Writers: Mitchell Kapner & David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the works of L. Frank Baum
Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Tony Cox, Bruce Campbell
Plot: Carnival huckster Oscar Zoroaster Diggs (James Franco) is swept up by a cyclone and hurled away to the mysterious, magical land of Oz. There, he finds himself caught in a power struggle between three witches (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams) over the realm’s vacant throne. A prophesy claims that a wizard from another land will save Oz from wickedness, but can this humbug of a man find in himself the hero that Oz needs?
Thoughts: Before I really dig into this movie, I think it’s only fair that I (briefly) tell you about my personal history with Oz, so you can understand where my opinion is coming from. Like most people these days, my first exposure to Oz was the 1939 MGM film, which I saw as a child and enjoyed. When I was a bit older, though, at my local public library (visit ‘em kids, they’re awesome) I found an entire shelf of Oz books by the creator, L. Frank Baum. I devoured the books they had (which, as it turned out, weren’t all of them), and since then I’ve been a devoted consumer of any book, movie, or comic book I can find that offers a different vision of the land of Oz. Although I think there is plenty of room in media for many, many different Ozzes (a phenomenon I discussed in more depth on my other blog yesterday), in my heart, my favorite visions of Oz are those that pay due deference to Baum.
And it’s with that perspective that I can say I enjoyed Oz the Great and Powerful immensely. (Don’t worry, I’ll put up a warning before I get into any spoilers for those of you who haven’t seen it.)
The biggest problem with prequels, as George Lucas proved, is that it’s difficult to maintain suspense when the audience already knows where the characters will be when the story ends. This isn’t really a big problem with this film, though. Baum gave precious little backstory on many of his main characters, and almost none on the witches of Oz (although subsequent writers would often turn to this as their inspiration), and that leaves the screenwriters an enormous amount of room to play in. They also create a version of Oz that is mostly consistent with the books, while still giving a few nods to the 1939 film that they know is what most people will use as their measuring stick.
The casting is very good. Zach Braff as Finley the Flying Monkey brings a totally unexpected element of comedy to the film, one that serves to give us a glimpse of light in very dark moments. Each of the witches feels very natural in their respective roles – Mila Kunis’s naïve Theodora and Rachel Weisz’s sly Evanora work very well as the sister witches, and from the beginning present an interesting question to the audience… which of the two will someday become the insidious Wicked Witch of the West, and which one has a date with a house that’s going to fall out of the next tornado?
Michelle Williams is almost perfect as Glinda. While Billie Burke’s portrayal from 1939 is that of a hands-off fairy godmother, the sort who prefers to pulls the strings and not get directly involved, Williams is a much fiercer, braver woman. The display of power she puts forth in this movie is impressive, and certainly more in keeping with the character Baum created. He didn’t go in for the pyrotechnics quite as much as this movie does, mind you, but it’s easy to see Williams’s Glinda capable of maturing into the strong, confidant witch she becomes in the original books.
Then there’s Oz himself, James Franco. Oddly enough, he’s the only one of the main cast that doesn’t always work for me, and it’s for an strange reason. Franco plays Oz as a snake oil salesman, a con man who has a good heart buried somewhere deep inside, and that’s all well and good, that’s how he should come across. But there are moments in the film where it feels like he’s actually overselling the overselling, moments where you’d want Sam Raimi to ask him to dial it back down to 11 from 12 or 13.
As for Raimi’s directing… it’s fantastic. His visual effects team has built a brilliant, remarkable Oz that satisfies me on absolutely every level. Even the 3-D in this film is superior to most others. It’s funny – I’ve long said that I’ve never seen a movie that convinces me that 3-D is a tool that improves storytelling, that there is no movie that does for 3-D what the 1939 The Wizard of Oz did for color… and this film almost does it. Raimi’s transition from Kansas to Oz is a truly remarkable moment, and one that uses 3-D in a very clever way, similar to the way the ’39 film did with color. It’s visually stunning and, for a few scarce moments, I was glad I saw it in 3-D. Then later on he starts throwing monsters and spears straight at the camera and I was over it. Raimi also throws in a few moments of self-reference, which I think are fun as well… there’s one scene that’s almost straight out of his own Army of Darkness, which had my friends and me in hysterics, probably because we’re the only people in the theater that got the joke.
I’ve got other things to say about this movie, including a few problems, but nothing I can discuss without putting up a spoiler wall. So if you’ve read this far and you haven’t seen the movie yet, let me assure you that it has my wholehearted recommendation. It’s a great fantasy film, probably too scary for the little kids, but well worth watching in the movie theater. And I won’t even judge you for choosing the 3-D this time.
SPOILERS AFTER THIS LINE. ———————————————————————————————-
Aside from Franco being a bit over the top, my biggest problem with the story itself is one of timing… not pacing, timing. Once Franco arrives in Oz, it feels like things happen entirely too fast. For one thing, I think it’s clear too early in the film that it is Theodora, not Evanora, who is fated to become the Wicked Witch of the West. In fact, I think it’s clear too early that Evanora is the real villain, and not the “Wicked Witch” the sisters are warning us about. Granted, as soon as we learn the “Wicked Witch” is named Glinda, the audience should know Franco is being conned, but that moment should be played as a reveal and never really gets that chance.
