. There he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), a beautiful young woman who claims to be a witch. Mistaking Oz for a great wizard from another land, she offers to lead him to the Emerald City and become their king. Theodora’s sister and fellow witch, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), clarifies that the offer of kingship is dependant upon Oz destroying “the wicked witch” who dwells in the Dark Forest. While Oz initially views the enchanted land as a simple place ripe for the plucking, he soon learns from a third witch named Glenda (Michelle Williams) that little is as it seems and hell hath no fury like a witch gone wicked.
There were concerns when Sam Raimi tapped “toker” James Franco (famous for his stoner roles) for the title character of a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, but the actor not only shows up but stands up to the demands of the role. While the original film was all practical effects and camera tricks, this new Land of Oz is brought to life through computer wizardry, and it’s quite a challenge for any actor to carry a scene alone against imaginary characters (hold up; maybe this was genius casting on Raimi’s part). Mix in three amazing actresses to play the witches opposite our heroic fake wizard and the scene is set for an enchanting film standing wholly on its own while effectively previewing the movie that inspired it.
While the main story (and overall theme) deals with discovering one’s own inner worth, the subplot concerning the relationship between Oz’s three resident witches is just as interesting, especially in how it affects Oz himself. Michelle Williams portrays Glenda with poise and grace while still projecting guile, wisdom, and strength. Rachel Weisz’s take on Evanora is a bit one-dimensional, but her role is pivotal to Mila Kunis’s convincing character arc. There are nods to the original film through out the production, from a faithful recreation of iconic set pieces to showing how many things in the Land of Oz came to be. As expected, Raimi also continues to echo his own work where appropriate; the cemetery in the Dark Forest looks like the perfect resting place for the necronomicon, while both Ted Raimi and Bruce Campbell get their usual cameo due.
Clocking in at a little over two hours, the fast-paced ending more than makes up for a slower first half. There is enough space left to squeeze out another adventure or two between this and the original film that inspired it, but this installment is very complete exactly as is. The romance and action is mostly rated G, but there are a few darker areas (up to and including Mila Kunis’s painted-on leather pants when she first appears) that warrant a PG rating even for a family friendly film. The computer imagery enhances more than it detracts, framing locations in ways the original film could not while still retaining the intimacy of a stage-set production. Sam Raimi has managed to recapture the feel and charm of the original Wizard of Oz while utilizing all of the refinements modern audiences expect from their spectacle films, and that may be the greatest compliment of all.
(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)