Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5. USA, 2013. Walt Disney Pictures, Roth Films. Screen story by Mitchell Kapner, Screenplay by Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire, based on characters created by L. Frank Baum. Cinematography by Peter Deming. Produced by Joe Roth. Music by Danny Elfman. Production Design by Robert Stromberg. Costume Design by Gary Jones, Michael Kutsche. Film Editing by Bob Murawski. Phoenix Film Critics Awards 2013.
Did you know that before he messed with Dorothy’s head and proved himself a complete failure, the Wizard of Oz had an origin story? You probably didn’t care, but Sam Raimi has made a prequel anyway and surprisingly, it’s actually a delightfully easy watch. James Franco is unexpectedly light and charming as a womanizing magician who brightens the imaginations of Depression-era Midwest audiences while scamming the ladies into his arms behind closed doors. When a tornado takes his hot air balloon away from the brown blandness of the Dust Bowl and into the brightly colourful land of Oz, he discovers that he has been anticipated by a prophecy: he will save the land from evil Glinda (Michelle Williams) and restore himself to the throne of the land. He learns this from the lovely Theadora (Mila Kunis) whose sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) is currently ruling Oz in the late king’s place until the awaited one returns. Our hero learns before long, however, that it is Glinda who is the good one, with gullible Theadora having believed the opposite from her oppressive sister all along (the audience already knows Weisz is bad because she’s been dressed in the most fabulous evening gown since Disney made Snow White’s stepmother into Joan Crawford). Raimi walks a fine line between paying tribute to the 1939 classic by Victor Fleming, particularly in the gorgeous production design, and updating this one to the modern era with state-of-the-art visual effects (which at times falter and only make it that much more charming) and more diversity in the cast (though if it’s a prequel, you’ll have to explain where all the black and Asian characters go in the next chapter). The trouble is there isn’t much of a plot: there’s something about him defeating the bad ole’ witch, but the story meanders a lot and, despite how enjoyable it is, doesn’t convince you that it knows where it’s going (and after a century of Oz fan fiction, this will be something of a disappointment to devotees). This only makes the phallocentric story line that much more jarring to behold, featuring (among other things), a woman who becomes the most evil creature in the world because she is rejected by a man; in a little Broadway show you might have heard of called Wicked, she gives into the role created for her by people’s prejudices about the way she looks. It seems there is enough room to create magnificent CGI galaxies on a cinema screen but not nearly enough space for a multifaceted woman in an adventure film (though this is not exactly news). It all takes place in a land ruled by girls who are simply waiting for a man to come along and either save or punish them, but, with such impressive women playing the roles, this anti-feminism at least feels accidental and doesn’t suppress enjoyment of the story (of course, it’s not accidental—mostly I’m still amazed at how stories play out in exactly the same way no matter how “imaginative” we try to be as the years go by). Williams, who is usually the quietly tortured soul of grittier movies, is surprisingly uncomplicated and sweet here, the most memorable of the bunch, while Weisz couldn’t possibly be more glamorous or stunning (her costume also pays the best tribute of all to the style of 30s fantasy movies). Kunis is the biggest disappointment, weak and insulting to a phenomenally important figure in cinema history, but to be more specific about why would be a major spoiler; for someone with such great comedic skills in other films it is shocking how anodyne and unimpressive her delivery is. None of these quibbles stand firmly in the way of a good time, strangely enough, thanks to a pluckily enjoyable hero and a stunning visual palette (even the non-stop green-screen world created feels pleasant and gentle the entire time).