Rainbows are so tempting. Supposedly they lead to pots of gold. But to catch artistic lightening in a bottle is something altogether different.
With Oz the Great and Powerful, Disney gave it a try. Certainly inspired with the box office success of their 2010 reworking of another classic, Alice in Wonderland, which saw over a billion dollars in receipts, 13th highest of all time, Disney assembled a highly-talented hit squad to show us what happened previously in pre-Dorothy Oz. The new Oz the Great and Powerful better perform well -- at cost of $325 million it is the most expensive movie ever made on either side of the rainbow.
The project began with mixed results. They failed to land their first two choices -- Robert Downey, Jr. and Johnny Depp -- to play the lead, the callow Oscar "Oz" Diggs. Still, James Franco may be a better choice than either of the more familiar, more jaded, more popular leads. He rises to the occasion, bewitched by Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams and directed by Spider Man's Sam Raimi. Drawing on his success, bringing horror and iconic characters to screen, Raimi delivers a very watchable product.
It was a gamble with house money. The success of Broadway's Wicked, the high tide of youth fantasy films fueled by CGI and just-add-water to the witch fan base, figured to reap the Disney studio enormous profits.
But how artistically would this witch's brew mix? Not as bad, as feared, nor as good as hoped for. Overall it's a compelling watch with a few charming performances.
The thin plot line deals with the development of Franco from small time, trickster magician without moral compass to the almost-great and powerful, if still a bit flawed, but personable Oz. To get there he has to fight his way past riches and enemies, put the public good slightly over personal gain and determine which witch to trust while developing his use of super powers. Perhaps his road parallels Franco's development from distracted Oscar host to lively, sometimes charming, knight-errant savior of the Emerald City.
The unholy triad of Kunis, Weisz and Williams, although a bit uneven, thrills and threatens. Of the three, Kunis sparkles as the Witch of the West. She deftly lays the groundwork for her Wizard of Oz predecessor, Margaret Hamilton, one of American films towering villains. Although the evil Hamilton's later work was little noted, nor long remembered, there is no humor lost in seeing her appear subsequently in Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family or The Patty Duke Show.
Michele Williams doesn't fare quite as well. Beautiful and disarming, she still suffers in comparison to the 1939 film's riveting and comforting Billie Burke.
But narrative, dramatic tension and character development are often overshadowed by look-at-me CGI. Beautiful and impressive, especially the use of 3D. At times it frames and advances the plot. At other times, its a bit like the later wizard who wanted Dorothy to focus on his smoke and mirrors, while the man behind the curtains was all too human.
When the hurlyburly's done, when the battle is lost and won, this Oz will be remembered for its special effects. Certainly not the straight-to-elevator music of Mariah Carey, which can't hold a candle in the wind to Judy Garland's rich contralto soaring Harold Arlen's memorable score. Perhaps a bit of spry performance here or there. Franco et al. do a decent job. But in the end, the Disney team is merely providing another piece in the frame of one of America's film masterpieces. The earlier wizardry isn't diminished or superseded -- its explained and enhanced.