Oz the Great and Powerful


James Franco tries to hitch a ride with his China Girl. Ooh baby, just you shut your mouth...

James Franco tries to hitch a ride with his China Girl. Ooh baby, just you shut your mouth…

(2013) Fantasy (Disney) James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox, Stephen R. Hart Abigail Spencer, Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi, Tim Holmes, Toni Wynne, Rob Crites, William Dick, Gene Jones, Channing Pierce. Directed by Sam Raimi

Belief is a powerful thing. It can change the course of history, make the impossible possible. It can turn fear into strength. It can make leaders of the most unlikely of men.

Oscar – but his friends call him Oz (Franco) – is a somewhat adept carnie magician in sepia-toned Kansas in 1905. He yearns for greatness but is stuck in this Podunk circus that seems destined to kill all his hopes and dreams. His assistant Frank (Braff) is barely competent and the ladies he gets to sample his charms are shall we say less than discreet. The one girl he does want (Williams) has been asked to marry John Gale, a steadfast Kansas farmer. And to make things worse the Circus strongman (Holmes) has discovered that one of Oscar’s conquests is his own wife (Wynne) and so he wants to use Oz’s head as a squeeze box.

Oz gets away in a hot air balloon with only his top hat and satchel as possessions but unfortunately he gets sucked into a tornado and ends up in the brightly colored land of Oz. There he meets Theodora (Kunis), a beautiful young witch who develops quite the crush on Oz. Oz unleashes his usual bag of tricks on her, particular when he discovers the prophecy that someone with the same name as the land would descend from the sky, save the land from a wicked witch and become king of Oz. The two head back to the Emerald City where Oz meets Evanora (Weisz), who is Theodora’s sister and regent of Oz since their father was poisoned.

There is a wicked witch for Oz to kill however and he goes off to do just that with his trusted flying monkey valet Finley (voiced by Braff) at his side. Along the way they run into a porcelain village that has been decimated by the wicked witch’s flying baboons. The only survivor is a little china girl (King) whose legs have been shattered. Oz, with a trusty bottle of glue, puts her right as rain and the grateful girl accompanies the two on their quest.

When they meet Glinda (Williams) again who introduces them to the Quadlings, the Tinkers and the Munchkins, Oz realizes that the task at hand is much more complicated and dangerous than he first thought and that he has little more than pluck on his side. His entire life he has been searching for greatness but now it appears that he must die in order to achieve it.

A lot of people are going to make the mistake of comparing this to The Wizard of Oz, among them professional critics who should know better. If you go into this movie thinking that this is going to be just as magical and just as timeless, you’re going to walk out disappointed. Raimi wisely chooses to pay homage to the classic rather than aping it. Sure there are some similarities – the sepia-toned Kansas, the colorful Oz, the singing and dancing Munchkins, a cowardly lion (blink and you’ll miss him) and an Art Deco Emerald City.

The 1939 version of the film was always a woman’s movie – Dorothy versus the Wicked Witch. The men in the movie were really little more than comic relief and that was okay. In some ways that’s true here as well – while Oz is at the center of the action and is the erstwhile hero, this movie is all about the witches with a little help from a China Girl.

Franco as Oz is kind of an odd choice. Sure, Franco projects that con man cockiness with an aw shucks grin that has just the right touch of nasty to it. He is just smarmy enough to be in character but enough to get on my nerves from time to time. This is supposed to be a prequel to Wizard and for me, I had trouble connecting the dots from Franco’s Oscar to the grouchy old fraud that Frank Morgan played.

The witches are all three excellent actresses at or near the top of their game. Weisz makes a memorable Evanora, one whose depths are darker than you might imagine. A character like this gives Weisz a chance to really cut loose and she does, although never going over-the-top which a lesser actress might just do.

Kunis is turning into a star in her own right. I’m not sure this is the role to advance her career any but at least it doesn’t do her any harm. She has the widest range to cover and she does it pretty well although not notably. She neither distinguishes herself nor disgraces herself other than to remind us how gorgeous her face is in her early scenes with Franco.

Williams is often overlooked when discussions about Hollywood’s best actresses ensue but believe me, she is right up there among the very best. She has the least meaty role of the three sisters but  shines nevertheless. In many ways she had the most difficult task but she wound up shining, commendable considering who she was acting with in the movie.

There is a whole lot of eye candy here, most of it of the CGI variety. Most of it is pretty nifty but there are a few scenes in which the CGI green screen effect is a bit clunky, surprisingly so. The surprise is because they got the 3D down so well which is fairly rare. It actually enhances the movie. I know, notify the paramedics because there are gonna be coronaries over it – but facts are facts.

This is no Wizard of Oz, it’s true. This isn’t timeless, there’s no “Over the Rainbow” and the movie doesn’t have that same magic that the 1939 classic had. Nevertheless that doesn’t mean it can’t be solidly entertaining in its own right and in all truthfulness I’m a sucker for Oz and getting a chance to go back there again is an irresistible lure. It brings back the kid in me and at my advanced age that’s a welcome and impressive feat of prestidigitation of its own.

REASONS TO GO: Great performances throughout. Really good chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence.

REASONS TO STAY: Keeps you a little too off-balance in places. Too Hollywood an ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some images of flying baboons and witchery that may be too scary for the tiniest of tots. There is some mild cursing but unlikely that your children haven’t heard it before.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Baum Brothers circus that Oscar performs in, as well as the name of his assistant Frank were both tributes to L. Frank Baum, creator of Oz.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100; critics were all over the board with this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alice in Wonderland

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: 56 Up

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The Wizard of Oz


We're off to see the Wizard!

We’re off to see the Wizard!

