Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Munchkins Are Good... In A Brandy Sauce

Director Sam Raimi has just unveiled Oz The Great And Powerful, casting a look behind the curtain at the man who will one day become the Wizard of Oz. The writer L. Frank Baum created the magical world of Oz over the course of numerous children's books and stories, leaving it as his literary legacy. It's been a long time since I've read his work, and not a great deal of it. And then there's the whole matter of that.... musical.

Yes, I know, it's beloved by millions down through the years, a part of their life experience, and so on and so on. Unfortunately, it's also a musical, one that I've never been able to get through (Judy Garland singing makes root canal surgery seem pleasant to me). So I'm not entirely sure I'm the key audience for a revisiting of Oz.

The story starts out, like the 1939 film, in black and white. We meet Oscar Diggs (James Franco) in 1905 Kansas. He's something of a travelling carnival con man, working with his assistant (Zach Braff) to swindle money by smoke and mirrors, with a particular emphasis on inventions. He also happens to be something of a cad, which requires a quick escape by balloon that gets interrupted by an all too familiar windstorm.

Diggs finds himself in the land of Oz, and as in the 1939 film, the film shifts to bright colours as he arrives in this strange new world. It's a CGI and stage hybrid, something of a drug hallucination kind of world (the argument could be made that Baum was smoking some weed when he wrote anything about Oz, and I'm going to get knocked off by the L. Frank Baum Society for saying that). In short order, Diggs finds himself encountering the residents of this magical realm, including three unusual women: Theodora (Mila Kunis), Glinda (Michelle Williams), and Evanora (Rachel Weisz).

There are other travellers he meets along the way, a flying monkey (yes, one of those) voiced again by Zach Braff, and a china figurine girl who curiously enough is the best rendered CGI effect in the film. Diggs has but his wits and affable charm to get him by as the story leads him towards the Emerald City. This is the Wizard long before he was known as such: a shyster who says he's not quite what everyone thinks he is, but who finds his purpose and a valuable use for his own talents.

The film has strengths and flaws, sometimes mixed all in the same thing. Director Sam Raimi, who has a history of offbeat work and genre bending (this is the same director who took on the first Spider-Man trilogy) chooses to play it safe and be faithful to the world of Oz. Or so it seems to me. Not a lot of personal experience with Oz, but the tone seems to fit in with all things Oz. Instead of tweaking the nose a bit, Raimi stays respectful. (I'd be tempted to just stash a scarecrow being attacked by crows in a field somewhere in the film just as a thumb in the eye, but that's just me). From the point of view of Oz traditionalists, that'll no doubt count as good. I might have liked Raimi, who does have a good record as a director, to spread his wings a bit. Raimi does handle the production well. The special effects, costuming, and production values combine to bring us into a profoundly bizarre world.   

Casting has its up and downs. First, I'll mention that Zach Braff might have been better cast with someone else in the dual role. Something about him seems, well, off putting. Fortunately, this is a supporting character. It's the four leads who are essential to the film. Mila Kunis is perhaps a bit understated in the role of Theodora. I'm not all that familiar with her previous body of work. Understated is an issue for Michelle Williams, who has a growing impressive record as an actress. She seems here to be subdued, to not quite have the energy you might expect out of the character.

Rachel Weisz as Evanora is well done. She's one of my favourite actresses, and she brings a spirit and dynamic to the role that I think works very well. James Franco has his ups and downs in the role, and it's largely because of the character. Oscar Diggs, in going from the con man to a man with a purpose, has to shift from the con artist to something more resolute. Franco can play the con man very well; his smirk is probably one of the most effective around among the acting world. And while he can certainly convey determination (think of his turn in the magnificent 127 Hours), he's not quite right for conveying the essence of sincerity.

