(spoilers about the Wicked Witch of the West and the very ending)
Disney doesn't give up. Since Johnny Depp is slowly becoming more annoying than charming and their last attempt to launch new trilogy - in a dreaded title John Carter - misfired like the smelly poop in clogged toilet, they are, poor things, time and time again challenged to come up with something "new" that will prove to be profitable. And those poor things, even when they succeed in unleashing half assed movie that will bring them money just can't get the people to do sequel soon enough. With Tim Burton taking his sweet time on Alice in Wonderland 2, what else to do than look for another adventure that will hopefully bring tons of money?
Luckily for us, the movie goers, Sam Raimi, the man behind the curtain of Oz: The Great and Powerful, is not quite as cynical. What is enchanting here and what was so absent from Alice in Wonderland is the respect the creator has for the original work. Oz feels familiar, yet new. There are plenty of clever references and the film, even if it has many problems, has its own identity. While parts of it were pretty bad, that identity and the effort itself deserve my praise.
The film opens in black and white in Kansas, where Oscar (James Franco), whose stage name is Oz, is seducing yet another assistant of his with the cute made up story. Then we see him go on stage and being booed as little girl asks him to make her walk again and he refuses because he doesn't know how. Oz is a clever con man and illusionist but he isn't as he himself puts it "a great man". We meet a girl (Michelle Williams), apparently an old flame of his - she tells him a man named Gale (wink wink) asked her to marry him. Oz says goodbye and tells her she should agree because he plans on achieving something amazing with his life.
As Oz gets in trouble and is chased by the boyfriend of one of the women he seduced, he gets in the balloon and oh, oh - the twister is approaching. He screams he doesn't want to die as balloon swirls around and after a while, the movie ratio changes, the black and white becomes full of color and along with Oscar - we enter the magical land of Oz.
There Oz meets Theodora (Mila Kunis, looking so beautiful you almost wonder if she herself isn't a miracle of CGI). Theodora tells him about a prophecy about a great wizard from Kansas who will defeat the bad witch and bring peace to Oz. She is very naive and sweet and Oz takes advantage of her, making poor girl fall in love with him. They travel to Emerald castle where we get to meet another witch, Theodora'a sister - Evanora (Rachel Weisz, clearly having a lot of fun with her character). Evanora is cunning and clever unlike her sweet sister and she suspects Oz isn't the great wizard after all.
There are another colorful characters here that will eventually become Oscar's allies - cute flying monkey, broken china doll and the fair and wise witch Glinda (Michelle Williams). There are also munchkins (this time, obviously politically correct), creepy tooth fairies ripped off straight from Snow White and the Huntsman and some pretty cool references to cowardly lion and scarecrow.
What I really liked about the movie was that the land of Oz was a character on its own. We have all of those magical locations known from 1939 classic - emerald city, poppy field, munchkin land or whatever the official name is and there are few new things including the gigantic waterfall and China Town - where China figurines live. There are also many references to The Wizard of Oz - the flowers that bloom on their own (incredible 3D effect), the red sand the bad witch uses, the orb in which she sees her enemies and a really clever one - when Oscar crosses over to Oz he flies...over the rainbow. One that was my favorite was the allusion to water weakness of the witch - when she cried, the tears burnt her face.
As for the witches themselves, well they are also our connection to the classic movie - we finally get to meet the Wicked Witch of the East, Evanora. In the classic movie it was her that worn ruby slippers (absent here because of the copyright dispute) and met her death when Dorothy's house fell on her. Rachel Weisz looks stunning and she is very entertaining to watch. She gave her character real sense of identity, even though she didn't have much screen time.
Glinda is played by luminous Michelle Williams and she did a tremendous job here - it's hard to play a goodie goodie character like that without coming off boring but she was far from being tedious. She hit just the right notes between the saccharine sweet Glinda from The Wizard of Oz and finding her own way in playing that character. Her Glinda was wise but not moralistic, trusting but not naive. Williams found just the right balance between being ethereally gorgeous entity, wise advisor and free spirited, fun young woman.
I really enjoyed Mila Kunis as the innocent Theodora - Kunis's way of sweet seduction near the fire was just enchanting to watch. Though Theodora was so naive and the writers obviously wanted to make her innocence into comic relief, when she talks about being forever with Oz who definitely doesn't want that, Kunis's work was quite touching and if someone laughs it's only because of Franco's awkward smiles - which rarely worked in the movie.
Well the movie can only be as good as its lead at times. While I'm not a big fan of Franco, he is talented and he can deliver great work when he is the right choice for the part. Well, unfortunately for all of us who see this movie, he is not here. He tries, he does, but he is such a miscast it's just hard to overlook that fatal flaw. It really doesn't help that he was playing for second from the first day on the set - everyone knows Robert Downey Jr. was Sam Raimi's first choice for the part.
While I maintain yet another big franchise is the last thing RDJ needs (it's all extremes, for years indie flicks and now that he is finally a bankable star, only monsters of movies, not that I blame him after years of earning next to nothing), he has something not many actors have - he has the audience's forgiveness. I don't care if he breaks a woman's heart. I don't care if he breaks hundreds of hearts. I still root for him. It's that charisma and magnetism of his - where he goes, you follow. Unfortunately, Franco wouldn't even make me sign on one of the many universities he attends.
