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OZ The Great and Powerful (2013)

Army of Lightness

Do me a favor, before we begin: click your heels together three times and repeat, "The Wizard of Oz doesn't exist. The Wizard of Oz doesn't exist. The Wizard of Oz doesn't exist."

Look, we all love and respect Victor Fleming's 1939 classic, but appreciating Sam Raimi's Oz The Great and Powerful begins with putting everything you know about Judy Garland and singing Munchkins out of your head. A ridiculous thing to ask of a prequel? You bet.

But we're not talking about a prequel here. 

Had The Wizard of Oz and Oz the Great and Powerful taken place in the same universe, then, yes, Fleming's film would be considered a sequel to Raimi's--with the "first" film being rightfully maligned by fans. But thanks to copyright law, Warner Brothers (which owns and licenses every scrap of what we remember about Dorothy Gale's concussive, Technicolor adventures) insisted that Disney stick to interpreting author L. Frank Baum's Oz novels anew and leaving their classic film alone. That's why, in 2013, we get a CGI cowardly lion, rather than a guy in a suit playing The Cowardly Lion. It's also why, I'd bet, the movie's sole musical number is cut short with an annoyed, almost cautionary "Shush!"

The average moviegoer likely has no idea of what I'm talking about, which is, I suspect, why the new Oz is getting so much flak.* Another reason may be because it's Disney handling the new version rather than, say, Dreamworks or Paramount. The Mouse House's family-friendly stamp is all over this thing, and even through the expensive 3D glasses you can see Raimi's anarchic signature being gradually erased by a puffy, white cartoon glove.

Set in 1905, the movie opens with a carnival magician named Oz (James Franco) failing to impress an audience full of Kansas rubes. Sure, his put-upon assistant Frank (Zach Braff) is great with ominous, off-stage sound effects and effectively packing the explosive black powder, but neither man is prepared for the little girl in a wheelchair (Joey King) who asks Oz to make her walk. Back in his tent, he's confronted by Annie (Michelle Williams), the head-over-heels local with whom he'd fooled around during his last trip through the sticks. Just as he's letting her down gently, a Strong Man (Tim Holmes) bursts in, upset about Oz having made something disappear into his wife.

Wouldn't you know it? All of this drama unfolds as a tornado rips through the countryside. Oz steals a hot air balloon to avoid a beating, and winds up getting transported to a magical land that happens to share his name. There, he meets the lovely Theodora (Mila Kunis), a self-proclaimed witch who believes Oz to be the savior of her land--

My God. I just realized something: Oz The Great and Powerful is a (more-or-less) family-friendly remake of Raimi's Army of Darkness. I mean, it's the exact...same...movie.

Holy shit.

Editor's Note: Please excuse me while I re-set my brain.





How did I not pick up on this sooner? The template is just about perfect: Oz is Ash, the stranger in a strange land who is called upon by the locals to fulfill a prophecy and rid the world of evil. He falls in love (or at least into the hay) with a local girl who eventually becomes (Spoiler for anyone who's not seen either film) a twisted, vengeful witch. When the people who trust him most realize he's a fraud, they turn against him, and it's only by digging deep to find some courage and nobility (not to mention an inter-dimensional ride home) that he rallies the good people to war against the forces of darkness.

From the battle prep that involves our reluctant protagonist bringing his era's technology to a primitive civilization; to the smirking sexism that would be inexcusable if it weren't so flamboyantly uncool; to the fact that Bruce Campbell appears in the fucking movie--it's no wonder Raimi wanted to jump aboard this thing.

Granted, there are a few differences between Oz and Army, most notably a couple of really strong female leads. Surprisingly, Kunis is not one of them. In fact, the moment she (Seriously, turn back if you haven't seen this movie) transforms into the Wicked Witch of the West, this typically solid actress becomes a more annoying cartoon than the one she voices on Family Guy. Everything about her, from makeup to motive to a performance straight out of Batman & Robin's deleted scenes is a Razzie-worthy embarrassment. Rachel Weisz, who plays Theodora's evil sister, Evanora, fares a bit better--mostly because she takes a back seat to the villainy half-way through the picture.

No, the leads I'm referring to are Williams and King (who also play residents of Oz: Glinda The Good Witch and China Girl, respectively). Their main role is to help Oz become less of a douchebag by giving him something to care about other than himself. Williams balances the goody-two-shoes optimism of "classic" Glinda with a determination that keeps her from being a doormat. And King's vocal performance as a broken China Doll who sees Oz as a father figure gives the film its bright, beating, emotional center. Kudos, too, to the CGI masters who made this completely digital character into as tangible a cast member as her flesh-and-blood co-stars.

Earlier, I mentioned that the Disney brand was all over this movie, and that it's a problem. While I'm glad the studio put up the budget to make Oz look and feel like the transportive wonderland it deserves to be (unlike the gaudy, chaotic garbage that was its previous such effort, Alice in Wonderland), it's easy to see the influence of studio executives who prefer length and neat visuals to great storytelling (you know, the hallmark that makes films like Fleming's Oz a classic). The sassy talking monkey (also voiced by Braff); the multiple, drawn-out action scenes that stop the story dead as surely as the musical numbers in latter-season episodes of Glee; and unimaginative 3D effects that define what most audiences can't stand about 3D effects--these all contribute to an uneven flow that keeps this Oz from being wholly enjoyable.

And that's a shame. Strip out the flat jokes and allegedly crowd-pleasing spectacle (not all of the spectacle, just the stuff that makes it reeeally difficult to not check the time), and you're left with an unexpectedly cool, unexpectedly adult version of Oz. This is just the kind of film that could use a solid, polished-edges sequel--which it kind of already has. But not really.

Note: I've read complaints about the overt sexism of Franco's character in the film, and the fact that he's still kind of lecherous at the end. Honestly, what's wrong with that? Remember, Oz came of age in a time and place when women couldn't vote and were seen as little more than baby-making machines. Plus, he's a carnival magician and not a Harvard Gender Studies professor. Short of a magical spell, it takes time and experience for a cretin to stop being a cretin, and a step in the right direction is better than ten steps in the wrong one.

*In today's marketplace, flak doesn't necessarily translate into poor ticket sales: this film is a worldwide monster. And for as much as Disney need to distance themselves from the WB version, they're counting on brand recognition to put asses in seats--seats which cost two to three times the average to sit in, thanks to 3D and IMAX 3D presentations.

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