‘I’ ON CULTURE
Oz the Great and Powerful is a really good movie. Its biggest problem, of course, is that it is not The Wizard of Oz, perhaps the most iconic movie of all time. Some critics have compared this new movie to the early film, and that is unfortunate. How could any movie compete against Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow,” Ray Bolger wishing for a brain and Bert Lahr as king of the forest?
But on its own terms, the new movie works. The kids in the theater actually applauded at the end — a sure sign they thought it was excellent. And, like most movies that encourage children to be in the audience along with the adults, it has a moral message. The message in The Wizard of Oz was “there’s no place like home.” Here it is how moral choices determine whether one is truly good or evil.
Since the filmmakers had to tiptoe around a lot of the early film, the central characters like Dorothy and friends do not appear. The film focuses on Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a not wildly talented carnival magician in 1905 Kansas who tells the girl he is jilting that he wants to be a great man, not a good man. Chased by a jealous boyfriend, he jumps into a hot air balloon, pulled into a tornado (what else would you expect?) and is transported to a new land, one that actually has his nickname, Oz. In a salute to the old movie, the Kansas scenes are in black-and-white on a smaller screen, which expands when the movie moves to vivid color. As expected from Disney, the land of Oz is spectacular.
Oz meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), a naïve young witch, and charms her with the same hackneyed lines he used back in Kansas. He uses a bit of magic, and she is convinced he is a wizard, one predicted by the now-dead king. Soon after he meets her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), the adviser to the king, who has been ruling Oz since his death, while waiting for a talented wizard to appear who would rule.
Overwhelming the magician with the wealth there, she sends him to fight the evil witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams, who also played the jilted girlfriend). Along the way he gathers up two companions, a flying monkey named Finley (voiced by Zach Braff) and a young girl made of porcelain china (voice of Joey King), whose legs have been broken by the forces of the wicked witch when they attacked her town (China Town, of course). He mends her legs using his own “magic” (glue) and she quickly becomes attached to him.
Eventually, he meets up with Glinda and soon learns that things are not nearly as simple as they seemed. He has to make choices, has to decide whether he will simply run away, or risk everything by fighting for good.
The performances are not extraordinary, but they were written to not be demanding. Franco is charming but has too little charisma for the part. We care too little about him; I was rooting for a victory because all the other people were so charming. The witches all had more than a bit of the stereotype in them than needed. The best interaction in the film was between Oscar and the little porcelain girl, one of the more delightful Disney characters. Oh, the dolls that will be sold.
There are many small salutes to the original movie. The circus is the Baum circus (named for L. Frank Baum, who wrote the original Oz series… and there are a lot of books other than the basic one that everyone knows). Several of the Oz characters are repeats from the Kansas scenes: Williams as the jilted girl, King as a young crippled girl, Braff as the magician’s assistant. We also get to see Munchkins along with some of the other Oz peoples, all of whom are delightful. At the end, Oscar, now officially Oz, gives away gifts just as the character did in the first movie.
But judged simply as a movie without comparisons to anything else, this is a charming film. It does slow down at a couple of points, but so did the first film. It also uses a lot of humor, allowing chuckles in between its tension-filled moments. And the relationship between cynical Oscar and the china girl is absolutely charming.
The movie is a must if you have children around. Even without them, it is a nice fun visit to the movies at a time of year when most of the films are not particularly good.