By Steven D’Arcangelo
Opening this weekend is Disney’s Oz: The Great and Powerful. Is it great? Is it powerful? For the most part yes. The part that isn’t, however, is pretty significant.
You’d think that the Broadway musical Wicked would’ve already covered everything there is about the formative years of the Land of Oz, but there’s more to mine in this fantasy world. Wicked focused on the witches. Oz focuses on the wizard, a womanizing con man mistaken for a real wizard prophesized to save the good people of Oz from evil.
I read this screenplay over a year ago and loved it. At that time Robert Downey Jr. was rumored to play Oscar “Oz” Diggs and, while reading the script, it was hard to picture anyone else in the role. After seeing the movie, it’s still hard to picture anyone else. More on that later.
The main cast consists of actors raised on TV -- James Franco (Freaks and Geeks), Mila Kunis (That '70s Show), Michelle Williams (Dawson's Creek), Zach Braff (Scrubs). Rounding out the troop is Rachel Weisz who is excellent as evil witch Evanora. Williams is a spot-on modern version of Glinda the Good from The Wizard of Oz, with a dash of her My Week with Marilyn persona thrown in. Mila Kunis is good but a notch below as Evanora’s sister, Theodora. At times Kunis lacks conviction when interacting with CGI environments, a challenge I don’t envy given how many blue screens she had to pretend were teeming with flying baboons and walking China dolls. Although Kunis’ performance is lacking, it’s better than Franco’s.
James Franco is a solid actor. He’d have to be to get nominated for an Academy Award. But that recognition was for drama (127 Hours), not comedy. Need a James Dean or an angst-ridden Peter Parker pal? Call Franco. But comedy, at least this type of comedy, is not his forte (stoner comedy like Pineapple Express is). Franco playing Oscar Diggs is like Franco co-hosting the Oscars -- he’s simply miscast.
One person not miscast is Franco’s Spider-Man director Sam Raimi, who pulls out all the stops to make this return to Oz a feast for the senses. Raimi is the perfect director. From camera angles to special effects to music, it’s a time machine trip to a 1939 Hollywood blockbuster. But not without a knowing wink (Winkie?) to modern audiences, who may otherwise deem a 100% recreation of that era as hokey. The new film is hokey and well aware of it, but not in a meta state of cynical awareness like the Scream franchise.
Raimi’s homage to the effects of the 1939 film is wonderful. The original script for the new film climaxed with the good guys battling an army of steam-powered robots, which also served as reference to the Tin Man (Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion references made the cut, but are unnecessary). The steambots were ditched to save money and now the climax focuses more on the creation of the wizard’s famous “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” illusion. With disembodied head, smoke, and curly mustache -- it’s a faithful, more dynamic recreation of the original.
Throughout Raimi’s career, we’ve seen the influence of director Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz. Look at Raimi’s version of the Green Goblin from the first Spidey flick. Comic book buffs like myself disliked the all-green, hook-nosed cackling interpretation, but cinema buffs (also like myself [I was torn]) appreciated the nod to the all-green, hook-nosed, cackling Wicked Witch of the West. Both the Goblin and Witch’s modes of transportation -- his glider, her broom -- soar through the air with a trail of puffy smoke. It’s great to see Raimi come full circle and fully acknowledge Fleming’s influence.
Most of my praise derives from the skillful recreation of the original film’s spectacle, which sounds like a backhanded compliment -- “Hey, guys, nice job copying someone else’s creativity.” Not true. Unlike Superman Returns (“Look, up in the sky! Is it a sequel? Is it a remake? No, it’s a mess!”), the Oz filmmakers pay loving tribute to the source material, but also make the new movie their own.
My sole grievance is the 3D. I’m normally not a fan, but this -- along with Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland -- are the only films that I can’t imagine seeing in anything but 3D. So where’s the grievance? In the opening sequence.
Like the 1939 movie, this one begins with a sequence designed to contrast humdrum Kansas with the magical Land of Oz. Fleming’s classic achieved this via black and white footage and a smaller aspect ratio that was a striking contrast to the Technicolor widescreen Emerald City and Munchkinlanl. Raimi’s movie employs the same tools but adds 3D, a perfect way to ratchet up the fantastical elements of Oz. Unfortunately he does this with Kansas as well, which downplays the contrast of the two worlds. This, however, is a minor quibble in an otherwise entertaining film rife with spectacular CGI that, unlike Jack the Giant Slayer is anything but fee fi ho hum.
There’s a reason author L. Frank Baum wrote 14 novels about his beloved Land of Oz -- it’s a rich and fully realized fantasy world on par with Narnia and Middle-Earth. If Disney’s new film becomes the financial success it deserves to be, then I’d love to see the next film either be…
A prequel to the prequel.
In Oz, the wizard is prophesized to replace the murdered king of Oz. Let’s see the king’s story with Downey Jr. in the role.
This could be the middle chapter leading up to Dorothy’s adventures. Unlike the king, one character never mentioned is the Witch of the South. Theodora is the Witch of the West. Evanora is the east version. Glinda hails from the north. What about the south? Hopefully we’ll meet her somewhere over the rainbow.
Steven D'Arcangelo is a transplanted Bostonian living in LA with his lovely transplanted wife Carrie. When not reviewing films, he writes screenplays. When not writing screenplays, he does graphic design and illustration. When not doing graphic design and illustration, he denies being a workaholic. When not denying he's a... Well, you get the idea.
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