here are movies that were popular in their time, there are movies that defined and affected their genres for years afterwards. Then there are movies that have passed into the public consciousness – dozens of movies, to which everyone knows the setup, or a certain scene, or a few lines. There are too many of these to list.
And then there are a few movies that have been all but canonized. No matter who you are, where you come from, or even whether or not you’ve seen the movie, everyone in the Anglophone world knows the characters from Star Wars, the songs from The Sound of Music, the lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the scenes from Titanic…
…But even beyond that, there’s a single film that absolutely everyone is had expected to have seen in its entirety. Maybe not the best, maybe not the most well-loved, but almost certainly the most popular movie of all time. I’m speaking of course, of The Wizard of Oz.
And so, you’ll definitely get the reference when I say that Disney’s latest follow-up attempt, Oz the Great and Powerful, “really was no miracle”.
I’ll say that adaptations of the original novel ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ are nothing new. A cursory Wikipedia search reveals that in the world of film alone, there are a ridiculously large number of prequels and sequels, ripoffs and reimaginings, disco versions and gothic versions of L. Frank Baum’s classic – including half a dozen before the one everyone remembers!
The difference here is that T-G-A-P is one of the few since the original to get an international, first-run theatrical release – putting it in the elite company of Michael Jackson’s dated 1978 musical The Wiz, the mid-eighties Dark Age comic book brought to life Return to Oz, and Sean Connery’s camp classic Zardoz if you really want to split hairs.
And this is the biggest problem. I’d look sort of stupid if I said that The Wizard of Oz should be sacred (Well, maybe…it’s exactly as sacred as La Morte D’Arthur, The Taming of the Shrew, and Sesame Street, in that there’s a hugely popular and long-running Broadway musical dedicated solely to deconstructing and poking fun at it), but if you really want to make a work that will do justice to the original, you need the right creative team. And so I’m not sure what they were thinking when they gave writer-director duties to Sam Raimi.
I like Sam Raimi’s stuff (stay tuned for next month’s review of Evil Dead 2013 for more on that), but that’s mostly because of the tone all his movies have. Everything he makes has a sense of winking at the camera. The acting, dialogue, even the music all combine to flawlessly say “Hey, we’re in on the joke too. Don’t bother with your logical hiccups or continuity nitpicks – this is a movie, and you’re here to have fun.” This tone is in abundance here, but the problem is that it’s completely wrong for the crazy fantasy that all Oz movies are. Let’s examine why in the recap.
We start with a turn-of-the-century circus, in Kansas. We also have one of the more brainless creative decisions behind the movie – starting it out in black and white.
The film industry was a different place in 1939. For starters, it was a lot more colorless – black and white film was much cheaper to buy and easier to use. Coupled with a lack of truth-in-advertising laws, the black-and-white fake out of the original Wizard of Oz was depressingly commonplace among films of the time, and the switch to color was even more jarring and breathtaking than it is today (now see why they kept saying “Over the Rainbow”, kids?). Of course, in 2013, it’s a twist that everyone not only sees coming but expects to be there. And it just doesn’t carry anywhere near the same impact. Hey, 3D’s the hot new movie technology – why not have the Kansas scenes in washed-out but still colorful 2D, and when the wizard goes to Oz everything’s suddenly eye-popping and huge?
Said Wizard is introduced to us as James Franco, who’s wearing period-appropriate top hat and tails in an effort to balance out his wildly anachronistic facial hair and performance. He plays an amoral con-man with a lot of flair and natural talent at stage magic and performance. I actually think he’s well-cast for the role as written – an actor who wows everyone with his presence, but whose annoying jerkishness never fails to shine through.
Our opening scene is a sequence where he shows off his magic act. It’s done with an almost Tarantinian gusto and glee that I always enjoy seeing, but it’s a pity that the tone is completely incongruous for the movie. You see, showing the real world as a boring but idyllic place worked with the message of the original Wizard – Dorothy closed it out by saying “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard” (Yeah, it’s a blind stupid and probably dangerous moral, but whatever). However, this new movie has the opposite moral – that if you make a new life for yourself, you can achieve all your dreams – and so the whimsical joy on display here clashes with the drab grayscale visuals.
After the Wizard of Oz’s magic show ends when he’s revealed to be an uncaring jerk, we’re introduced to his beleaguered assistant Zach Braff, and significant other Michelle Williams. Like in the original movie, the actors will also play characters in Oz who have similar roles, and unlike the original it doesn’t have any significance to the story or make any sense. This sums up the approach to a lot of creative decisions in the movie; “Well, the original did it, so we have to as well, I guess.”
Before that, though, the film justifies making a title-recognition-cash-in the only way anyone knows how: Dozens and dozens of CGI effects! The Wizard takes a ride in a balloon but encounters a tornado (fresh from senselessly killing Jonathan Kent), which takes him to the land of Oz. He’s introduced to it in a sequence that crams so many imaginative and colorful CGI visuals down your optic nerves that you get almost bored with it by the end. The original introduction to Munchkinland was so striking because everything was really there, and you could constantly see that Dorothy was interacting with this fantastical world. This sequence reminds me a lot of those Tim Burton movies that are released with alarming regularity, where a pre-existing story is co-opted for the purposes of gothic horror, weird CGI visuals and Danny Elfman music.
Come to think of it, this movie was made by Disney, who commissioned an avant-garde director famous for an original horror series and a few well-received superhero films to revitalize a classic fantasy story with the help of Danny Elfman and a longtime collaborator as the star…has Disney made Sam Raimi their new Tim Burton?
While we ponder this, the Wizard encounters Mila Kunis in a weird hat (which in this movie, denotes being a magician), who exposits that he is there to fulfill an ancient prophecy and take over the Emerald City. Of course, he tries to run away, but is stopped by flying monkeys. It’s here that I really started to notice the similarities between this movie and Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal (This will be important later, but I’ve never seen Army of Darkness, which is apparently T-G-A-P grown up). For those unfamiliar with the plot, Going Postal is the “Con man is forced to go straight” plot distilled into its purest form, and mixed with lots of Pratchett’s usual blisteringly clever humor and imaginative setting. It’s also been made into a great movie with Charles “Head Lannister-Man” Dance as a not-exactly-evil-emperor, so you should really check it out.
Anyway, the Wizard saves the life of a good flying monkey, who swears a life debt to him and immediately becomes his sidekick. Lots of people compare him to Jar-Jar Binks, but I think he’s worse – at least Jar-Jar served some actual purpose for the plot. This guy has no reason to be here at all.
This is evident in the next scene, as the Wizard goes to the Emerald City. Mila Kunis is smitten with him, so he’s trying to live up to her expectations of a great wizard. You’ll notice that nothing about the point of this scene included the words “Good flying monkey”, and so every time he opens his mouth someone tells him to shut up, or ignores him. But the Wizard needs companions on his travels, because that’s what the original did!
At the Emerald City, the Wizard is introduced to the Wicked Witch of the Weisz, who has a low neckline, a British accent and dresses in black. Since the movie posters made liberal use of everyone’s favorite water-soluble hag, who’s consistently placed among the top movie villains of all time, it’s supposed to make the foreshadowing obvious to absolutely everyone – which means, of course, that they’re setting up for a twist.
But before that, there’s plot business to attend to – The Wicked Witch of the Weisz tells the Wizard that to become king, he has to stop the other Wicked Witch, who controls the flying monkeys (Who, I’ll note, are never shown in full to the audience, as if they were supposed to be a menacing and enigmatic force as opposed to goons who we’ve extensively seen in the movie we’re expected to have watched before).
On the way to the Witch’s lair, they find a town filled with houses that look like giant chinaware. As someone who grew up on the original Oz books, I was glad they brought in the Dainty China Country. And at that point, the movie starts to get pretty darn good – There’s a great scene where the Wizard saves the life of a sassy china-doll girl. It’s done almost entirely with practical effects so the scene structure can be believable and personal, and it’s always nice to have a capital-letter Strong Female Character without making a big deal about it (although if you have an S-F-C, it’s also always nice to give them an actual name). Then there’s an equally well done surreal dream/horror sequence, which never goes amiss in a children’s movie.
Sequences like these are where Sam Raimi shines – you can tell quite a lot of the plot was dictated to him by Disney, and he really elevates the material when he doesn’t have to do the business of the plot.
When he has to, though, the movie is really underwhelming. Take the next scene, when the gang finally encounter the Wicked Witch. It’s Glinda the Good Witch, really (who looks, sounds and acts absolutely nothing like Billie Burke in the original movie), but since this needed to be a plot twist, she lives at the center of a spooky forest and dresses all in black, and the fake-out is obvious from the direction of the film.
Meanwhile, the Wicked Witch of the Weisz, who of course has been controlling the flying monkeys the entire time, sees this on her crystal ball and starts getting all cackly. But then we get the big twist, when Mila Kunis (who has changed into an evil dress) feels even more betrayed by the Wizard’s smooth-talkin’ ways and decides to become evil. Because Disney wanted you to remember who was producing the movie, she transforms into the World Wide of the Web with the aid of a poison apple, which is just…ugh. I’m not holding this against Raimi or the film’s screenwriters because this obviously wasn’t their decision, but…ugh.
Meanwhile, Glinda takes the Wizard to Munchkinland. Now, since this is one of the most famous and instantly recognizable locations in film ever, a great deal of time has been spent on recreating it and populating it with verisimilitudinous (yay! I got to use that word again!) Munchkins. The problem is because they want to get their money’s worth out of this reconstruction, we stay there for several consecutive scenes. Since most of those scenes consist of the Wizard and Glinda getting character development and foreshadowing between each other, the Munchkins don’t have much to do, and so the environment becomes paradoxically lifeless and strange. It’s almost like this was a school play where everyone had to get a part, so we wind up with three dozen fidgeting choristers distracting us from the real action.
The tedium is interrupted by the reveal of the Wild Wild of the West. One of the reasons Margaret Hamilton made such a great villain is that she looked evil. Now, it’s obvious the actress wasn’t ugly or mean under her haggish makeup, but her appearance combined with the raspy voice and fireballs to create a rich tapestry of terror (dibs on that as a band name, by the way). Mila Kunis would make a good scorned and tragic heroine, but this scene requires her to be scary, and her attempts to replicate the amazing presence of the original just make her look comical.
After that, we get yet another good scene – The unnamed china-doll girl gives the Wizard a goal to work towards, and inspires him to use his con-man smarts to save the day. It’s straight out of the Going Postal playbook, but I like it because it feels natural, and it gives the girl some importance to the plot, so I don’t have to hate her as much as the good flying monkey.
This scene is when the movie really starts to pick up: the Wizard decides to go full-on Hank Morgan, building illusionist machines, video projectors and gunpowder technology in order to make it look like he’s doing magic. This is when Sam Raimi’s love of filmmaking starts to work to the story’s advantage; the structure of the next few scenes becomes a throwback to the silent era in terms of editing and camera work, and we get a few lower-key references to the Oz books and movies that I like. As a plus, Bruce Campbell’s mandatory cameo in this scene consists of him being repeatedly beaten over the head – always good to see some self-deprecation like this from filmmakers.
I’m also happy to see that this climax is a parody of the Lord of the Rings-style battle that so pervades these modern fantasy movies. What I don’t like is how this parody battle is presented: The sequences of trickery taking place in the Emerald City just look like scenes of Asgard from Thor. Goddamn THOR!
But looks aren’t everything. Meanwhile, in the Emerald City, the Wicked Witch of the Weisz has captured Glinda. She tortures her, Emperor Palpatine style, while the Wizard does the standard last-minute fake heel-turn. While it’s predictable when this fake-out is revealed, I will admit it is satisfying when we see him using a projection booth to make a giant face appear, and you go “Oooohhh…” when you get the connection to the original movie.
When I was watching the movie, I puzzled over this as the denouement happened. It was satisfactory – things get set up for the original movie in a much neater way than the Star Wars prequels managed, and we get some closure for the characters and a couple of sly references to the books. But still, it was strange to me that the happiest I felt that when watching this movie was when it was paying tribute to another movie.
This movie is by no means bad – it has quite a few missteps, especially in the casting, but its good points still deserve mention. Sam Raimi really elevates the material he’s given, but his directorial style means the film lacks the one thing any Oz production needs most – magic.
Oz: The Great and Powerful shows us the secrets behind a masterful magician, but it reminds us all that a magician should never reveal his secrets.
TWO THUMBS UP: The clever twists in the script, the references to the book
THUMBS UP: Most of the rest of the story, the china-doll girl
THUMBS DOWN: Bad casting and resultant bad acting, the WWW makeup, the good flying monkey
TWO THUMBS DOWN: Over-reliance on stuff from the original, telegraphed twists