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Most attempts over the decades to append MGM's 1939 The Wizard of Oz with sequels, prequels or parallel stories have pretty much faded into obscurity. An exception may be director Walter Murch's interesting 1985 effort with little Fairuza Balk Return to Oz. Although Turner/Warners now controls the original Judy Garland masterpiece, the Disney organization put together this ambitious prequel explaining how the Wizard of Oz became the Wizard of Oz in the first place.
Most of us know that L. Frank Baum churned out a long series of Oz books, telling many more stories than just that one hit-squad mission fronted by Dorothy Gale from Kansas. Director Sam Raimi orchestrates a gigantic production that somehow avoids direct copyright & trademark conflicts with Turner's property: Dorothy who? Yet the new movie reproduces Oz as a fairly identical magical kingdom. Mitchell Kapner's screen story integrates a trio of competing witches into the tale, in the process drawing comparisons with Stephen Schwartz's musical Wicked. Frankly, Oz the Great and Powerful is just the kind of gargantuan production that one expects to see Hollywood make into an unwatchable mess. Most of the time the expected committees can't make a coherent movie out of a ½-dimensional comic book character. Despite some uneven patches Kapner, Raimi and producer Joe Roth succeed in making this Oz a surprisingly good entertainment. I'd give parts of it a solid "A", with an overall final grade of "B+".
If this was easy we wouldn't need a wizard, would we?
In the smallest of nutshells, Oz the Great and Powerful shows the scallywag magician Oscar Diggs fleeing an uncomfortable situation in his carnival job, only to be swept away from B&W, small-screen Kansas to the widescreen and gloriously colorful land of Oz. He's first meets the impressionable, romantically inclined witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who is convinced that Oscar is the Great Oz, the wizard promised to arrive to save the land from tyranny by the unseen Wicked Witch of the West. As accepting the role will make him rich, Oscar encourages Theodora's mistake, and seduces her as well. He also collects a loyal helper in Finley (Zach Braff), a flying monkey whose practical advice goes unheeded. Oscar is given a hero's welcome in Oz, especially by Theodora's two-faced sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who believes him a fake yet conceals her suspicions. To become King of Oz, the new "Wizard" must destroy the hated Wicked Witch of the West by stealing her wand. Only after seeing the treasury does Oscar agree to take on the mission. He and Finley journey through a treacherous forest, avoiding attacks by the Witch's flying baboons. They come upon an unlikely comrade in the spunky Little China Girl (Joey King), who Oscar glues back together. Arriving at the Witch's domain, they see their enemy alone, wearing a black hoded robe, and vulnerable to attack.
The rather sturdy tale develops into a struggle between three witchy sisters: Theodora, Evanora and our old sweetie Glinda, known as the Good Witch (Michelle Williams of My Week with Marilyn). Terrible treachery, transformations and tragic fits of jealousy combine to re-order the balance of power in Oz. The deliverance of this magic kingdom depends on whether the Wizard / Oscar Diggs can overcome his selfish egotism and pull off a miraculous victory for his newfound Ozzian friends.
Oz the Great and Powerful can boast a computer generated Oz that most of the time succeeds in feeling magical. Design-wise it gets a solid "A" -- its CG look strives for the organic texture of an old Technicolor picture rather than anything photo-real. Wide shots of the landscape don't try to bowl us over with intense detail, and clean design is more important than clutter. Various details purposely evoke the MGM movie, like the tornado skies in the B&W prologue and even the way a circus wagon floats into Oscar's view while he's airborne in the center of the spinning tornado. Oz doesn't contain a Munchkinland, but we do have familiar-looking Munchkins. Interestingly, this isn't a musical. When the Munchkins break out in song and dance, Oscar interrupts and cuts them short. It's almost like a Monty Python sketch ("No singing!") or an aside to the audience: "Don't do that, do you want Turner's lawyers on our necks?" The character dialogue is all very good, leaving only a few expository lines to klunk about here and there.