(1939) Musical (MGM) Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin, Pat Walsh, Clara Blandick, The Singer Midgets, Dorothy Barrett, Amelia Batchelor, Charles Becker, Buster Brodie. Directed by Victor Fleming

Most movies are a product of their times. Most people can without knowing when the film was made have a pretty good idea of approximately when it was filmed just by looking at the costumes and hairstyles, listening to the dialogue and so on. Some movies though, transcend the times and become classics. These movies will be around much longer than you and I will; long after we’ve shuffled this mortal coil, audiences will still be enjoying them.

The Wizard of Oz is one such classic. Even though few of us were around when it was released back in 1939 most of us have childhood memories revolving around the movie thanks to its annual appearance on broadcast TV in the 60s through the 90s and of course it’s availability now on home video. Even today when I watch the movie I still feel the same wonder I did when I first saw it on television as a young boy.

Need I tell you the plot? Everyone knows that young Dorothy Gale (Garland) and her beloved dog Toto are transported from dull and sepia-toned Kansas by a twister (or tornado if you prefer) to the colorful and magical land of Oz. Her arrival accidentally ends the life of the Wicked Witch of the East, whose magical ruby slippers are placed on Dorothy’s feet by Glinda (Burke) the Good Witch of the North which protects her from the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton).

Getting Dorothy home won’t be easy so Glinda sends her down the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City where Oz (Morgan), the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz could help her. Along the way she meets up with the Scarecrow (Bolger), the Tin Man (Haley) and the Cowardly Lion (Lahr) who become fast friends with Dorothy. The Wizard sends them on a quest to fetch the broom of the Wicked Witch to prove their worth but how will these friends, who need brains (the Scarecrow), a heart (the Tin Man) and courage (the Lion) be able to help Dorothy – who just wants to go home – against a powerful and evil sorceress?

Along with Gone With the Wind this may be the most beloved film ever made. It is Da Queen’s all-time favorite so it gets a regular viewing in our household. We even went and saw it on the big screen a couple of years ago to mark its 70th anniversary. I will say that if ever a revival house shows it or if it makes an appearance for a special event at your local cinema, you should by all means try and see it on the big screen – it makes a huge difference.

Even if the only place you ever see it is on your TV or computer screen it is well worth a look. It is a thing of brilliance, from the contrast of the drum and sepia-toned Kansas sequences (which includes the “Over the Rainbow” musical number, perhaps the best ever set to film) with the colorful and whimsical Oz sequences. For most of the actors who would appear in the movie, it would be a career-defining moment.

A lot of the films from this era are extremely dated and don’t hold up to modern standards but this isn’t one of those. Although the special effects are primitive by our standards there is still a magic here that goes beyond CGI. Part of it is simply that part of your inner child who loves to play “make believe” that this movie speaks to but part of it is simply that great care was taken to make this fun and lovely to look at from every angle. Sure, the art deco Emerald City looks like Miami’s South Beach on crack but that’s half the joy.

Garland was never better than she was here, a performance of lovely simplicity that made her utterly believable. When she sings “Over the Rainbow” it is with such yearning that your heart almost breaks – and empathizes. Haven’t we all wanted to go over the rainbow in our darkest moments?

Lahr, one of the most popular comedians of the era, nearly steals the show as the Cowardly Lion. He’s kind of like the soldier from Brooklyn who lightened up the wartime flicks that would come in the intervening years, and his delivery of the Lion’s lines (say that real fast if you dare) is iconic to the point that most of us often do our own impressions of it (go ahead and deny it if you can). Overall it is a tribute to friendship and loyalty that resonates with all of us – who hasn’t wanted friends like the Scarecrow and the Tin Man at our backs?

This is the kind of movie that transcends movies. It is what brings families together to watch something so pure that we can all enjoy it without thought of politics, race, religion or just about anything. It’s appeal is so universal that it goes beyond boundaries and lines – it is as popular elsewhere in the world as it is here in America. One cannot hear “We’re off to see the wizard!” without thinking they’re embarking on an adventure of their own.

In short, this is a movie you don’t just like, you come to love it. It’s not a movie you watch or even experience, it becomes part of you. It is why people fall in love with the movies to begin with. My highest rating is 10 out of 10, but this is one of few movies that is above such inane things as ratings. It’s just something special you shouldn’t cheat yourself out of.

WHY RENT THIS: A true classic and a great means of family bonding.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: I don’t know. You don’t like classic movies maybe?

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few scenes that might frighten the very young and very sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Garland wore a corset across her torso so she would appear younger and flat-chested.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 2005 release Collector’s edition (the one in the green case, not the yellow) has a wealth of extras, including Angela Lansbury reading an abridged version of the book complete with original illustrations; an 11-minute featurette on the restoration process and several documentaries on the making of the movie and it’s enduring legacy. There are five silent era versions of the book as well as an animated short from 1933 There’s a 28 minute feature on the life of L. Frank Baum, author of the beloved book that started it all and there are some stills and promotional materials (including a souvenir program from the Hollywood premiere in 1939). Believe it or not, the 2009 70th Anniversary Blu-Ray has all that and even more – a 52-page hardcover book about the making and marketing of The Wizard of Oz, a wrist watch, a sing-along track, a 1992 made-for-TV movie called The Dreamer of Oz starring the late John Ritter as Baum, a radio broadcast in which Garland reprised her role as Dorothy Gale and on its own double-sided disc a six hour documentary on the history of MGM. It’s pricey but worth the added expense for the Oz junkie in your family.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.7M on a $2.8M production budget; in 1939 dollars that’s a major blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone With the Wind

FINAL RATING: 11/10

NEXT: Oz the Great and Powerful