Sometimes I sincerely wonder what moviemakers have been ingesting in order to come up with the wacky ideas that they do. Occasionally I wonder this when it comes to the task of stretching out a franchise, especially of a universally beloved movie/book. This happened in the nineties, when Steven Spielberg, (who can usually be relied upon to bring the magic), made “Hook,” which starred Robin Williams as an adult Peter Pan, who’d turned into a workaholic yuppie. When his neglected kids are kidnapped by Hook (i.e. Dustin Hoffman), he must return to Neverland to rescue them. When it was released, “Hook” was ridiculed by a Premiere Magazine critic, perhaps justifiably insisting that few people really care about “the problems of pudgy adults,” even if they happen to be Robin.
In 2013, something similar happened when “Oz the Great and Powerful,” starring James Franco as the Wizard, appeared on the big screen. L. Frank Baum, who likely spun around more than a few times in his grave, when Fairuza Balk played a Dorothy fleeing from electroshock treatments in “Return to Oz,” got yet another workout when “Oz the Great and Powerful” directed by Sam Raimi was released. The movie skips viewing Oz through wondrous child narrator eyes, ignoring the time-proven way of capturing kids’ interests, in order to teach James life lessons about being honest and treating one’s friends fairly. Oh, and there’s also a whole lot of cleavage, interspersed between the flying monkeys and deadly poppies. As it happens, Baum provides the Wizard’s backstory in a few Oz books but doesn’t really sex it up. That’s where “Oz the Great and Powerful” comes in to fill that gap.
Coincidentally, this prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” was released in the same year as “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” whose opening scene is almost identical and features Steve Carell as an arrogant prick of a “magician,” who eventually becomes humbled and learns life lessons about treating one’s friends and associates fairly. However, it has the major drawback of having Steve achieve this in the real world, whereas shortly into the movie, James climbs into a hot air balloon to flee a man whose girlfriend he’s involved with, as well as a mob of fairgoers who expect him to heal a little girl in a wheelchair (Joey King). Luckily, there’s a tornado handy to whirl him into a vortex where he emerges in Oz. Here he meets a friendly (and hot) witch (Mila Kunis) who offers to take him to the Emerald City to meet her sister (Rachel Weisz), as he may be the one who can save them all. He also befriends a friendly flying monkey (Zach Braff who also plays his real-world assistant).
When they reach their destination, James is thrilled to encounter a chamber filled with gold, not to mention Rachel, though she promptly sends him away on a quest to defeat another “bad” witch (Michelle Williams). (On the way, he encounters a village of broken china people, one of which he glues back together to become Joey King-as-a-china-sidekick.) However – gasp – Michelle turns out to be good (she’s Glinda), while Mila turns out to be bad (she’s the Wicked Witch of the West). Now James must use his magician skills to return to the city, where he must defeat the Real Evil. This involves an elaborate plan which results in a fake mechanical army being destroyed, lots of gold being blown up, ample cat fighting, and culminates with James deciding to stay and rule Oz as the Wizard, now that he’s become humble and good. And perhaps when Sam Raimi goes to Heaven, he’ll encounter L. Frank Baum who will ask, “Why? Oz is a fantasy that’s supposed to entertain children first. There’s no sex whatsoever in my books.” Or perhaps not. Maybe he’ll have already learned from “Return to Oz” that you can’t always trust Hollywood to deliver the magic so to speak.