Oz The Great and Powerful
by M. Faust
He’s Off to Find Himself
Oz The Great and Powerful
This is just a guess, mind you, but I suspect that there is a juicily entertaining book to be written by some enterprising journalist on the history of Hollywood’s attempts to exploit the oeuvre of L. Frank Baum, creator of the land of Oz. Baum wrote 14 novels set in his fantasy land, designed as a setting where he could spin out American equivalents of the tales of the Brothers Grimm for modern children. (Dozens more books were written by other authors after his death in 1919.)
Not much of Baum’s work has been adapted for film, and what has been isn’t too faithful to his stories. But there’s no question that the one success, 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, is the most beloved and probably widely seen film in Hollywood history.
Mix the fame of the Oz name with Hollywood’s current obsession with franchises—films intended to give rise to lucrative sequels—and you just know that the bean-counters have been wanting to go back to the Baum well for years. But the problem with a name is that when it goes bad, it’s easy to remember. Disney’s unpopular 1985 Return to Oz, which opens with Dorothy receiving electroshock therapy, spoiled the brand for years. In the interim, though, imagine all the lawyers kept busy trying to concoct ways that a new Oz endeavor could be copyrighted (who wants to sink millions into a tentpole picture when it’s based on books and characters that are in the public domain?) while dealing with potential copyright infringement claims resting in the 1939 film as well as the hugely successful book and play Wicked?
All of which is to say that there were probably a lot of cooks stirring the cauldron that produced Oz the Great and Powerful, the kind of movie for which the expression “meh” was coined.
Bypassing Baum’s stories altogether, the script fashions a prequel to the story told in The Wizard of Oz, offering the backstory of its title character. In 1905 Oscar Diggs (James Franco), who would be known as “Oz” to his friends if he had any, is a carnival magician peddling his illusions on a dusty fairground circuit in Kansas. He is transported (surely you can imagine how) to a world that looks like a Dr. Seuss story set on Mars, filled with enormously high, narrow and uncentered peaks of landscape.
This of course is Oz, and like Macbeth it has three witches. They are played by Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and, in leather pants so tight that they must have provided some measure of the film’s PG rating, Mila Kunis. How they line up with the three witches that Judy Garland had to deal with is the object of some plot legerdemain which I won’t spoil here, other than to say that it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. (Feminist biblical scholars will have a field day with the role of an apple here.)
Like Hugo, Oz the Great and Powerful functions partly as a salute to the craft of early filmmakers, as Oz puts his skills at creating illusions to use in the service of the oppressed peoples of Oz. (Whoever decided to give the leading character the same name as the land, by the way, was doing no favor to those of us who have to describe this thing in print.)
Mostly, though, this big-budget 3D spectacular plays like a project rendered lifeless by too much tinkering. Director Sam Raimi is no slouch at this kind of thing, but despite the limitless capabilities of the Disney corporation he renders this imaginary world with nothing approaching the glee with which he filmed swinging through the steel and concrete canyons of Manhattan in his three Spider-Man movies. The best that can be said for it is that fans of the 1939 film will enjoy spotting references to it, both broad (the black-and-white opening segment set in Kansas) and subtle. But it’s unlikely to spawn a slew of sequels, much less to supplant the memory of Dorothy and her friends on the yellow brick road.
Watch the trailer for Oz The Great and Powerful
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