The Witches of Ozwick, I mean, Oz the Great and Powerful has a great trio of leading women. Michelle Williams is delectably virtuous, a quality that was once a fantasy given, and that few movies today try to deliver. Rachel Weisz's Evanora seems insincere at the outset, and develops into a fearsome villain with an unclear source motivation -- in Oz, not everybody needs a reason to be Good or Bad. As Theodora, Mila Kunis has the toughest part in the picture and carries it off marvelously. Back in Kansas, Oscar broke impressionable hearts left and right, and there wasn't much that the women could do about it. But when Oscar toys with Theodora's affections in Oz, there's hell to pay. She's a tragic victim of male vanity and sisterly treachery, and when she transforms into her 'new state', there's no chance of a return to innocence. Theodora's story connects with the MGM film in a way that generates genuine character depth, at least in pulp fantasy terms. 1
If you can make them believe you're wizard enough. These are desperate times after all.
That leaves James Franco's performance, the film's major weak link. Franco is more than adequate in other pictures but just doesn't have the charisma to make the scoundrel Oscar Diggs / Oz likeable. This guy is supposed to effortlessly charm women off their feet, but the magic isn't there. The script makes us wonder whether Oscar will come through as a good guy, or continue to think only of himself. It takes a special kind of star to retain our full loyalty while doing questionable things on screen, but James Franco just looks like he's not committing all the way to the character or the story. He'll get serious one moment and then return to pretending that everything's a joke. A key moment happens when Franco is flying in a personal bubble (bear with me), which must pass through a giant bubble surrounding a city of Oz. This second bubble is a barrier that only permits good-hearted souls to pass through. Oscar looks plenty worried for a minute, but somehow squeaks by. Even with that endorsement of his character he still can't do anything in full earnestness. I kept wanting Oscar to Get With The Program. True, he'll eventually grow old and become Frank Morgan, whose Oz is a genuine slippery fish when it comes to ethics. But I can't help that Franco is judging his reactions first & foremost by how well they score on the Cool Meter.
The script tries to explain Oscar as a guy who just wants to be somebody, achieve something, the usual American dream. He sees himself as a miserable faker, and identifies inventor Thomas Edison as a real Wizard to be admired. The MGM Oz of course develops the idea that people try too hard to become things they already are, or to have things they already possess... a heart, a brain, the nerve, etc.. We know that Oscar will eventually achieve his destined glory as an overachieving sneaky trickster. 2
That doesn't mean that Oscar doesn't have his moments. He is charming in scenes with Michelle Williams' Glinda, if only because it's impossible not to be affected by contact with the glowingly good Glinda. And perhaps the film's most touching bit is in a Franco scene. He comforts the despairing Little China Girl, whose legs have been blown off in a terror raid by the Flying Baboon monsters. There's a lot in present-day tragedies to connect with the China Girl's predicament. Oscar is kind and helpful, and like a good Yankee Boy Scout he comes prepared with a little daub of glue to get China Girl back on her tiny, shiny feet. Her family reduced to shattered crockery, Little China Girl pops back into action, traumatized but determined to make a difference. The scene is shot through with genuine magic. We've never seen a fantasy character quite like her, yet our great grandmothers might have cherished such a toy.