I will say this - the character like the wizard of Oz was quite an obstacle to begin with. He is a con man, he tricks people, he lies, cheats, deceives. Yet with the right actor and those being his only flaws this could have worked and you could have passionately root for him. The writers added another trait to Oz, though - he is a womanizer. While it does lead to very cool plot twist, it's a bit much at one point. I'd forgive Downey, but I couldn't forgive Franco.
There are some admirable moments in the movie where you do feel sympathy for Oz - clueless cheat that he is - those moments are all thanks to China doll, the scenes with her, though occasionally being so sweet you run the risk of puking in the row in front of you, really humanize the character of Oz a little bit and make it easier for you to give a crap about this whole mission of his.
Still I bet the character everyone is most excited about (I sure as hell was) is the iconic Wicked Witch of the West. Disney kinda shot themselves in the foot with the reveal of the character - first in the book about the making of the film, then with merchandise. Still it's actually not that hard to guess - the silhouette of the iconic witch actually appears next to Mila Kunis's name in the opening credits and in The Wizard of Oz the evil witch's weapon was fire - well, so it happens it's Theodora's power.
Disney at least tried to keep the charade going as we have Evanora here so many even thought she will be the one who turns into iconic green witch. I really adore the way it went down in the movie - many people are disappointed with the reason for Theodora's transformation but I thought it was just brilliant on Raimi's part - yes, magical apple is involved but the reason for the change? The most human one of all. LOVE.
I'm a very cynical person. I don't just think I am - I know it. But I'm not as cynical as those saying that Theodora's reason for becoming evil was stupid. Everything in this world eventually revolved around love at one point. People do great and horrible things for it. The only better reason I could think of for becoming evil is revenge and I think it would work more effectively here. Still Raimi made the good call. We have this sweet, naive young woman who meets a man from different place. He sweet talks her, dances with her and it is strongly implied they spend the night together.
She thinks all of her loneliness will disappear - nobody even flirted with her before (Hey, apparently Oz is a crazy place, it's Mila Kunis we are talking about here!) and then here comes this man who she believes is a hero and she will be his queen. And then she finds out he is not really interested, he just toyed with her. In all her heartbreak and naivety she feels anger and yes - there is revenge angle here after all too - so she bites the apple after her sister manipulates her to do it.
All of that makes that transformation not just touching but also very tragic. I bought it - Evanora tells her that when she takes a bite she will have a heart of stone and she will be wicked, so her rapid transformation didn't raise any questions from me. It was also very well done as at first we only see her shadow and Evanora's horror and when she is finally revealed it's quite shocking. A lot of people complain about the make up but I thought it was really cool, considering that because of copyright dispute between Disney and Warner Brothers they had to make many changes - even come up with the new shade of green.
I see a lot of people criticizing Kunis for her performance in the latter half of the movie. I think they missed the point - she wasn't supposed to play the bitter old witch Margaret Hamilton played in The Wizard of Oz - it's the prequel after all. She is this young, angry woman who has just embraced evil - I thought Kunis did a wonderful job here displaying all the wrath and jealousy. The make up was also quite fun - you could see it's Kunis under all of that but only at certain angles. Her fiery eyes were a nice touch too.
As for her character not being as memorable as the previous Wicked Witch of the West - it's not really her fault. It's the writing. She doesn't really have memorable lines here and she doesn't do things that are truly evil. In The Wizard of Oz that miserable bitch wanted to harm a dog, so my hatred was aimed at her from the very start. Here she didn't do anything really awful, but that's one of the shortcomings of movies like that one - it's PG 13 and whenever one of the characters says the words "no bloodshed" in films like this one, I simultaneously roll my eyes and gasp with irritation.
That's the real source of the problem here - a true crap on the yellow brick road. This is one of those movies that definitely aren't art, can still be called entertainment but most of all - it's business. I hear the movie along with marketing campaign cost more than 300 million dollars. In order for it to bring a profit it must appeal to everyone - so as much as I wanted the munchkins to be ripped to pieces by the flying monkeys when they broke into a song (yes, I'm the Wicked Witch of the Internet) there is no way it will happen here.
So we move back and forth between silly and cute moments and true Raimi moments - between lovable creatures and awesome and scary stuff like the reveal of Evanora's true form (I nearly shat my pants when she jumped at Glinda). And then there's this fucking ending when Oscar gives his new friends a bunch of random crap and kisses Glinda. Oh dear God.
Still there is plenty to marvel at here and 3D isn't just a cash grab - it really adds to the experience and the scene where Glinda conjures the fog over the poppy field is just breathtaking, with the gorgeous blend of milky fog and vibrant red of the flowers.While Oz is certainly not a threat to the legendary status of The Wizard of Oz it's fun and it looks gorgeous. Hell, I'm not even opposed to sequels to this one.
Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013, 130 min)
Plot: A small-time magician arrives in an enchanted land and is forced to decide if he will be a good man or a great one.
Mitchell Kapner (screenplay), David Lindsay-Abaire (screenplay)
James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis