There is no Baum in Gilead
Any movie attempting to resuscitate L. Frank Baum's "Oz" books has to deal with the series' own Wicked Witch of the West—that being M-G-M's musical version The Wizard of Oz, which had Judy Garland in it, and set the bar very high as far as expectations go (for quality that is, whereas for the box-office TWoO was not a box-office success at the time of its release and only became a classic after a couple decades worth of Thanksgiving showings on network TV). Walter Murch's attempt to take an OZ story back to its roots, 1986's Disney's Return to Oz, was an abysmal failure, although artistically it was a terrific show--but probably butted heads with too many memories for its own goodness as, for instance, the Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow were not vaudevillians in theater-suits, as was the 1939 version, but looked more in line with the book's illustrations.
Sam Raimi, he of larkey horror films and the Tobey Maguire Spidermen, is probably a very good choice for doing an OZ film, as he has equal qualities of sweetness and sour, where Tim Burton (the next usual suspect*) would have made the film travel heavier to the morose. Raimi's Disney's Oz the Great and Powerful (as convoluted and punctuationally challenged a title if ever, oh ever, there was one) manages to be its own thing while bowing and occasionally scraping to the previous' yellow brick road (which is revealed, as an aside, to have potholes, which nicely sums up the movie's respect, and lack thereof). A prequel, kinda sorta to The Wizard of Oz, it starts out in a black and white box-square format (with a special effect detail amusingly violating it here and there) on a sound-staged Kansas that creepily recalls the musical version. There scam-magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is conning rubes and comely assistants alike, and taking advantage of his stage-assistant, Frank (Zach Braff). He's a jerk, only revealed to better purposes when a lost love (Michelle Williams) comes to visit to tell him she's going to marry farmer John Gale (father of Dorothy, making her mother of), and he takes the higher road, telling her she chose the better man.
But his past catches up with him...or tries to...and his road goes even higher, escaping a vengeful cuckolded circus strong-man in a helium balloon. Kansas being Kansas, he is caught up in a tornado—one that presumably opens up a rip in the space-time continuum through some sort of meteorological consequence, and winds up in the storied land of Oz, where, true to movie-form, everything turns to color and the screen expands to wide-screen proportions.
The pattern is set—Diggs is an outsider, a stranger in a strange land, but enough of a roué that any sense of wonder he initially feels is soon replaced by annoyance (Franco is great at that). Oh, it's nice to have a minor seduction with the first female he stumbles on, Theodora (Mila Kunis), but the flying monkeys (in the form of Finley, voiced by Braff), and the girl who comes from hummle beginnings, the fragile porcelain girl (who comes from the neighboring land of Chinatown and voiced by Joey King), but before long he's embroiled in Oz's matriarchal politics between witches Theodora and her evil sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who are lording it over the Emerald City, and the witch Glinda (Williams again), who is protecting the provinces from the influence of the Big Bad City. This troika of females all think that Oscar will bring some sort of balance to Oz, and despite himself, he's got enough answers to help Finely and China, who become devotees. Evanora is the first to see Oscar and think "there goes the neighborhood," and the plot and the make-up thickens in a battle royale between the various forces of magic, Evanora and Theodora in the Emerald City, and Glinda and Oscar and her army of tinkers, winkies and munchkins. Tinkers and winkies and munchkins. Oh my.
As Donald Rumsfeld said, you fight with the army you got.
And just to show this isn't Gramma's OZ (or Louis B. Mayer's) when we get welcomed to Munchkinland this time, and the town's welcome wagoneers start into a bouncey little song with high, tight voices (provided by composer Danny Elfman), Diggs just calls the whole thing off: "Stop! Stop it!" Musical numbers are not tolerated in this more cynical fantasyland. Nor is anything approaching the good-heartedness of Baum or Fleming. Even Glinda the Good Witch turns out to be something of a bad-ass here, far badder than in the '39 version. And that's just a little backwards because the original has an empowered little girl who saves the day, while in this one it's a man, a messiah, who must sort things out in the messy rule of a matriarchy.
This is progress?
The movie ends with some fantasy-nastiness. Glinda is captured, tortured, and made to grovel before the sisters, Oscar comes to the rescue with his own Earth-bound pyrotechnics, similar to what he's use in the future. But the movie feels very much like a movie of today—things end not with a splash of water, but a lot of impressive fireworks. You want something a little meatier, though, something that might last and impress longer, but given the Oz that will come post-prequel, there's really nothing much to do about it. The great and powerful Oz is merely a humbug, the man behind the curtain. The evil sisters will remain evil, although Evanora's fashion sense (especially regards hosiery) will take a serious hit. And Oscar will become a patriarch based on big promises with nothing much to back it up. Sounds like any politician, really. This Oz is not so magical, not so great and not so powerful. What it needs is more brains, more heart and more courage.
Disney's Oz the Great and Powerful is a Rental.
|Yellow Brick Road? Check. Emerald City? Check. Dark Forest? Check.|
Now we just needs brains, a heart and courage.
Oz, the Great and Powerful is available on DVD starting today.
And the original is forever.
* Frequently recalled as this film is scored by Burton co-conspirator Danny Elfman.