Oz the Great and PowerfulIt's no easy task bringing Oz to the big screen when the Judy Garland film is definitive. You can't mess with a classic. So Disney, wisely, created a prequel, based loosely on the books by Oz author L. Frank Baum. But the screenplay, while using Baum's characters, locations, and plot devices, is almost entirely original. Screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire wrote a story that hits similar beats to the 1939 classic, paying great homage in ways that both honor and inspire nostalgia for it - starting in Kansas in black and white then moving to color; a protagonist meeting friends along a journey; and I'll stop there since I don't do spoilers. But overall the theme of this film, while original and fresh, is as hard hitting, relevant and potentially as culturally significant, as that of The Wizard of Oz. And therein lies its greatest achievement. I love this movie. It's sweet, brilliant and beautiful in story, subtext, visuals and tone.
James Franco is fabulous as the Wizard. He looks gorgeous and is charming. If this isn't necessarily the best performance of his career, he makes a character I hold dear his own. Michelle Williams is always brilliant and I like her take on Glinda. She's upbeat, sophisticated and clever. I'm also a fan of Rachel Weisz and she's strong here but I wish she had used an American accent instead of her native British. She plays sister to Mila Kunis's character who has an American accent and it just doesn't make sense in context. (Then again, Frank Morgan, in The Wizard of Oz, worked an Irish-like accent as the cabbie while Billie Burke as Glinda spoke some Mid-Atlantic twang.) When I interviewed director Sam Raimi, asking him about this dialect choice, he argued for the creative diversity in Oz. As for Mila, she's a scene stealer. And she has to be. But I don't love her make-up and costuming as the Wicked Witch of the West. She's too sexy. Her eyebrows are too thin. She looks a bit like a drag queen but her performance, thankfully, overshadows the shortcomings of the design.Oz in 3D is unbelievable. This is the closest we may ever get to actually going there. The flowers, the foliage, the Emerald City and yellow brick road... I teared up the first time I saw it. I want to stay in that moment. I love that Sam Raimi directed this film. As he did with his Spider-Man trilogy (making the superhero film bright and colorful, whereas most in the genre are literally dark) he kept Oz gorgeous. Too many in Hollywood have tried to launch an edgy, darkly twisted take on Oz over the years. But Raimi is a master at keeping things visually cheerful while still fierce and exciting. Let Oz remain glorious. Batman can have the drab. The effects are incredible - especially CGI characters Finley and China Girl, two of the most emotionally connected animated characters you've ever seen. These two make you feel.
My biggest lukewarm reaction to the film was registered with its music. History's most successful Oz projects - The Wizard of Oz and Wicked - are both musicals. Resonant theme music is an aid to any film. The Oz score should have been brilliant. It's not. But it's good. I've repeatedly listened to it and it has grown on me; but I prefer many of composer Danny Elfman's previous works to this. His score for Alice in Wonderland was far superior. The Wizard's theme sounds like the start of "O Canada." The Munchkins have a brief musical moment but Danny made the fatal mistake of voicing the song himself and it's as atrocious as the songs he did for Tim Burton's Oompa Loopas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Finally, Mariah Carey's song over the credits is another wasted opportunity. The rest of the film has an emotional, timeless quality while her arrangement falls flat.
I consider myself an Oz loyalist, mostly to Baum. Yet as much as I hold sacred his 14 books, MGM's The Wizard of Oz is gospel to me, and that film made a considerable number of changes to Baum's story in its adaptation to the screen. In the original book, there are no farmhands or Miss Gulch. Glinda is the witch of the South, not the North. The Wicked Witch of the West isn't green and the ruby slippers are actually silver shoes. Nonetheless, MGM's Wizard indelibly made its iconic mark on the world as the definitive Oz. Then along came Wicked whose author desecrated the land of Oz along with Baum's original intention in creating it. Its heart and soul were restored, however, when Universal mounted Wicked as a Broadway musical. Even if that backstory of the Wicked Witch of the West still doesn't jive with Baum, I've seen it 38 times and couldn't love it more.
Now along comes Oz the Great and Powerful - closer to the spirit of Baum than even the musical Wicked. That being said, it still makes quite a few revisions to his Oz canon. Most of this new film's story is purely original and imaginative, filling in details that Baum never conceived; some are outright contradictions of things he wrote. Speaking personally, I'm okay with that. For whatever reasons the creative team behind the film made them, they work. Since the Disney picture is not actually based on Baum's books or story (but rather just the characters, locations and a bit of lore), I've come to appreciate and embrace the originality at play here. The script is almost like fan fiction, with a spirit as much aligned with that of the 1939 film as any of Baum's text. But that's why I think it's so powerful as a film - pun intended. This is an Oz to set the gorgeous standard for a new generation.
Bottom LineI couldn't have had higher expectations for this film. I went in with the open mind that it could even surpass my love for MGM's The Wizard of Oz. While it didn't do that, it certainly ranks right up there. It grabs you emotionally; it is brilliantly, wisely reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz; and its message is so poignant, this film succeeds. I am thankful for two phenomenal hours of more Oz to love in the world. I am 100% fulfilled.
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