By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington On Movies: Oz The Great And Powerful
Oz, The Great and Powerful (Three Stars)
U.S.: Sam Raimi, 2013
Let’s imagine a new version of one of the world‘s certifiably well loved movies: that beloved, be-lioned and still lively 1939 MGM classic, The Wizard of Oz – or envision what Oz, The Great and Powerful from the Disney Studio has turned out to be.
First you throw out Dorothy, or any kind Dorothy little-human-girl-protagonist equivalent. (Makes sense , I guess, since anyone trying to walk in Judy Garland’s ruby red slippers, was bound to catch critic-flak. Who wants to be compared to that?) Then you upgrade the wizard character — Professor Marvel, as played with gloriously hammy eloquence by the great Frank Morgan in 1939 — from a supporting role to central star. To catch a younger audience, you turn Marvel into a sexy ladies’ man played by James Franco.
Then you surround Oz, or Oscar, as he’s been renamed here (avoid the obvious Oscar host Franco joke) with sexy star witches, Instead of a dithering moonstruck Billie Burke type as Glinda the Good and a ferociously cackling Margaret Hamilton type as The Wicked Witch of the West, you cast super-blonde Michelle Williams as Glinda, and ultra-brunette Mila Kunis as her antagonist Theodora. A.k.a. The WWW. You turn the three into a sort of romantic triangle — and you end up with Kunis doing Margaret Hamilton anyway.
Wait. There’s more. Not content with two sexy witches, you bring in another beautiful nasty lady, called Evanora, (played by Rachel Weisz), and have her stage a kind of palace coup before a cast of thousands. You give The Wizard a garrulous flying monkey named Finlley as a sidekick. You dump the old Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Jr. and Bert Lahr parts of The Scarecrow, The Tin Woodman and The Cowardly Lion (or perhaps their granddads), because, again, who wants to be compared to Ray Bolger, Jack Haley Jr. And Bert Lahr? Or to give any reviewer the chance to recall the unfortunate original Tin Woodman, Buddy Ebsen, and tell how he nearly got painted to death and was dropped from the movie but came back and became a star anyway on The Beverly Hillbillies.
You clutter up the landscape with Munchkins and Winkies and more flying monkeys and colors vaguely reminiscent of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds turned into a video game. You don’t write any new songs –except one that flitted by so fast I barely heard it. (Who wants to be compared to Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “If I Only had a Brain?“) You stage a big slam-bang climax, reminiscent of Ten Days that Shook the World, with Munchkins . You…
But why go any further? There’s lots of good stuff in Oz — production stuff, thanks to the visual artists, like designer Robert Stromberg and the cinematographer Peter Deming. But on a script level, do you have any real hope for this movie? You probably should have abandoned it as soon as you heard that Franco was the new Wizard of Oz. Instead of the smoothie con man patter of a Frank Morgan equivalent, or the quick-witted raps of Robert Downey, Jr. (reportedly the original choice for this movie), we get the lackadaisical pseudo-seductive gabs of Franco, who is at his best playing rebels (James Dean, Allen Ginsberg) or laid-back, grinning stoner types (Pineapple Express). And then he doesn’t even get a good equivalent of the ’39 movie’s poppy field scene.
Maybe Downey, Jr. could have brought it off. (His dad, Robert Downey, Sr. — a prince — reminds you a little of Professor Marvel.) At least Downey could have got the voice, which Franco really doesn’t even try for. (Nor, it has to be said, do the writers, Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire.) But to take the world of a populist, feminist writer like “The Wizard of Oz’s” L. Frank Baum (who preferred girl heroines) and to give that make-believe world, as a hero, Franco’s randy Oscar, surrounded by sexy witches, seems like a recipe for trouble . The film isn’t nad – it has enough good people and colorful scenes to keep it floating along on a wave of semi-entertainment. But I’d suggest that a big-bucks Wizard of Oz prequel, without a Dorothy-style heroine, and without songs or much comedy, is often barking up the wrong psychedelic tree.
The movie was directed by Sam Raimi, who sometimes seemed closer to the spirit of The Wizard of Oz in the Evil Dead movies than he does in this new Oz. (Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell pops up as Oz‘s gatekeeper.) It was written by Kapner (of the Bruce Willis-Matt Perry comedy The Whole Nine Yards) and Lindsay-Abaire (of Robots, Rise of the Guardians and Rabbit Hole). Together, with a good cast and splashy visuals, they‘ve made a spectacular Oz movie with precious little of the fun, funniness, charm, gaiety, exuberance, wit, songs, or tongue-in-cheek wit and wonder that the original had.
There is some. And the filmmakers do pay lots of homages to both the book and the 1939 movie. In tribute and remembrance, they shoot the first Kansas scenes of Oz in black and white and then switch to color (not quite as spectacularly an effect as in 1939, when most films were in monochrome). And there are numerous Ozzy in-jokes. Yet, this is an Oz that nobody involved (except Mila Kunis, when she gets to take off on Hamilton) seems to enjoy doing all that much much. It’s good-looking of course — most big-budget movies these days at least give you that that — but not in any memorable or really engaging way.
When I was 11 or so, I saw the Judy Garland Wizard of Oz for the first time. And, like many of you, I suspect, it seemed to be a movie that I’d known and had somewhere inside me always, that I’d been watching (on Thanksgiving, of course) forever. My Grandpa Axel smiled at the Scarecrow. My Grandmas Marie’s face lit up as she talked about Judy singing Over the Rainbow. My mother Edna, who’s taken me to see Garland in A Star is Born, talked about the first time she saw it, and she laughed at the Lion. I settled down in my grandparents’ living room to see it for that first time, and later when it was all over, everything seemed right, everything seemed perfect, and that included of course, Frank Morgan as The “great and powerful” Wizard of Oz. Perfect. Now, who wants to be compared to that?