Thursday, April 18, 2013

It Came From The Cineplex: Oz, The Great And Powerful

From Disney and director Sam Raimi comes Oz The Great And Powerful, a prequel to 1939's The Wizard Of Oz.

I have to confess I didn't have very high hopes for this film; how could anything ever surpass or even equal one of the most beloved films of all time? Happily it surprised me. It doesn't outdo TWOZ of course, but it's a worthy entry that manages to tell a decent story and is respectful of the source material.

Normally I'm not a fan of prequels; in fact I downright despise them. By their very nature they're losing propositions as nothing of importance can ever happen in one. No matter how much danger the hero's in during a prequel, you know he's not going to die because he has to live to show up in the original. OTGAP is a prequel that somehow breaks this rule. No, no one dies, but for once we actually get a somewhat interesting storyline as we learn the origins of the Wizard and various Witches.

James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, the man who will be Wizard. To be honest, Franco (with his unsettling rictus grin) would not have been my first choice to play Oscar. Neither was he the filmmaker's. Supposedly Disney tried to get Robert Downey Jr. to play the role but he wasn't interested. Downey would have been amazing in the part, as he's got that kind of bad-boy con man attitude the role required. Johnny Depp was also approached but was busy filming The Lone Ranger. Depp would also have been good in the role. Instead we get Franco, who seems completely out of his element here. The role of Oscar calls for someone who can deliver a larger-than-life performance and Franco just doesn't seem up to the task. In my opinion, of course.

As in the original film, several actors play dual roles in both the real world and in Oz. Zach Braff (of Scrubs fame) plays Frank (no doubt a nod to Oz author L. Frank Baum) as well as the voice of Finley The Winged Monkey. Michelle Williams plays Annie (an old flame of Oscar's) as well as Glinda, The Good Witch Of The South. Joey King plays a wheelchair-bound girl at Oscar's magic show, as well as voicing the China Girl.

Wondering why there's no Good Witch Of The North? Me too. We get Wicked Witches of the East and West and a Good Witch of the South, but for some reason North gets shafted. There were four witches in the Oz books, one for each compass point, but for some reason the TWOZ movie only mentions three and this film follows that tradition.

I noticed that Oz is a much more ethnically diverse place in this film. There are plenty of black and Asian faces prominently on display, especially among the Quadlings. Not that there's anything wrong with that I suppose, but if you decide to watch these films in order the next installment's gonna be awfully white by comparison.

Lastly, is The Land Of Oz a real place? It would seem so, since Oscar travels there in a hot air balloon. Yet in TWOZ the whole place seems to be just a dream in Dorothy's head. So is real or not? The answer would seem to be "Both." Or more likely, "Don't think about it."

SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Plot:
Oscar Diggs is a small-time magician whose nickname just happens to be Oz because the screenwriters like coincidence. He's also a conniving, womanizing con artist. 

One day he's accidentally transported to the magical Land of Oz where he meets three witches who for some unfathomable reason believe he's an actual wizard, one who was prophesied to rule their land. 

Two of the Witches, Theodora and Evanora, turn out to be evil and decide to oppose him. With the help of Glinda The Good Witch and others, Oscar eventually defeats the Wicked Witches with cheap magic tricks and takes his place as ruler of Oz.

Pros:
• A nice touch: the first fifteen minutes or so of the film are presented in black and white and are filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio, just like in TWOZ. Once in Oz, the film is in color and a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Stereo too.

I would be shirking my duty though if I didn't point out that the beginning of TWOZ was not actually black and white, but filmed in an antique looking sepia tone.

• During Oscar's carnival show a little girl in a wheelchair is in the audience and pleads with him to use his "magic" to make her walk again. Oscar is of course powerless to help her. Later in Oz he meets the China Girl, who's had her fragile legs shattered in an attack by the Wicked Witch. This time Oscar is able to help as he uses his magic-- in the form of glue-- to mend China Girl's legs.

• Another nice touch: When Annie meets with Oscar in Kansas, she tells him she can't see him anymore because she's engaged to a man named John Gale. This of course implies that Annie will eventually become Dorothy Gale's mother.

• When Theodora (who becomes the Wicked Witch Of The West) has her heart broken, she cries tears that etch deep scars into her cheeks. This is a cool little detail and foreshadows her eventual demise by water in TWOZ.

• The film features several cameos by characters from TWOZ-- sort of. There's a cowardly lion (although it looks like a real lion instead of Bert Lahr) and an army of scarecrows. There's also a character called the Master Tinker and it's implied that he's the one who will go on to build the Tin Man (I will admit this last "cameo" is kind of iffy).

Cons:
• Warner Bros. now owns the rights to the 1939 TWOZ, so Disney couldn't use any elements invented for that film in this prequel. Concepts like ruby slippers and all that. 

This stipulation even extended to the color of the Wicked Witch's green skin! Disney could color her skin green, but it had to be a different green from that used in the original. Jesus, you can copyright colors now? That seems a bit extreme. Things like this are the reason people tell dead lawyer jokes.

• Supposedly this film is set twenty years before The Wizard Of Oz. Either time flows a lot faster in The Land Of Oz or else Oscar lives a hard-partying lifestyle, because he goes from looking like James Franco to Frank Morgan in just two short decades.

• I like Tony Cox, but I have to say his jive-talkin' Knuck character felt a little out of place in this movie.

Theodora and Evanora, the two Wicked Witches, spend quite a bit of time around Oscar and truly believe he is a powerful wizard with great powers. Glinda The Good Witch sees through his bullish*t in about five minutes and knows he's just a two-bit con man. Apparently good is smarter and more perceptive than evil.

Oz, The Great And Powerful is a surprisingly decent prequel that of course doesn't surpass the 1939 movie, but doesn't embarrass itself either. I give it a B.

2 comments:

  1. Regarding Oz being a real place: the dream bit at the end of the 1939 film was an invention for that movie. It was never in the books. Baum wrote, what, 20 Oz books? He definitely envisioned Oz as a real place. (Dorothy isn't even in the second or third book, so it definitely exists outside of her imagination.)

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  2. Yeah, since the Wizard can get there by balloon I kind of figured it was probably real. Maybe Dorothy didn't really dream she was there, maybe while she was knocked out her mind (and body?) traveled there?

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