[10 June 2013]
Oz the Great and Powerful‘s origins are slightly ambiguous. It isn’t exactly a book adaptation. Baum wrote at least 14 books in his Oz series, and even after his exit, other authors took up Baum’s mantle. While Oz the Great and Powerful draws from details and characters in the books, it’s not an adaptation of any plot or combination of plots from the series, like Walter Murch’s Return to Oz was in 1985.
Nor is it a straight prequel to the MGM’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz movie. It hews extremely close, with a visual style that’s of a piece with that world. The Wicked Witch bears the same trademark green skin, the Emerald City has those familiar glowing skyscrapers reaching into the sky, and the Yellow Brick Road winds its way through the land. But Oz the Great and Powerful didn’t have the rights to some of that movie’s other signatures—the ruby slippers, for example, which are entirely absent from Oz the Great and Powerful. (If you’re interested in Oz rights, a Blu-ray feature details Walt Disney’s constant struggle with the property and how best to adapt it.) You can tell the movie was striving for continuity, but not everything lines up exactly.
Instead, the not-book-adaptation, not-movie-prequel has a much harder job at the start. It has to return to a beloved fantasy land, staying true to both Baum’s words and Victor Fleming’s vision while expanding both of them. It has to not only tell the story of how Oz, the wizard (James Franco), goes from a Kansas huckster magician to a Great Man (“Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison all mixed into one”), but it also has to fill in the backstories of all of Oz’s witches, including Glinda (Michelle Williams), Theodora (Mila Kunis), and Evanora (Rachel Weisz)—one of whom turns out to be the infamous Wicked Witch of the West. And it has to do it all on an epic scale, traveling through more than 30 sets (so says a featurette on production design); co-mingling live action and CG, animation and marionettes; and wrapping the whole thing in a unified turn-of-the-century stagecraft-meets-Hollywood-studio-glamour aesthetic. The only thing they didn’t throw at the production was musical numbers (though Danny Elfman does add a nice score).
It’s an extremely tall order, and it’s a shame that Sam Raimi didn’t record a commentary track to explain how he negotiated it all. The closest we get is a roughly 20-minute featurette, “My Journey to Oz”, directed by James Franco. In it, Franco doesn’t detail his own transformation into the Wizard so much as he interviews his director and many of his co-stars. His interviews aren’t very deep—his questions are more of the “what drew you to this project?” variety—and they look like they’re all processed through various Instagram filters, but they do give an overview of the goings-on behind-the-scenes.
Instead of hearing in-depth about the nuances of a new Oz film from Raimi himself, we can marvel about how much Raimi-ness he was able to add to such an iconic, established world. The twister that removes Oz from Kansas, with its speediness and slapstick, is quite possibly the Raimi-est act of severe weather ever brought to screen. Even Oz himself, at times, resembles Ash from the Evil Dead series—a stance of confident buffoonery described as “Charlie Chaplin meets Clark Cable”—that Franco doesn’t quite nail, but does well enough. (This is most evident in the character’s insistence on calling Glinda by the incorrect name of Wanda.)
Most of all, even though the movie is first and foremost an adventure story pitched a kids, Raimi’s sense of humor shines through. When Oz takes to the road with his sidekicks—a porcelain girl called China Girl (Joey King) and a flying monkey who owes him a life debt (Zach Braff)—they form a a comedic team stronger than any scarecrow, lion, or tin man.
If only Raimi had the chance to develop everything more fully. Oz’s story gets the full attention it deserves, and you can trace his journey from petty criminal to “wizard enough” to selflessness. If only the witches were given equal weight. With less time devoted to their adventures, the descent of one of their numbers from mildly disgruntled witch to entirely evil Wicked Witch is lightning-fast. One hint of a broken heart, and it’s all green skin and flying broomsticks. The quick personality change is almost insulting, giving credence to every guy who shrugs off a failed relationship by saying his girlfriend just went psycho.
There’s also an entire feature devoted to the Wicked Witch makeup, but there’s something off-putting about how blocky and artificial it seems compared to everything else in that world; it doesn’t look like it was created to match the rest of the movie or the 1939 Wicked Witch counterpart. (You can hear Ash’s words again: “Honey, you got real ugly.”)
Perhaps the witches’ plight could’ve been explored better if Oz didn’t have so much ground to cover. Like a James Bond movie, Oz the Great and Powerful travels through too many locations. They’re colorful, beautiful locations, to be sure, but they’re so gorgeous that you’d wish the characters would stick around in one place longer before shuttling off to the next one. Just when Oz emerges from the woods and reaches the Emerald City, he’s told to turn right around and head back to the woods on a witch-hunt. (He doesn’t even get to spend the night.) At one point, Glinda floats them through cotton-candy pink clouds encased in bubbles—bubbles being one of the cheapest tricks in the 3D handbook, and without the 3D the sequence loses what little magic it had.
Still, it’s hard to complain about heading off from one fantastic setpiece to the next. Whenever anyone tells an Oz story, no matter the form, it’s always the Land of Oz that’s the main attraction. From L. Frank Baum to Sam Raimi, the pleasure in an epic Oz tale is knowing that still many, many stories to tell after this one is over.