FILM REVIEW: Oz The Great And Powerful

Mama Fisi
Mama Fisi's picture

I was never a big "Wizard of Oz" fan, much less a geek. I'd seen the 1939 movie a couple of times, and the talking apple trees still freak me out. A couple of years ago, I set out to fill a gap in my knowledge by reading the original "Oz" series, by L. Frank Baum, but I didn't get very far because the stories were of variable quality. I tried to read "Wicked" and was totally turned off by the grotesquely revisionist fan-fiction that took a sweet kiddie story and macerated it, spit on it, and buried it in a vat of poo.

So I'm not what you'd call an Ozomaniac. But from the moment I saw the trailer for "Oz, The Great And Powerful," I was desperate to see this film. I'll confess I was a bit nervous as I waited for the lights to go down, because it would be so easy to be disappointed--after all, Hollywood has been going for the "re-imagining" angle for years now, which usually means "let's trash this beloved old chestnut." The only solace was that this was produced by Disney, so I figured it couldn't be too bad...

My husband and I opted to see it in 3D, just for the experience--we'd never gone to a 3D picture before--but except for the brilliantly inventive title sequence, you would miss nothing by seeing it in a regular theatre, and save a couple of bucks by doing so.

I don't want to give away any spoilers--you can read Wikipedia for those--but I'll say this: I came out of the theatre feeling a happiness I haven't felt in years of movie-going. This film is beautiful to look at, creative, well-written, and has a message that will make you feel good. The actors do a fantastic job bringing their characters to life, and the screenplay is not only faithful to the themes and spirit of the original books, but is an affectionate, if not loving, tribute as well. And even though MGM, who still owns the rights to the 1939 film, refused to let Disney copy any of the actual visuals from that film, this movie comes so close to replicating the look and feel of the original that it could stand as a nearly seamless prequel, despite the three-quarters of a century that lies between them.

That said, I would hesitate to bring small children to see it--not only are many of the action scenes very scary and intense, but the sexual politics between the witches and the Wizard are designed for a more mature audience.

This is decidedly not a kiddie film.

It's infused with much humor, though, and follows the adventures of Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs, "Oz" Diggs for short, a carnival magician constantly on the make, who gets swept away in his balloon while escaping from an angry strongman whose girlfriend Oscar had wooed. The Kansas sequences, as in the 1939 "Wizard" film, are rendered in black and white, which melts into gorgeously saturated color when, after begging God to spare his life by promising to be a better man, Oscar drifts into the Land of Oz, eventually crashing into a lake.

He soon meets a beautiful young woman in a fetching red ensemble who introduces herself as Theodora. She asks Oscar if he is the great and powerful Wizard prophesied by the murdered late King to free the land from the influence of the Wicked Witch. Oscar finds it expedient to play along, and Theodora brings him to the Emerald City to meet her sister, Evanora, who is acting as Regent. Evanora dresses in green and black and right from the start, drips the sort of polite malice that says "Wicked Witch."

But they tell Oscar that the real Wicked Witch lives in the Dark Forest, and if he wants to become King and obtain the literal mountain of gold that he would thereby be entitled to, he has to go kill her by taking her wand and breaking it.

Oscar is not exactly a brave fellow, but his greed overcomes his fear, and he agrees to go, taking with him Finley, the winged monkey Oscar had earlier rescued from a lion by use of some flash powder. (The Lion was never the same afterwards...) Fortunately for Oscar, he has with him his magician's coat and valise, which are loaded with his stage tricks. These help him convince the Ozians that he is, in fact, a Wizard.

Along the way, Finley and Oscar come upon China Town, a village where everything--including the people--is made of pottery. It has been ruined, and the sole survivor is a young China Doll, whose legs have been broken off. Oscar manages to mend them with some glue from his bag, and China Doll insists on coming with them.

Now, if I go any further, I'll ruin all the delightful plot twists for you. Suffice it to say that things--and people--aren't always what they seem in the Land of Oz, and the story is constructed in such a way that it leads you toward one conclusion, then throws a completely different turn at you. I was caught off-guard a number of times, but then, I'm just a simple country girl.

And this is a film that I feel has to be viewed at least twice, and best seen on a big screen, just to catch all the details. The motif of rainbows appears numerous times, beginning with the one Oscar flies over upon entering Oz. There are lots of little visual tributes, and lots of details which foreshadow later events. The special effects enhance the plot rather than drive it.

That said, there are a few sequences that I could do without, and most of them related to the 3D scenes. They don't really add anything to the actual story, and they quite literally jump out at you. My husband observed that the film "looks like a pop-up book," and I'm not sure whether that was the effect the producers were going for, or if that's the state of the art for 3D films. If so, it's really kind of distracting, and again, doesn't add much.

The CGI animation, however, is really terrific. The China Doll in particular goes into the Uncanny Valley of realism--I couldn't tell if she was CGI or an actual puppet (which, I found out later, she often was.) The hummingbird-peacock-fish birds and the jewelled flowers are gorgeous and creative. The flying baboons...well, if the flying monkeys gave our grandparents' generation nightmares, then the flying baboons will traumatize a whole new generation of kids (Dear, bring me another espresso, please...!)

I will say that it helps a lot if you've seen "The Wizard of Oz," and helps more if you've read the books. I don't know how well someone who's totally unfamiliar with the "Oz" stories will enjoy this film. I should hope the plot would be strong enough to entertain anyone.

Early in the film, Oscar tells one of his lady friends, "I don't want to be a good man...I want to be a *great* one!" In the end, Oscar overcomes his veniality, and discovers that, deep down, he's truly a great and powerful man--as well as a *good* one. He's almost good in spite of himself, you could say. His battle against the witches is some of the most thrilling stuff I've seen, mainly because it's based in his carnival illusionist sleight-of-hand rather than in the "real magic" that the witches possess. I was cheering for him, because this was one of those rare occasions where being a sneaky, underhanded fraud really worked to the advantage of the good guys. Oscar's not so much an anti-hero as a hero who just hasn't realized his potential yet.

Will Conservatives like this picture? I think so--Oscar unabashedly begs God to spare his life, and then vows "Thank you! You won't regret it!" when he finds himself safe in Oz. More importantly, he goes about trying to fulfil his promise to be a better man...albeit with some lapses and bumps along the way, one of which creates a lot of trouble for everyone. He's a lovable rascal with a glint in his eye, whose heart turns out to be in the right place, and who uses his tricks for the good of the people, freeing them from the tyranny of the witches.

I can't recommend this film highly enough.