Despite the fact that the classic L. Frank Baum novel and its movie adaptation are called The Wizard of Oz, the Wizard himself isn't really the focus of the story, as it's Dorothy's journey to Oz with her compatriots that captures most of the attention. But have you ever wondered what brought the man behind the curtain to Oz, or why he was the way he was?
Your wondering is over thanks to Sam Raimi's somewhat uneven but captivating film, Oz the Great and Powerful. Like the movie it sprung from, this one begins in Kansas, and in black and white. Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a magician in a traveling circus, a somewhat unapologetic shyster and inept ladies' man, who always finds the need to stay one step ahead of his audiencesnot to mention his fellow circus performers. He has a long-suffering assistant (Zach Braff, still with his Scrubs smirk) and he's about to let his one true love (Michelle Williams) get away. When he makes the mistake of romancing the circus strongman's girlfriend, he needs to flee quickly, so he makes his escape in a hot air balloondirectly into a twister. (Who could have guessed?)
When the balloon crash lands in glorious technicolor, Oscar realizes he's not in Kansas anymore, but Oz. He is greeted by glamorous witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who quickly believes that Oscar is the wizard that the citizens of Oz have been waiting for since the Wicked Witch killed the previous king. Theodora is also quick to believe that Oscar is her romantic destiny, a fact that her mysterious sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), is more than happy to manipulate. And Evanora is also able to manipulate Oscar into doing her dirty work, as she convinces him he must destroy fellow witch Glinda (a luminous Michelle Williams). Along the way to hunt Glinda down, he picks up a flying monkey sidekick, Finley (Zach Braff), and a little china girl (Joey King).
Of course, Oscar quickly realizes that Glinda isn't the problem, but she wants his help in convincing her subjects they can take on the actual Wicked Witch. (Or witches.) But that's precisely what Oscar wants to avoid, as always, since he'd rather flee than face trouble, or lead anyone anywhere. But that wouldn't work for the movie, now would it? So Oscar, Glinda, and the citizens of Oz (including the munchkins) use the power of self-belief and the sleight-of-hand magic that inspires Oscar to fight back against their enemies, which leads to the film's somewhat protracted (and inevitable) conclusion.
This being a Disney movie, it's definitely geared toward children, who will enjoy the film's magical and sometimes slightly disturbing effects, and the genesis of the characters they've come to know and love. I'll admit I was somewhat captivated from time to time, even though I knew what would happen, because I felt the film's primary message, stressing the importance of believing you can achieve greatness, is a positive one. But the film takes some time to get going, and has about two endings too many.
As the star of the movie, I expected James Franco to be a much more dynamic presence. Even when he's in his flimflam stage back in Kansas, he never projects any kind of bravado you'd expect from someone in this position. I know Robert Downey Jr. was originally discussed for this role, and I could only imagine what a twist he might have brought to the film. But Franco falls flat most of the time, and I don't understand how he could inspire anyone. Michelle Williams is a perfect Glinda, not quite as saccharine-sweet as Kristin Chenoweth in Wicked, but definitely someone you'd want to follow anywhere, while Rachel Weisz tears into her campy role with the appropriate amount of gusto.
All in all, this is a somewhat enjoyable, slightly overlong spectacle of a film which, like its title character, has a great deal of flash but not a tremendous amount of substance, although it does have a heart deep down inside.