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Oz, the Great and Powerful (2013)

| March 9, 2013 | 0 Comments

Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful is easier to deal with if we simply stand back and try not to compare with The Wizard of Oz, in spite of the fact that it has been marketed as prequel.  That great 1939 classic is one of those great movie spaces that resides so resolutely in our minds that it is difficult to see it as “just a movie.”  No prequel or sequel or remake or reboot will ever equal it, none can even come close.

The smartest thing that Raimi and his screenwriters have done with this prequel is to distance it just enough from the earlier film that it doesn’t feel like a crutch.  There are echoes of Dorothy’s coming adventure down the yellow brick road, but this story stands on its own. Here is a movie that takes us back some 30 years before The Wizard of Oz and tells us the story of how the wizard of Oz came to be the man behind the curtain.

What is easy to forget is that the point of The Wizard of Oz was that the wizard was just a man with doubts and insecurities just like everyone else.  His powers were made up of smoke and mirrors.  As Oz the Great and Powerful opens, we meet that man, a carnival magician named Oscar Diggs (James Franco), Oz to his friends.  He bills himself as Oz, the Great and Powerful and he takes that title off-stage with him.

Oz’s profession and his lifestyle are made up of parlor tricks and magic.  He can get himself out of anything including close-calls and even relationships.  As we meet him (in black and white), he is working a tent show at a Kansas carnival and is too busy working on his act to notice that a storm is brewing just over his shoulder.  Escaping from the carnival’s angry strongman, he throws himself into a hot air balloon that is quickly swept up into a violent tornado.   Begging the man upstairs to spare his life, his balloon is swept into a bizarre Technicolor universe.

This, of course, is the wonderful world of Oz, and what a sight it is to behold.  Fairies, imps, flying monkeys (baboons actually), walking china dolls, horses of a different color.  The world is a carousel of color.  The landscapes look bizarre and oddly angular.  It looks like a new creation, not just our world transplanted.  That extends to a town made of broken china dishes and, of course The Emerald City itself.  The conflict resides in a pair of sisters, Evandora (Rachel Weisz) and Theodora (Mila Kunis), wicked witches of east and west respectively.  They hate Glinda and all she stands for.  So they join forces to wipe them all out.  The problem is that Glinda needs an army and none is available.  Munchkinland has tinkerers, tailors and dancers, but no soldiers.  That’s where Oz’s skill at sleight of hand will have to do, and we all know where he will end up.

Into this landscape comes Oz and the central theme of the story is that everyone thinks that he is a wizard.  He finds that his carnival magic tricks only take him so far.  When he finally meet Glinda the Good Witch, she has his number.  Introducing him to the inhabitants of Munchkin Land, she informs him that it isn’t necessary to give them magic, just let them think that you’re the real deal.

The world of Oz here is special but so are the characters, they actually matter.  We care about Oz, a trickster who finds himself humbled by his new surroundings.  We care about Glinda, whose world is about to be torn asunder and has only Oz’s parlor tricks to help.  We care about Oz’s travelling companions on the yellow brick road, one is a flying monkey named Finley.  The other, a delicate china doll whose life Oz saves with a magical elixir called glue – whatever that is.  The China doll is actually a unique creation.  Small of stature, she clicks when she walks and the finish on her skin is actually weathered.

Having said that, there is something that bugs me.  The Wizard of Oz is a story that works because of bold, outsized characters.  The problem with Oz the Great and Powerful is that it  is cast with actors who don’t fit that mold.  James Franco, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams are wonderful actors, but somehow they seem meek given the bombastic glory of the world they inhabit.  One can only imagine how Robert Downey, Jr. – who was the first choice for Oz – might have handled the title role, but we’ll never know.  Franco is OK, but he lacks the outsized personality that the character needs.

This is a good movie, not a great one.  The joy of Oz the Great and Powerful is that it isn’t dreary.  The Wizard of Oz, as a book and as a movie always had a kooky and oddly enchanting nature.  To forget that is to forget what makes this story so special.  Sam Raimi doesn’t forget this; he makes a film that is brimming with fun and magic.  Yes, it has its dark moments, but it is better that you might imagine.  Does it equal that 1939 classic, certainly not, but it entertains with a magic and energy of its own.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2013) View IMDB Filed in: Kids, Sci-Fi/Fantasty