Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
April 9, 2013
POP CULTURE: Oz
A few weeks back, I took my family to see Oz, the Great and Powerful, the Disney reboot that has drawn - from reviewers and people whose opinions I trust - wildly divergent reviews, some people liking it and others loathing. (This review's a little late, but I had written about half of it shortly after seeing the film). We hadn't planned in advance on seeing the movie and had paid only modest attention in advance to reviews and the massive promotional campaign (which included a yellow brick road installed in the middle of Penn Station), so perhaps I was spared the expectations that a lot of others brought to the film. It won't go down anywhere in movie history next to the original - parts probably won't hold up that well on repeated viewing - but there was enough movie magic to make it well worth our while.
A few quick disclaimers. First, we saw the film in 3-D, so your mileage may vary if you skipped the 3-D or watch it at home.
Second, I'm a sucker for fantasy or sci-fi as long as it's at all competently done. I enjoyed, more or less, the Star Wars prequels, even if they were not what they should have been. I enjoyed reading the Eragon books, derivative as they were, to my kids. Heck, I actually re-watched The Black Hole with my kids not long ago. Just give me something to work with.
Third, I regard the original Wizard of Oz as the greatest movie of all time. Not my personal favorite (that would be Star Wars, followed by The Untouchables), but certainly a movie I've seen more times than I could count. While you can make the case on pure artistic merits for competitors like Citizen Kane, The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia, the Wizard of Oz stands out among the all-time great movies as having the broadest appeal across ages, genders, generations, and genres; a classic story that long since transcended its original political allegory; scores of memorable and quotable lines appropriate to many situations; breathtaking, groundbreaking and still-fresh-today cinematography that is woven into the plot; lots of songs that range from the memorable to the classic; and some vivid performances, from the star-making turn for Judy Garland (the best female vocalist of the first half of the twentieth century) to the iconic roles of Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West and a slippery-limbed Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow.
Tampering with the original movie would be borderline heretical. But I had no real objection to doing an Oz prequel - Frank Baum wrote more than a dozen other Oz stories himself. And in fact, not only did the original film take some liberties with Baum's classic, Baum himself had previously done so when adapting it to the stage. (The Broadway show Wicked, which I have not seen, covers the same time period as the Disney film, albeit - from what I understand - with a radically different story). What matters is whether the adaptation is done well.
With those preliminaries out of the way, my review - spoilers included - below the fold.
As I said, Oz contains a lot of visual movie magic, riots of color that evoke the original film. But it rises and falls on its story and characters. The most emotionally powerful moments come from one of the few parts of the movie with no real parallel in the original film: the scenes with the China Doll and the devastated China Town are heavy tearjerking, but effective nonetheless. The cheesiest scene is the concluding duel between Glinda the Good and Evanora, the Wicked Witch of the East, which essentially rips off Yoda's showdown with Palpatine in the Senate chamber in Revenge of the Sith.
It's the actors that have to bring life to all that CGI. As prominent as their works are, I'd actually never seen anything with James Franco, Mila Kunis or Michelle Williams in their entirety (naturally, I've seen parts of the Spider-Man films and bits of some That 70s Show episodes). Williams lends warmth and emotional depth to Glinda, and Rachel Weisz chews the scenery with campy, vampy abandon as the Wicked Witch of the East. But the really polarizing performances are by Franco and Kunis, the young leads.
Both of their performances betray the callowness of youth, in contrast to the Wizard and the Wicked Witch of the West we remember from the original film, especially the toweringly theatrical malice of Hamilton's Wicked Witch. But of course, those are mature characters; these are confused young people finding their way in the world, and we would expect them to be less mature and imposing. It's the same basic challenge of every prequel giving youthful backstory to an iconic character.
Franco too often fell into the Joe Biden trap of letting his teeth emote for him, and at times he's too obviously unbelievable for the trust people place in him, but on the whole his Wizard stole enough scenes to pull off the Big Con. It's easy enough, watching him as a young man on the make, to see in him the tired old Wizard eager for a last look at his home when he greets Dorothy - who, this film suggests, is the daughter of a woman he left behind in Kansas. (One continuity irritant: we never see how he gets his original hot air balloon back to the Emerald City).
Then there's Kunis as Theodora, the Wicked Witch of the West (Kunis, by the way, is almost certainly the last major American film or TV star born in the Soviet Union; her average-American-teen locution is a facade to cover the fact that English is not her native tongue). When we meet her, her big puppy dog eyes are impossibly enchanting, a physical counterpart to the almost excessive beauty of the Land of Oz. (My wife was more offended by the idea that she was wearing leather pants and high-heeled boots in 1905, but this is a fantasy world and she's a witch; some license can be forgiven in the area of literally outlandish clothing). On the scale of cinematic transformations to the Dark Side, her turn into the Wicked Witch is no Michael Corleone, and the filmmakers took an easy out by having her transformed by a single, irrevocable magical choice, but her woman-scorned is miles more convincing than Hayden Christensen's Anakin Skywalker. Rather than a maestro of wickedness, Kunis plays Theodora as a merciless zealot with the fervor of a new convert - shocking even her more purposely wicked sister - giving herself over wholly to a bitterness that has literally rotted her.
Just as J.R.R. Tolkien intended Middle-Earth to provide a distinctly English fairy tale, Frank Baum designed Oz to be a distinctly American fantasy world, and Disney's Oz stays true to that ambition. Where Tolkien's cast of characters was full of duty-bound aristocrats and humble gardeners resistant to change and technology, the Wizard is a blend of audacious self-promotion and Yankee ingenuity, a disciple of Thomas Edison who borrows from Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee in his improvisation. Some reviewers have characterized the film's message as a trite "believe in yourself," but that's not exactly what's going on here - Oz at the beginning of the film is full of self-confidence and big dreams, and he's failing miserably. What he learns, in part, is how to accept responsibility, but even that's not really all that selfless, what with trading in his threadbare transient showman's existence for a hoard of gold, a beautiful and (literally) enchanted woman and power over a luminous city. More importantly, Oz learns to take his friends, his allies and his talents where he can find them - to, as Don Rumsfeld would say, go to war with the army he has, rather than the army he'd like to have.
Disney has reportedly signed at least Franco and Kunis to a sequel, which will present new challenges: the plot will be even more constrained by the problems of prequel-hood, and the actors will have to add more gravitas to characters who can rely less on their youth and newness as the story progresses. But at least the first visit back to Oz was worth the trip.