Director Sam Raimi may be one of the few people in Hollywood who could actually pull off a prequel to the iconic classic “The Wizard of Oz” (1939). Of course, our CGI cinema technology is much improved these days, and it shows in this 3-D spectacular. But there still must be a compelling story to add substance to the style, and, fortunately, the screenplay and the acting are up to the challenge.
Oz (James Franco) actually begins as a carnival magician (the traveling carnival is suitably named Baum, after the original writer, and such homage appears throughout). And, as we might expect of a turn-of-the-20th-century carney, he teeters on the edge between illusionist and charlatan. He’s a shameless romancer, as well, and charms the local village ladies just enough to pique their interest, until he leaves town again. Well, while attempting to escape from an angry rival suitor, he winds up floating away in the hot-air balloon, which then careens straight into the tornado, and somewhere in the eye of the storm, he’s ignobly deposited in the Land of Oz. And here’s where it begins to strangely resemble an allegory for a preacher.
It seems the people of Oz, though hard-working and loyal and trustworthy, have lacked a spiritual leader, or “wizard,” since their last one up and died on them. They’ve all been awaiting the moment when the prophecy is fulfilled and the new wizard finally arrives, who will not only deliver them from the clutches of wickedness, but also restore harmony and faith to their diverse little community.
At first, Oz tries to tell everyone that he’s not the one whom they expect, but he begins to suspect there might be some side benefits to allowing the people to believe that he is their long-anticipated wizard. Like material comfort: a throne, a scepter, a palace, and a treasury, which may or may not be similar to a study, a pulpit, a robe, a manse, and a salary. Like the attention of some young, beautiful, available women who seem charmed by his eloquence. Besides, the place is lovely to behold.
Ah, but everything is not as it appears. The wide-eyed young lady, Theodora (Mila Kunis, and never mind the irony of her character name), plays the innocent, but actually has a black heart. She has two sisters, one of whom, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), is beautiful but evil, and the other of whom, Annie (Michelle Williams) is also beautiful, and seems to be good, but she also sees Oz for who he really is. She’s not really impressed with pulling doves out of handkerchiefs, although she’s not averse to some smoke-and-mirror routine of her own. What she really does is encourage him to use what gifts he has, including rhetoric, energy, leadership, charisma, and yes, sleight-of-hand bordering on deception, to generate among the good folks a genuine enthusiasm, and a belief that together they can overcome their difficulties, and intimidate the nay-sayers into slinking away and looking somewhere else to parlay their doom and gloom. Yes, the real calling of The Wizard of Oz is to stir up faith, courage, and perseverance in the land, with precious few resources except, well, his own resourcefulness.
What a trip. We have the return of the flying baboons, the good witch in the white bubble, the yellow brick road, the proto-projected image, fireworks and fog, the green evil witch on a broom, and new wisecracking sidekicks. And it’s all done with such pizzazz and panache and finesse that we enjoy ourselves despite the willing suspension of disbelief. Or maybe even because of it.
As in the original, some of the scenes may be intense for small children. But this unique 3-D adventure is one the whole family can enjoy, where universal familiarity with the original just makes it that more enjoyable.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.