Other aspects of Oz the Great and Powerful evoke earlier associations. The balloon descent into a river reminds us of an Indiana Jones movie, while another scene seems a variation on Disneyland's Mad Hatter TeaCup ride. The magical foliage where Oscar lands has musical talent, as in Disney's classic cartoon Flowers and Trees. Evanora's horrible curse on Theodora is delivered via a Snow White- like green apple. The flying bubbles I assume come from the Oz books, but Oscar's coup de theatre consists of recreating the giant wizard head effect from the MGM classic. Leading the Tinker Guild that fabricates Oscar's Vegas-Act magic trick is the bearded Master Tinker, nicely played by Bill Cobbs of The Hudsucker Proxy and That Thing You Do! The good people of Oz ask for wizardly magic to save them, and Oscar comes up with smoke, mirrors, and 4th of July fireworks. That seems as good a way as any to earn permanent public office. 3
As in the MGM film, some of the Ozzian characters have counterparts back in Kansas. Little flying monkey Finley has a refreshing personality and a face that reminds me of Mighty Joe Young. A special effects battle between witches will remind older viewers of the classic Karloff-Vincent Price wizard war in Roger Corman's The Raven. Something very much appreciated in Oz the Great and Powerful is the fact that its story stays rooted in fantasy and character conflict. Despite the threat of a violent war, few if any conventional scenes of fighting and physical struggle appear. I felt like applauding at the surprising resolution of an attack by the army of flying baboons -- a really clever narrative twist on story elements from the MGM movie.
Theodora Goes Wild.
Perhaps the most satisfying connection to the MGM classic is the "Margaret Hamilton factor". Without spoiling anything, I think this movie's creation of the 'new' Wicked Witch of the West is superb. The transformation itself is just so-so, but the characterization that results hits the nail on the head. Once again, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis bring something special to this show. It dares to not be cynical ALL the time, and when it goes for an old-fashioned fantasy effect, it works. Perhaps on a second viewing the Oscar/Wizard character won't be such a drag.
Disney's Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy of Oz the Great and Powerful looks great in HD and must have been quite something in 3D in the theaters (A 3D Blu-ray has been announced but without a set date 4). The visuals are pleasing in this flat version, once one becomes accustomed to the fairyland-like stylization. The audio is as lively and sharp as one would expect. A good plus is that we don't miss the absence of songs. Danny Elfman's music is serviceable but unmemorable, which seems a missed opportunity to showcase a new melody for a main theme.
Disney hasn't scrimped on the extras, although all conform to the studio's carefully managed corporate image policies. The "Disney Second Screen" extra has parallel content, a tour of the 'fantastical' land and a look into Finley and Oz's bag of tricks. A selection of tame but interesting bloopers shows all the stars in good spirits, often performing in a total blue-screen environment. EPK-style featurettes give us 'personal' input from James Franco; a look at Danny Elfman's music; the effects that animate China Girl and transform one of the characters (careful, the box text gives it away); Walt Disney's long-ago connection to the Oz franchise, and an overview of the film's production design.
I was quite pleased with Oz the Great and Powerful. It's a good movie with great sequences. And I can't see the Disney Machine adapting the film's 'complicated' witch characters for its cookie cutter Disney Princess line. Recommended.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Oz the Great and Powerful Blu-ray rates:
1. It seems evident that the two films are supposed to be connected. It's been pointed out that Theodora's unfortunate victimization by Oscar and Evanora now makes Frank Morgan's Oz in the MGM picture into a rather creepy old faker: so that's his guilty reason for tasking Dorothy Gale with finding the Wicked Witch of the West and "fetching her broomstick." Now we know that relieving an Oz witch of her broomstick or wand is Ozzian slang for, "Take her for a ride". Oz sends Dorothy on her kill mission to help clean up his messy past. It's a sure bet that this true back story will never be printed in the "Merry Olde Land of Oz Gazette".
2. Too bad the movie perpetuates the notion of Thomas Edison as an icon of integrity. He didn't personally invent all of his achievements, but he sure hogged credit for them. In business terms, he continually leveraged his sometimes-questionable patents to seize total control of the budding motion picture industry. Edison was an engineering and inventive genius, but not exactly a selfless philanthropist.
3. As long as all the candidates first pass through Glinda's bubble, the one that discriminates against false-hearted politicians.
Glenn: Great coverage of Oz, the Great and Powerful. Amazon shows a June 11 release for the 3D version (I'm a 3D nut and have had my pre-order in for several weeks.) Best -- Bill
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