The Wizard of Oz is a work of fiction that has stood out as a classic of children’s literature for over a century. The most popular movie version of the story, made in 1939, has become a classic in its own right. Of course, as with anything that maintains such a powerful presence in pop culture, countless retellings have been made since.
The Wonderful Wizard and all of the other denizens of Oz continue to live on. Many of the original books in the series are available for free from the Project Gutenberg website and gorgeous reprints of them have been offered as library and limited editions through various publishing houses. Fans of the Land of Oz can even get ebook editions for either their Kindle or Nook for free or at a nominal price. Comic book publishers have even gotten in on the act, with graphic novels that take place in Oz offered by both Dark Horse and Marvel.
It was only a matter of time before someone decided that there needed to be another Oz movie, especially after “Return to Oz” has gained a cult following. I know that I saw “Return to Oz” at least once when I was a little kid. Truthfully, the only part of it that I remember was the Wheelie Men because they scared the living tar out of me. After their first appearance, I’m not sure that I even watched the rest of the movie. I may have, but it was probably from behind the relative shelter of my hands as I held them in front of my face. While I have been assured that I need to revisit that movie by several friends, it’s only been recently that DVDs have started appearing at a reasonable price. My largely unlooked for reunion with those terrifying Wheelie Men may be imminent.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” seems a bit like an ominous title, especially for a kids’ movie. However, anyone familiar with the Wizard and the Land of Oz know that Oz the Great and Powerful is part of his official title. It makes sense, as far as titles go. The previews for the movie drew me in with all their technicolor glory. They were odd and beautiful and seemed like just about everything that I could ever possibly expect from a new Oz movie. Finding out that Sam Raimi was directing it was just the hat on the flying monkey.
I like Sam Raimi’s movies. Usually, I think of him as a director of horror films that I find both entertaining and thought provoking, usually with a sly sense of self-aware humor that I appreciate in the genre. I don’t usually put him at the top of the list for people I’d think about directing a family movie. I wasn’t going to rule it out though. This, after all, is the man who introduced me to the wonders of Bruce Campbell and could, therefore, be forgiven just about anything.
Likewise, the cast that was assembled for the movie were not a group of actors that I typically saw in family fare. Still, I was completely ready to give it a chance. Stranger things have happened. After all, if you’ve watched “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and really thought about it, you know that it’s one of the most magnificent horror movies ever. Doubt my statement? Think about that whole scene on the boat in the tunnel. Really think about it. Don’t think about it so hard that you question your whole childhood, that’s not the intent, just realize that maybe, your little kid brain made that thing a whole lot less scary than it should have been. Kids are great at editing things for themselves like that.
So, I wasn’t going in to watch “Oz the Great and Powerful” with a jaded eye. I don’t really do that with any movies. I like movies, plain and simple, especially when they have a fantasy or science fiction bent to them. It was a movie that I assumed I would enjoy. I went to that theater with every intention of enjoying the film.
And, I did like the movie. Let me just get that out of the way. “Oz the Great and Powerful” had moments that made me laugh and there were a few places that tugged at my heartstrings and even a few spots that made me angry at the villain. It was a very pretty movie. It was stylish and beautifully designed. The costuming was particularly well done. If ever wardrobe was perfectly matched to characters, “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a prime example.
The real problem that I had, though, was that I wanted it to be-well, I wanted it to be an Oz movie, really and truly. Those are some enormous ruby slippers to fill and believe me I understand that. But, I am also pretty sure that I’m not the only one who felt that way.
You have to understand, when I was a starry-eyed little sprocket, “The Wizard of Oz” set the bar very high. Every year, right around Easter time, one network or another would show the movie during prime time hours. Without fail, my butt was parked in front of that TV and I was making my parents watch it with me, whether they wanted to or not.
Of course, as I grew up, a certain cable mogul ruined all that. When “The Wizard of Oz” stopped airing on TV during the spring, a piece of my childhood died. At the time, there wasn’t a home video release of it and, therefore, we didn’t have one to watch whenever I felt like it. Then, of course, those who were lucky enough to have paid for their TV got to watch it. There was a part of me that felt like it should have been included as a basic right that little kids get to watch “The Wizard of Oz” free on TV during spring. It didn’t seem like a whole lot to ask (again, you have to realize, I was a kid then, so, my concept of the world was still skewed towards the kidlet spectrum of things).
