Release Date: March 8, 2013
Director: Sam Raimi
Stars: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams
Runtime: 130 min
Tagline: You know the land. Not the story.
Seventy-four years after the release of The Wizard of Oz, Sam Raimi (director of the Spider-Man trilogy and Evil Dead trilogy) and co. bring us a story of how a small-time magician comes to rule the mystical land.
This is however many years B.T. (Before Toto) and it follows a small-time Kansas magician, Oscar Diggs (James Franco), who gets swept up by a tornado and to an enchanted land, and is eventually forced into a power struggle between the land’s three witches: Evanora (Rachel Weisz), Glinda (Michelle Williams) and Theodora (Mila Kunis).
The people of Oz have been waiting for the one true Wizard to free the land of all of its turmoil, especially that caused by the Wicked Witch. While the people of Oz accept the wizard with open arms, the witches are unsure if he is telling the truth.
He isn’t. Oscar is more of a professional con artist more than a true magician, and some of his actions toward a few of the witches do not benefit anyone. He makes poor decisions left, right and centre, but it’s all on his journey to become a great man; and to force the Wicked Witch out of the land, as the prophecy suggests.
As with all Disney movies, there has to be a message. This one is clear by the end, but during, it isn’t too clear. What’s this trying to teach the kids? Is it trying to teach them that con artist “ladies men” who uses the same lame trick on girls, might eventually face a wicked backlash? Are they urging children not to eat apples, as Snow White teaches eating red apples means death, and now eating green apples means one gets transformed into a witch? Or perhaps if one lies their way through life, but become a greater person in the end and learn the folly of your ways, they’ll still be rewarded by fortune and fame? No, that doesn’t sound right.
It is really all about the journey (Down the yellow brick road, perhaps?) of changing from a selfish person, to a selfless one. It also teaches that the power of friendship and believing in yourself will conquer all. Oz makes friends along the way that impact his life and help him fight evil forces. China Girl (voiced by Joey King) is a now-orphaned child made of China, whose village was destroyed by the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys. Don’t underestimate her though, she may appear to be fragile, but she has a fair amount of backbone! The other is Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), a CGI-animated monkey who is both servant and useful companion. He is the odd one out, as he seems to be the only monkey of all the land to not be on the evil side, like all the other flying monkeys.
Finley’s the runt of the flying monkeys litter, because the evil ones look as if they have been taking one too many steroids. The 1939 monkeys are incredibly creepy with those little smiles and their impressive numbers, but these CGI-body building monkeys with sharp teeth shall instil fear in kids of a new generation. Some of the content is intense and frightening (like when intense battles of legitimate wizardry occur and the flying monkeys themselves, or even the tornado sequence at the beginning), but it’s not nearly as disturbing as some material previously seen in 1985’s Return to Oz. The content here isn’t enough to bring about a soft PG-13 rating, but it’s enough to urge me to warn off small children. It feels as if sometimes Raimi forgets this is meant to be a family feature.
It’s simply amazing to see the advancements in technology in 74 years, where the monkeys were once in costumes and now they’re animated, or how much can now be achieved visually. Raimi makes some really special nods to the 1939 classic. The first fifteen (or so) minutes are played out in Kansas in black and white, or even the tornado sequence itself. There are also incredibly sweet poetic scenes where Joey King and Zach Braff portray more than one character. King plays the little China Girl in the land of Oz, but she also plays a small girl in a wheelchair back in Kansas, and because Oscar can’t make her walk in Kansas, it’s really heart-warming to see him help her in the mystical land of Oz. Braff plays Frank in the land of Kansas and Finley in Oz, where Oscar is able to cherish the friendship Finley has to offer, instead of taking Frank’s friendship for granted and treating him purely as a servant.
Raimi also manages to keep this a bit different, by, for example, by only having a part of a musical number. When Oscar and co. visit the Munchkins of Oz, their musical number is cut off mid-song. He also makes this visually beautiful with some notable 3D visual effects and some really cool CGI-animation for the monkeys and a certain green someone. When battles of sorcery occur, it’s visually compelling. This is a great movie, but the main fault is the simple story. It really only follows Oz and his journey to become the legendary Wizard, and his attempts to rid the land of the Wicked Witch. It makes up for it by being visually great, charming and heart-warming at parts. Even though this might not make you feel as magical as you feel watching the 1939 classic, it’s a satisfying substitute.
As for the acting, no one really stands out. James Franco works the charming leading man role by smiling a whole lot, the three witches are good (Williams being the best) and Zach Braff makes Finley sound a bit too much like Chicken Little. He’s a monkey, Braff, not a chicken!