Oz the Great and Powerful‘s origins are slightly ambiguous. It isn’t exactly a book adaptation. Baum wrote at least 14 books in his Oz series, and even after his exit, other authors took up Baum’s mantle. While Oz the Great and Powerful draws from details and characters in the books, it’s not an adaptation of any plot or combination of plots from the series, like Walter Murch’s Return to Oz was in 1985.
Nor is it a straight prequel to the MGM’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz movie. It hews extremely close, with a visual style that’s of a piece with that world. The Wicked Witch bears the same trademark green skin, the Emerald City has those familiar glowing skyscrapers reaching into the sky, and the Yellow Brick Road winds its way through the land. But Oz the Great and Powerful didn’t have the rights to some of that movie’s other signatures—the ruby slippers, for example, which are entirely absent from Oz the Great and Powerful. You can tell the movie was striving for continuity, but not everything lines up exactly.
Instead, the not-book-adaptation, not-movie-prequel has a much harder job at the start. It has to return to a beloved fantasy land, staying true to both Baum’s words and Victor Fleming’s vision while expanding both of them. It has to not only tell the story of how Oz, the wizard (James Franco), goes from a Kansas huckster magician to a Great Man (“Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison all mixed into one”), but it also has to fill in the backstories of all of Oz’s witches, including Glinda (Michelle Williams), Theodora (Mila Kunis), and Evanora (Rachel Weisz)—one of whom turns out to be the infamous Wicked Witch of the West. And it has to do it all on an epic scale, traveling through more than 30 sets; co-mingling live action and CG, animation and marionettes; and wrapping the whole thing in a unified turn-of-the-century stagecraft-meets-Hollywood-studio-glamour aesthetic. The only thing they didn’t throw at the production was musical numbers (though Danny Elfman does add a nice score).
It’s an extremely tall order, and it’s a shame that Sam Raimi didn’t record a commentary track to explain how he negotiated it all...Instead of hearing in-depth about the nuances of a new Oz film from Raimi himself, we can marvel about how much Raimi-ness he was able to add to such an iconic, established world. The twister that removes Oz from Kansas, with its speediness and slapstick, is quite possibly the Raimi-est act of severe weather ever brought to screen. Even Oz himself, at times, resembles Ash from the Evil Dead series—a stance of confident buffoonery described as “Charlie Chaplin meets Clark Cable”—that Franco doesn’t quite nail, but does well enough. (This is most evident in the character’s insistence on calling Glinda by the incorrect name of Wanda.)
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