March 10, 2013
When I was a young child of 5 or 6 one of the great annual television events of my life -- and those of many other children my age -- was the return of "The Wizard of Oz." It was an event with a capital "E." and why not? After all, we only had four television stations in those days. "Wizard" was the film that both enraptured and terrified us. I had nightmares about the wicked witch and flying monkeys, but memorized the songs that Judy Garland sang and crooned them through the house for weeks on end afterward.
Around the same time, I loved to visit the Garage of Forgotten Toys. My brother and sister are much older than I am and their old keepsakes were from a childhood of a different era: the "My Bookhouse" series of books that first taught me to love Shakespeare's fantasies, tiny porcelain fashion dolls and wooden race cars among them. Among the other musty books packed away were several of the Oz series with drawings of magical creatures in the 1920s style. Perhaps they were even my parents' books. I was too young to read them at the time and they were long gone to rummage by the time I was old enough, but their pictures hinted at an even more fantastical world than the one I was on the television screen.
"The Great and Powerful Oz" returns us to that world with a prequel that pays homage to the original film and brings to life the back story of the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, a carnival musician and con artist who loves to seduce pretty women. He is running from the boyfriend of one such woman when his hot air balloon is swept up in a Kansas tornado and whisked to the land of Oz.
There Oz (James Franco) meets Theodora (Mila Kunis) who tells him he is a figure of prophecy and is promptly swept off her feet then jilted as Oz sets off to fulfill his destiny with the promise of gold and a kingdom at the end of his yellow brick road. Along the way, Oz assembles a charming collection of CGI traveling companions and must sort the good witches from the bad.
Director Sam Raimi has done an excellent job staying true to the spirit of the Emerald City and the American fairy tales that author Frank L. Baum wrote in the 14 Oz books. Franco, the cynical, world-weary Midwestern magician, is a likable rogue and a much more redeemable antihero than most movies portray today. Kunis, Rachel Weiss and Michelle Williams do excellent credit to the origins of their witch characters.
The 21st century computer graphic imagery makes possible a much more fantastical Oz than what was portrayed by actors in costumes in the 1939 original, but not much more colorful. As one of the early color films, the contrast between the black-and-white Kansas and the technicolor Oz was designed to amaze those early audiences.
Parents will love "The Great and Powerful Oz" for the charming trip down memory lane, while children will once again have the chance to be captivated and terrified. I only miss Judy Garland's dulcet tones.
See this one in 3D to get the full effect. It's playing now at gorge theaters.