As soon as I was able, I did purchase a VHS copy of “The Wizard of Oz.” I took it home and immediately opened it and watched it. Unlike reacquainting myself with the dubious joys of Zots candies and Jolt Cola, “The Wizard of Oz” was still a good movie. I’ve never been a big fan of musicals and I tend to enjoy the darker, scarier musicals as a rule, but “The Wizard of Oz” is one of those exceptions that found its way right to my heart.
I’d thought, somehow, that “Oz the Great and Powerful” would be a better Oz movie, or at least better suited to my tastes simply because it wasn’t going to be a musical. I’m not even sure where they would have put any musical numbers in it, so at least they didn’t try shoehorning some in just for the sake of trying to tie it in more with “The Wizard of Oz.” That also meant that the soundtrack came off as less than memorable.
Give me a single line of it and I can reliably be counted on to finish the rest of “If I Only Had A Brain” almost flawlessly lyrics-wise (the tune is another matter entirely). Who doesn’t think “and Tigers and Bears Oh My!” any time they hear “Lions” after they’ve seen “The Wizard of Oz” for the first time. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” has a way of just burning itself into your brain just like “Tomorrow” from “Annie”. Then there’s that theme for the Wicked Witch. You can hear it right now, can’t you? All just because I mentioned it. That’s the power of a really fantastic movie soundtrack.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” on the other hand, had scoring. I know it did. I just don’t remember any of it.
James Franco wasn’t a bad Oz. He had the showmanship and the charm to really pull off the part, but his performance also seemed a little bit dialed back. Maybe he was worried about scaring the kids too much or, maybe, he just wanted to keep within some kind of Disney standard of conduct for actors. I’m not sure what happened there. Again, he wasn’t a bad Oz, he just wasn’t quite a Great and Powerful one, either. Pinpointing exactly what went wrong there is beyond me, because generally, I like James Franco as an actor. He didn’t seem at all like he was phoning it in, he just wasn’t giving a powerhouse performance as the character.
The Wizard of Oz is the kind of guy that you want to be very redeemable, and Franco seemed like he ought to fit the bill perfectly. Even from the start, when the audience is shown that Oz’s act is only so much flim-flam and chicanery, there’s still part of you that really wants him to turn out to be good at the end. It’s one of the oldest story arcs in the playbook, but it’s usually a fairly effective one. Ultimately, though, when a change of heart that is, naturally, no surprise to the audience materializes it still feels a little bit forced.
The witches in “Oz the Great and Powerful” all have names. Theodora is the witch who finds Oz and believes him to be the answer to the prophecy that foretells the Land of Oz being saved. Evanora is her sister, the caretaker of the Emerald City. Glinda is an outcast, due to some machinations of the evil trying to take over the Land of Oz.
For the first half of the movie, Mila Kunis embodies a wide-eyed, trusting innocence as Theodora. She is sweet and utterly convinced that the stranger she’s encountered will save all of them. During the second half of the movie, though, she tries so hard that she becomes a caricature instead of the character. It’s meant to be homage but it ends up seeming much more like parody.
Evanora, Rachel Weisz’s character is cool and efficient. She is both regal and untouchable as the steward of Emerald City. As soon as she meets Oz, she is doubtful that he is their prophecized hero. Oz, of course, is determined to convince her.
Glinda is actually the big surprise here, not because of who she is but because of her back story. She is as good and kind as you’d expect her to be, despite what she’s endured. Glinda is the first one to have gotten a taste of the evil lurking in the Land of Oz. She’s still skeptical of Oz himself, but she wants her home to be saved so badly that she’s willing to trust him to help.
Anyone watching “Oz the Great and Powerful” will probably have the movie figured out quite quickly if they’re used to watching movies at all. Predictability isn’t the issue with “Oz the Great and Powerful.” Its predecessor was predictable, too.
The only real difference that I can see, which seems to make all the difference in the world, is that “The Wizard of Oz” really had a whole lot of heart put into it. For all its glossy special effects and beautiful costumes, “Oz the Great and Powerful” left me feeling like it simply lacked the soul that Dorothy and Toto brought to Oz with them.