When I first heard that Disney was planning to make a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz,” I thought, what next? A prequel for “Gone with the Wind” or “Casablanca”? It seemed both arrogant and ill advised. Then I saw the trailer and it looked a little “out there”—maybe too far removed from the original movie to gain acceptance.
Trailers can be deceiving.
From the opening sequences shot in 1.33:1 black and white until the screen slowly acquires color and expands to 2.40:1, I saw enough clever examples of intertextuality—elements from the L. Frank Baum books that didn’t make the final print of the iconic 1939 film—that made it clear people behind the prequel had done their homework.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” may not be the blockbuster you’d expect Disney to produce with a budget of over $200 million, but if you don’t think about that wild number, then director Sam Raimi’s foray into full-fledged fantasy is a fun enough ride. In fact, my kids were already talking about scenes from the movie that would make for a GREAT Disney World attraction.
It’s a feast for the eyes that depends more on special effects than intricate plotting, but so are a lot of bad movies. I may sound like I’m tripping in a field of poppies, but the secret to this film’s success seems to be James Franco. He has such fun playing the Wizard and trying to make connections between Oz and Frank Morgan’s character from the original film that it’s hard not to smile.
“Oz” tells the story of how a small-time traveling magician comes to the land of Oz via a hot air balloon propelled by a Kansas twister, and how he becomes the great Wizard we see in “The Wizard of Oz.” As with “Wizard,” some of the actors play dual roles. Michelle Williams is both Annie, the magician’s former girlfriend who got tired of waiting for a real relationship, and Glinda, the good witch. Zach Braff is both Frank, the magician’s behind-the-scenes assistant, and Finley, the flying monkey who pledges a lifetime of service to Oz’s newcomer. Joey King plays a girl in a wheelchair who asks the magician to heal her, and also China Girl, a fragile animated doll from the Baum books. And yes, there’s a yellow brick road that Oscar (whose magician’s stage name is Oz) has to follow to get to the Emerald City.
The plot itself feels a little murkier than it could be, with Oz thought to be the great wizard prophesied to save the people from evil, and the main narrative revolving around Oz’s interactions with three witches as he tries to rise to the occasion. Mila Kunis tries to unleash her inner Black Swan but finds it’s not easy being green. There are times when you find her convincing as an early version of the broom-riding “I’ll get you, My Pretty!” witch from the original film, but times when the screenplay seems to sabotage her. Same with Rachel Weisz’s character Evanora, the third witch trying to gain control of their dead father’s kingdom.
It may not be perfect, but “Oz the Great and Powerful” is really a slam-bang family film that depends on special effects, breakneck pacing, and those fun “Wizard of Oz” allusions to make you look past the defects. In this, I’d have to say it’s successful, since my family enjoyed it more than Tim Burton’s live-action sequel, “Alice in Wonderland.”
“Oz the Great and Powerful,” which clocks in at 130 minutes, is rated PG for sequences of action, scary images and brief mild language.
You expect a big-budget Disney film like this to look terrific in HD, and “Oz” doesn’t disappoint. Colors have more snap crackle and pop than a bowl of Rice Krispies, and the edge delineation is so strong that the 2D Blu-ray has considerably more depth of field than the typical HD presentation. Black levels hold detail in shadows and night scenes, and provide decent contrast for the black-and-white sequences—though count me among the mystified that Raimi’s homage didn’t include a sepia treatment for the Kansas portion, as was featured in the 1939 film. The Kansas portion in this prequel is listed at 1.33:1, but since it floats in the middle of the screen and doesn’t touch either the top or the bottom, technically it measures out to be smaller still. I can’t imagine trying to watch “Oz” on a smaller screen television.
As for the transfer, I saw no issues whatsoever with the AVC/MPEG-4 codec. “Oz” looks great, plain and simple.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 7.1, which has so much dynamic rear-speaker action that it’ll blow you away. There’s quite a decibel range between dialogue and special effects, so depending on how sensitive family members are to startling and LOUD sounds, you might find yourself adjusting the volume frequently. I’ll confess that I don’t understand the logic of Disney’s making the default audio an English Dolby Digital 2.0. But to access the multi-channel home theater mix or the French, Spanish, and English Dolby Digital 5.1 options, you have to go to the set-up menu. Aside from that wide decibel range, it’s a tremendously active and dynamic soundtrack that blows away the other options. Subtitles are in English SDH, French and Spanish.
If you’re not into Second Screen—Disney’s app companion to movies—what’s here, given the gargantuan budget, is actually kind of skimpy. There’s a 10-minute “Walt Disney and the Road to Oz” that fascinates because it explains how long Disney had wanted to make a film like this, and a production design feature (“Before Your Very Eyes: From Kansas to Oz”) is decent enough, though it’s also a short one (11 min.). But Danny Elfman gets short shrift again with a mere seven-minute feature, a blooper real isn’t as funny as people think, and a segment on the China Girl is okay if you’re a fan of that character. I guess I just expected a blockbuster bonus feature for a blockbuster of a film. At least Franco fans get some satisfaction as James takes you on a documentary of his own, which spans 22 minutes. He interviews his director, he talks about the film as he goes behind the scenes, and he offers, really, the closest we get to a standard “making of” feature.
My family was pleasantly surprised by “Oz the Great and Powerful,” especially with the elements of the L. Frank Baum books that never made it into the original movie. It’s far from perfect, but still a fun ride.