Oz the great, but maybe not so powerful
We’re off on the yellow brick road again, this time with the tale of how a resourceful but ambitiously greedy and deceitful small-time carnival magician became “Oz the Great and Powerful” Wizard of Oz. The DVD, in both standard and high definition versions, is now available in the Island Free Library.
The original “Wizard” film was magical in so many ways, not the least of which were the characters and actors: Judy Garland, as Dorothy, Bert Lahr as the cowardly Lion, Jack Haley as the Tin Man without a heart and Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow without a brain, and of course Toto, Dorothy’s loveable and faithful dog.
This Disney film is the latest in live and animated Oz sequels, including the urbanized 1978 “The Wiz” with Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, based on the L. Frank Baum books. It’s fairly entertaining in a hip way and maybe the best of the lot. Despite all of its very colorful computer generated special effects (the theatrical release is in 3-D and probably the DVD version suffers without it), the original is still the standard and made all the more enjoyable by comparison.
The magician, Oscar Diggs (unexplainably nicknamed Oz, considering he was so named before the story takes place), is lifted in a balloon from his troubles at a small-time Kansas carnival and swept up by a tornado to Oz. This beginning tracks Dorothy’s in the original; it is shown in black and white, with the added touch of having a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio rather than widescreen. Once in the fantastically colored Oz, he meets Theodora, a nice witch at this point, who falls for (is actually seduced by) him. She believes that he is the promised Wizard who is going to rescue Oz, but from what is never explained. We next meet Theodora’s not-so-nice sister Evanora in the fabled Emerald City. Evanora convinces Oscar that he can inherit golden wealth of the Emerald City if he kills the supposedly Wicked Witch Glinda who lives in the Dark Forest.
With only a tinge of guilt, Oscar sets off along the yellow brick road accompanied by a flying monkey Finley that he has tricked into being his servant. Along the way they encounter the unimaginatively named China Girl whose town has been shattered and family killed by a witch.
So how do the characters and the actors that play them compare to their counterparts? There is the Wizard, before and after and he is played amicably enough by James Franco, perhaps with a few too many smirks to be favorably compared with loveable character actor Frank Morgan. Young versions of the three witches in the original are present: Theodora, who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West, convincingly and sympathetically played by Mila Kunis; Evanora, who becomes the Wicked Witch of the East, played menacingly and sexily by Rachel Weisz; and Glinda, who becomes the Good Witch of the East, played sweetly by Michelle Williams. The Munchkins are present but not prominently.
Like the original, some of the characters have counterparts in Kansas: live Glinda, in the form of a girlfriend who Oscar regrettably jilts; animated China Girl in the form of a disappointed girl in wheel chair that the Oscar can’t cure; and animated Finley and in the form of Oscar’s assistant. In the original, the dual characters are explained because Dorothy’s experiences may only be dreams as she lies in coma caused by a tornado and all the characters have counterparts in her real life. Not so for Oscar’s experiences.
There is no Dorothy; and even more sadly, no one like Judy Garland. As a dog lover, I really missed Toto. But the absence of Dorothy makes sense since it is years before she comes along on another tornado. However, I cannot forgive the complete absence of the cowardly Lion, without-a-heart Tin Man and brainless Scarecrow. Too bad — it might have been a braver, more heartfelt and smarter movie with them or at least a reference to them. Their sort of replacements are the animated Finley, the flying monkey; the animated China Girl, the porcelain doll; the Master Tinkerer, fittingly played by veteran Bill Cobbs; and the cantankerous coachman Knuck, cantankerously play by Tony Cox. Of these, China Girl stands out in originality and connects the most emotionally.
Speaking of emotional connection, that’s what missing from this film. The original was a musical, with memorable songs and snappy choreography. Who, above the age of 50, hasn’t wistfully thought about “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or jiggled along with “Off to see the Wizard …” There is a short musical number in Glinda’s town, but that’s it. It’s not a fair comparison because who could top that stuff. But then again, think about the music of Disney’s “Lion King” and “The Little Mermaid.” OK, it’s supposed to be a different movie — and that’s the trouble.
The nice thing about DVDs are the extras, and this one contains a story of the making of this “Oz” and going all the way back to Walt Disney’s dream after releasing “Snow White” in 1937. MGM beat out Disney for the film rights for the original and there were several Disney attempts at sequels, including one involving the Mouseketeers. Perhaps Walt’s inspiration might have helped. But that lack never stopped corporate Hollywood and a sequel is already planned.
Bottom line: It’s a nice family film worth watching on a rainy day. But, if it’s nice, take a walk and look around and enjoy the real land of Oz.