The film has its ups and downs. Some plotholes, the odd special effect (though considering Oz is pretty much a drug trip anyway) come to mind. The last act of the film brings the film home though, and makes it worthwhile. And on top of all that? Well, there's only a few bars of singing, so we're mercifully spared an atrocity of singing and dancing. No one's singing at the top of their lungs about rainbows and Auntie Em. We'd have to call in a horde of flying monkeys if they thought that was a good idea.


  1. Hahaha, you've successfully put me off to ever even contemplating of going to see this movie. :-) Great post though.

  2. Now I'm really curious as to what takes place in that last act. Dorothy arrives?

    Very well done. I hadn't planned to see the movie, but now I need to know!

  3. Wow William. Tell us how you really feel. Thank goodness you enjoyed PH. Love Baum and singing scarecrows but that's just me and I live in the desert.

  4. Yikes! I'm glad Kylie's dad took her to see it so I didn't end up seeing it with her.

  5. Your review's so honest I want to see the movie!

  6. It depends on what you mean by Oz traditionalists. Fans of the original books, like me, were no doubt a little disappointed that there were no shout-outs to the original material, with the exception of the China town that appeared in the first book. (There was even a later book called "How the Wizard Came to Oz"!

    But most of us liked both the books and the MGM movie as completely different universes, and for those people, any Oz is better than no Oz. Just the same, I agree this film was a bit uneven ... good, but not great.

  7. I totally am a sucker for the Judy Garland film with songs and especially good ol Lion's "Stick em up" so I may just be off to see the wizard and find the yellow brick road to my nearest cinema or maybe just get this on DVD as there's no place like home! :-) take care

  8. Hmmm, I've heard good reviews for it. Oh, well. I won't be spending money on it anyway.

    Good review, William, and I am one of "those" people who do like to watch the original (but agree about the singing--just not a fan of musicals) because I did as a kid.

  9. Interesting review. Without doubt, I will be happiest if I stick with the Judy Garland version.

  10. @Lucy: thank you!

    @Norma: something entirely different...

    @Eve: Scarecrows make for good Batman villains.

    @Krisztina: avoiding all things Oz?

    @Mark: I really do have to read more of the Oz material...

    @Old Kitty: just don't trust the munchkins.

    @Lorelei: it's getting some mixed reviews this side of the border.

    @Lynn: you may have it, by all means, with my compliments!

  11. Great post! You've piqued my interest in this movie now!

  12. The original is one of my favourite movies of all time, but you do have to like musicals. I am apprehensive about a revisit, but I am actually looking forward to checking this one out. I think the more vivid aspects of filming now will make the Emerald City look magnificent.

  13. I hadn't planned on watching this, but your (very nicely written) review has got me very intrigued! I quite agree that Franco has one of the best smirks around and Weisz is great:)

  14. Awesome review! I hadn't planned on seeing this. Something about a Wizard of Oz prequel just seems off to me. I did, however, enjoy the play Wicked. I'd probably check out this one just for the eye candy. The world in the pics look amazing.

  15. I'm not fond of Judy Garland but I do love musicals. And I absolutely loved The Wizard of Oz movie. I still watch it when it comes on TV. (Never read the book so I can't compare them.) I won't see Oz TGAP at the theater, but I'll certainly get the DVD or streaming version.

    Can't wait despite your pan! But that's okay. Some people don't like musicals so I'll take that into consideration. You're forgiven for making fun of it!

  16. The Munchkin Society would like to have a word with you...

  17. No one hate me, but I wasn't big on the Wizard of Oz to begin with. Dorothy kind of annoyed me. *Going to hide now.*

  18. I've seen the Wizard of Oz about 20 times and I still love it. I'll probably go see this movie too even though I can't stand James Franco as a person.

  19. @Nas: thank you!

    @Carla: the Emerald City worked for me this time out...

    @Lulu: Rachel Weisz is one of my favourite actresses, so I'll see her in just about anything.

    @Auden: thank you!

    @Cheryl: ah, that's one forgiven act! A million to go...

    @Scarlett and James: they'll have to get in line.

    @Kelly: we are in complete agreement!

    @Deb: I can see him having that effect.


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