Before he walked the halls of Royal Oak High School as interim principal, he walked the yellow-brick road of the Emerald City and was known as Townsperson #10. You’ve got to look pretty quickly, but Mr. Jim Moll has a line toward the end of the movie, courtesy of his former student and blockbuster film director Sam Raimi, who helmed “Oz The Great and Powerful” just ten miles north of Royal Oak in Pontiac.
The eagerly anticipated movie featuring the star power of Oscar nominees James Franco and Michelle Williams, along with Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz tackle not only one legend, but now two. Imagine the pressure that Peter Jackson felt from the Tolkien fan-base and triple it. Mr. Raimi needed to craft a film respectful of the 1939 classic, work around the potential lawsuits from MGM—and deal with a whole new generation of purists, those beholden to the sympathetic Wicked Witch of the West from Broadway’s Wicked.
What makes Judy Garland’s version immortal was its great blend of humor, music, visual effects—and even a bit of horror. Most every baby-boomer reading this was probably a bit traumatized by Margaret Hamilton’s witch—even if we did grow up seeing her pouring coffee in commercials as well. What gives Wicked the coveted repeat-viewers is also its humor, its music and particularly, its careful exploration of opposing characters.
Raimi needed to tap into these qualities (minus the musical numbers if you don’t count a quick munchkin-tribute ditty or the interesting choice of Mariah Carey in the end-credits) but he also needed to steer clear of the mine-fields from the purists. He seems to have succeeded with a spot-on Disney formula. After all, we may enjoy the tea-cup ride but we also head over to the Haunted Mansion, too.
James Franco’s Oz assembles various sidekicks along the way, just like Dorothy—including a flying monkey and a china doll. They both deliver some of the film’s best lines without being too sticky. The wizard’s performance is accurately weasel-like; he’s a huckster turned inadvertent savior. But the true strength of the film, like Wicked, lies in its witches—a trifecta of sisters in this case, and all remarkably cast. Without giving away the plot, it’s wonderful to see the characters develop. Michelle Williams’s Glinda could have been as wooden as any fairy godmother or Barbie but she shows wonderful range. Mila Kunis continues to improve and draws upon both her youthfulness of “That 70’s Show” with the darkness we saw in The Black Swan. Rachel Weisz shows some real acting chops instead of just running from a mummy as she struggles with both her public and private reign.
There are plenty of nods to the 1939 masterpiece—including a black and white beginning and foreshadowing Kansas characters –but the film stands on its own nicely. The writing is paced between various locales and moves you to the next stop right when you’re ready. At times, you could be beside Gene Wilder’s Willie Wonka, beside various Technicolor flowers, suddenly you’re in James Cameron’s Avatar’s soaring cliffs, waterfalls and stomach-turning drops.
The plot turns appropriately away from some expected conclusions and its ending is a nice melding into the Oz that awaits Dorothy in 30 or so years. But unlike other “family films,” when the dad offers to re-fill everyone’s popcorn three times just to escape, it’s likely to keep everyone seated. Grandparents, parents and their kids will most likely flock to the visual feast, but, like Wicked at the Fisher Theatre or TBS’s showing of The Wizard of Oz for the hundredth time, it will be because of the tight-writing and strong acting. Oz The Great and Powerful is a great getaway from the cold winds and snow of Michigan to the magical land of Pontiac, where principals like Jim Moll can count on good witches and wizards to save the day.
Kevin Walsh is a Royal Oak parent and Humanities Chair at University of Phoenix--Detroit Campus. He has authored the national-selling text on high school video production, Video Direct. He is also the founder of the entertainment blog, MyMediaDiary.com.