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From the beginning, Oz the Great and Powerful is either upfront or confused about its conception. Months before release, there was much speculation that this would be a prequel to the first Oz story that M-G-M immortalized in 1939. Previews and word of mouth promised the story of how the wonderful wizard first arrived in the land of Oz, but a script in the opening (an old Disney tradition) contradicts this. We are told the movie takes place in 1905 but the first book on which the 1939 classic is based was published in 1900. A true prequel, then, would logically have to be set in the late 19th Century. If, however, we take James Franco’s charismatic magician to be a new wizard the movie generally works, though its ambitions are muddled. After all, the wizard-to-be is never referred to as Professor Marvel.
Indeed, Sam Raimi could seemingly be trusted to know what to do. When approached to direct he confessed to some hesitation. The Wizard of Oz is his favorite film and he was intimidated about tampering with the sacred cows of cinema. Much of it was off limits anyhow. Though L. Frank Baum’s Oz books have fallen into public domain, including The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the movie is not. To Raimi this meant that anything original to the 1939 (the songs, the look of the characters, and plot reconstructions) couldn’t be touched.
Disney has played around with what it could from the original books (some skits on the Disneyland TV show, and a book-and-record adaptation), but a planned movie based on one of the books never came to be and the fizzling of Return to Oz in the 80s stalled the company’s interest in the world of Baum. But here is a new concept never written by Baum. How did a phony showman from Kansas become the Wizard of Oz, another glorified phony? Even here Disney played with copyright fire, taking an idea straight from The Wizard of Oz, filming the opening shots in black and white and having people the wizard knew from the real world reappear in Oz in different forms.
With their dark lettering and sliding boards, the opening credits remind us not only that this was produced by Joe Roth, the same producer as 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, but also how fortunate it was that Tim Burton kept his hands off of this. Burton’s fondness for macabre done light often steers him wrong, especially so when he works with established material, the results looking like plastic surgery gone bad. Sam Raimi, who took on the project with some reluctance, may not have been the ideal choice but Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was more an indicator of what Oz would be than anything in Raimi’s body of work. It’s a darker take on Oz done with splashy colors. Ironically, this movie did little for the Baum books as far as reviving interest as Burton’s Alice did for Lewis Carroll’s work. Perhaps, the first Oz movie conquered that long ago, leaving little room for future adaptations. Burton’s Alice was the first foray into Carroll’s world of nonsense to connect with the mass audience (though the film couldn’t be further from Carroll). Disney always looked at his animated adaptation with regret and the studio has always kept it off the limelight.
To state the obvious, the movie looks good. It says something of the human stars that two CGI creations, a winged monkey voiced by Zach Braff (no, not a wicked one, for the witch’s minions are here depicted as baboons) and the miniature china girl (Joey King), the sole survivor of the Wicked Witch’s attack on her fragile kingdom, steal the show. Oz looks more sinister with snaring vines and spiteful river sprites. True enough, despite Baum’s claims to have written an American fantasy without the gruesomeness of European fables, the Oz books have an often overlooked (no doubt thanks to M-G-M) high quotient of violence closer to Tolkien than Victor Fleming. But, it’s the Judy Garland movie that has lasted in the hearts of millions and when Raimi undertook an Oz story he had an obligation to the genteel whimsy of the classic film. Part of that film’s charm is its quaintness, simplicity, and innocence.
Raimi’s vision seems off. It isn’t wrong, per se, but, rather, wrong for a movie set in Oz. Watching The Wizard of Oz today represents a return to innocence. Not just the innocence we had upon our first introduction to the movie (and all of the nightmares and wonders it inspired), but also a return to a more innocent time when elaborate sets, bright colors, and primal storytelling were all that was needed to get the job done. In 1939, The Wizard of Oz was treated as a colossal achievement and left a legacy that Oz the Great and Powerful isn’t likely to enjoy for more than a year. It is, after all, seventy years later and movies like Oz the Great and Powerful (with bursting visuals and spinning new angels on classic material) are a dime a dozen nowadays. If their technical assets are all that movies like Oz are content to offer it may be a time for filmmakers to reassess the viewer’s desires. The shortcomings behind the curtain are beginning to show.
If Raimi sought to make a movie about the redemption of a conman brought to Oz he misses both the irony and the straightness before him. The great Oz was never anything more than smoke and mirrors, whether in Kansas or Oz. Raimi misses this and so plays it head on. Oz saves the Emerald City from the vengeful witches and this supposedly turns him into the great man he always wanted to be, but Raimi can’t see the ultimate joke even if it hits him. The wizard is a hoodwinker. His whole battle plan was reliant on gadget, illusions, and a lot of special effects.
This makes the inherit miscasting of James Franco all the harder to take. His wizard is a scam artist who cares little about being great in the sense that the movie tries to make him great. When the young magician says he wants to be a great man he means he wants to be a stage success. But the movie is so confused about its own protagonist that it convinces itself (wrongly) that he means great in an altruistic sense.
In this regard, Franco understands his character better than Raimi, for he never robs him of the slick smile and eye wink of a hustler who has just put one on for his audience, thus playing against Raimi’s misguided intentions.
Rachel Weisz is served best as the conniving Evanora, who rules the kingdom with treachery. It’s a one shaded role and near impossible to bungle, but Weisz wears it like a glove. Michelle Williams, in part because she has the misfortune of playing opposite Weisz’s delicious wickedness is wasted and soon forgotten as Glinda the Good Witch.
Because of the crew’s confusion about what to make of its characters, Mila Kunis, who should have stolen the film as the Wicked Witch of the West, suffers most of all. Raimi’s take on the iconic green-faced nemesis of Oz is an unfortunate product of the post-Wicked Freudian interpretation of the work. She now needs a motive for being a mean old witch. As it turns out, she was a woman scorned. When the wizard to be lands in Oz, she finds him and becomes convinced that he is the great wizard that Oz has been waiting for. He will defeat the wicked witch (she still doesn’t know it’s her own sister Evanora) and restore happiness. She makes him promise to make her his queen when he presides over the land. When, however, the wizard discovers that Glinda is the good witch and falls for her, the Wicked Witch literally turns green with envy and swears vengeance.
This transformation does create some awesome moments in which Raimi acknowledges the iconic look of the beloved villain, her distinctive pointed chin and hooked nose appearing first in silhouette and then a green hand clawing through a table. But if he is going to give her a reason for evil (not a good idea anyway) he has an obligation to follow through. But when, after her defeat and banishment from Oz, the wizard tells her that he knows she wasn’t evil by choice and is welcome to come back if she changes her ways, the movie drops her and any further development. Raimi started a facet he couldn’t finish, but why did she need a motive anyway? Margaret Hamilton got on just fine without one.
The answer may lie in the sequel, reportedly already in the works. For one thing, the wizard tells the people of Oz that the witches will be back. Elsewhere the movie hints at familiar things to come. There are walking scarecrows, at this point only soulless rag bags used to build an army, jumpy lions far less humanized that Bert Lahr’s weepy feline, and other allusions to The Wizard of Oz. Unfortunately, we know what’s in store for the two witches; one will have an unfortunate encounter with a falling house and the other will take to water disastrously. It’s just as well for Raimi seems confused as to what to do with them. He sounds sincere when he talks of his love for the first film, but is hopelessly when he sets of down the yellow brick road.