Theodora’s emotional turns are also hurt by the sheer speed of the piece. I’m not entirely sure (after just one viewing) but it seems like no more than three days pass between her meeting Oz and her transformation. In that time she falls madly in love with him, decides she’s going to marry him and become his queen, and then grows to utterly hate him when she sees a glimpse of him talking to Glinda and learns that he “romanced” her sister the same way he did her. (Incidentally, I think the film does a nice turn leaving it a little ambiguous as to whether or not this actually happened. We see Oz work his charms on various women in the movie, but never Evanora, which leads me to suspect he never did. Instead, I got the impression Evanora pulls off the con on her sister because she was spying on the two of them in her globe the whole time.) The sheer speed with which Theodora’s affections turn weakens the character, making her the fantasy equivalent of the internet Overly Attached Girlfriend meme. Even more problematic, she truly becomes wicked not because her heart is broken, but because after her heart is broken she allows her sister to make her evil. It’s still the character making a choice, but I think it’s a weak choice, she doesn’t “earn” her evil, so to speak… not so much a monster as a victim, which will give her death at Dorothy’ s hands a level of forced tragedy I don’t think works.
It seems very clear to me that this movie was made to be the beginning of a franchise, despite its prequel status – and in fact, Disney was already talking about sequel plans the day before the movie was released. I’ve got no problem with this turning into a franchise, but it’s a little too obvious that was the intent… instead of taking us from point A to point Z (“Z” being where The Wizard of Oz begins), this gets us to about… let’s say “J.” The film ends with Oz in power and the witches banished, but there are a lot of things that don’t mesh up. Evanora doesn’t have the Silver Shoes (or, if you insist on going with the MGM version, Ruby Slippers). Theodora isn’t in command of the Flying Monkeys. Both sisters have been driven out and humiliated, where Evanora pretty much has dominion over Munchkinland when the original begins. Probably lots of other little bits I’m forgetting now, but will remember when I (inevitably) see the movie again.
The biggest sequel hooks come in for the Wizard himself, though… specifically, he’s not the recluse we know he’s doomed to become. He and Glinda have a romantic relationship, which simply doesn’t fit the first movie (or any other incarnation, for that matter). This gives the screenwriters a delicate task – they have to do something to alter the relationship in such a way that they are no longer together, that he has retreated into his palace, but where she still has enough faith in him to send Dorothy down the Yellow Brick Road when she drops from the sky. Then there are Finley and the China Girl, Oz’s surrogate family. Their inclusion in this story is actually wonderful, but it has us poised for tragedy. The moment Finley swears his life debt to Oz, pledging to remain with him until he (Finley) dies, I had a chill at every moment he was in danger. We know that the Wizard has no Finley when Dorothy arrives, and there’s simply no way the character Zach Braff played would ever turn on his friend… which leaves only one possible reason for his absence in the later stories.
I appreciated a lot of the little touches that were brought in from the original book, for example, the inclusion of all four of the peoples of Oz, and not only the Munchkins as the original film did. The prominence of the China Town was good too, although it does raise the question of how it will be rebuilt to the point it will be when Dorothy arrives. (Then again, as this is a point left out of the original film, perhaps the filmmakers don’t plan to address it again.) And although there were a few creatures we encountered that didn’t come straight from the books, there was nothing that would feel out of place in a Baum story, and so I’m perfectly happy with that.
As a lifelong Oz fan, though, there’s one glaring red flag waving in my face, one thing that simply flat-out contradicts any version of Oz I’ve ever seen, one thing I’m having a little trouble getting over, and that’s the notion that Glinda is the daughter of the murdered King of Oz. This doesn’t fit in anywhere, and I have a hard time wrapping my brain around it… not only idea that Glinda is the king’s daughter, but also the question of what this means for the true ruler of Oz in the original novels, Princess Ozma. Considering how much work was done to mine the book, making a change of this magnitude is really troublesome to me. At the end of the movie, I kept waiting for an exchange like this:
OZ: Hey, if your father was the king, doesn’t that mean you should be queen?
GLINDA: No, I had to renounce my claim to the throne when I chose to become a witch. My sister was supposed to take over, but she’s been missing ever since our father died.
Not a perfect solution, I admit, but at least it would be something. The point is, it’s not a minor quibble, but a major chance to the Oz canon that I think the sequels simply have to address.
That said, as big an issue as I have with that element, I still really enjoyed this movie. It’s a modern Oz with a timeless feeling, which is as much as anybody could possibly have hoped for, and I hope to see Disney march forward with this franchise for a long time… even, if they have the guts, rolling into an actual adaptation of the original novel. Despite all the different versions of Oz that have hit the screen, very few filmmakers have dared try a full-on adaptation of the original, fearing comparisons to the MGM film. If the Disney juggernaut doesn’t have the courage to finally make a version of The Wizard of Oz that’s closer to the book, nobody ever will. And that, my friends, is where I really want to see this franchise go.
The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!