CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013)
By Michael Arruda & L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: A circus, filmed in black and white. L.L. SOARES, dressed in a magician’s costume, stands on a stage in front of a sparse crowd.)
L.L. SOARES: For my next astonishing trick, I’ll need a volunteer from the audience. You, there! The silly-looking gentleman standing in the back.
(Spotlight lands on MICHAEL ARRUDA, standing in back of audience.)
MICHAEL ARRUDA: Are you talking to me? (points to his chest.)
LS (under his breath): Yeah, you, you Travis Bickle wannabe. (louder to audience) Yes, young man. Come up here. Don’t be afraid.
(MA approaches stage to mild applause.)
LS: For this amazing feat of magic, I shall require the services of my magic wand. (Lifts magic wand, dripping with blood.)
MA (now standing next to LS): Are you sure that’s not your magic knife? You haven’t been drinking and mixed them up again, have you?
LS: Silence! For this trick, I shall make him disappear. Hocus frigging Pocus! (taps MA on the shoulder with bloody wand. There is a great puff of white smoke, and when it clears, MA has disappeared.)
I like this gig!
(MA finds himself back in the audience)
MA: Not so fast! (Rushes back on stage). We have a movie to review, and you’re not getting rid of me so easily!
(MA leaps at LS, the two wrestle, and fall out a back door onto an incredibly colorful path, as the scene is now in bright Technicolor. They are on a hill, standing on a yellow brick road, looking down at the glittering Emerald City of Oz.)
MA: We’re not in Kansas anymore.
LS: When the hell were we ever in Kansas?
MA: It’s a figure of speech.
Well, now that we’re here in Oz, let’s review today’s movie, OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013) Disney’s prequel to the classic THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939).
The story opens in a scene similar to the one we just left. Young magician and con-man Oscar Diggs (James Franco), who goes by “Oz” for short, is struggling to make ends meet with his sideshow magic act.
LS: I have no idea if the Wizard has a regular name in L. Frank Baum’s OZ books, but do you think the fact that Franco’s character’s name is Oscar is a joke because he hosted the Oscars one year with Anne Hathaway? I remember they were pretty much pilloried for that gig.
MA: Who cares?
He’s helped by his assistant Frank (Zach Braff) and by clueless women who he charms and lies his way into getting them to be part of the act on stage. When one such woman, Annie (Michelle Williams), tells him that someone has asked her to marry him, she professes her love for Oscar, but he tells her to go ahead and get married because he’s not a good man. Their conversation is interrupted by the circus strong man, who is angry at Oscar for giving a gift to his woman—a music box, to be precise, which we learn Oscar gives to every woman he is romantically interested in— and so Oscar leaps into a hot air balloon and flees his former life, only to be caught up in a massive tornado which propels him of course to the Land of Oz.
LS: That’s the same way Dorothy got to Oz in the original movie! Hey, it was funny how there’s a scene with Franco, Williams and Braff, and I realized, there’s a whole new generation of actors whose careers started in television. Franco was on the short-lived, but revered cult TV show FREAKS AND GEEKS (which only lasted one season, from 1999 to 2000, yet almost everyone from that show has gone on to a bigger career, including Seth Rogan and Jason Segel); Williams, of course, became famous on DAWSON’S CREEK (1998 – 2003); and Braff first became a familiar face on SCRUBS (2001 – 2010). It was like a TV reunion! And yet, all three are really good here in a theatrical movie!
MA: I agree. And I remember liking Braff a lot on SCRUBS.
In Oz, Oscar meets Theodora the Good Witch (Mila Kunis), who tells him of the prophecy that a wizard named Oz would arrive from the sky to free their people from the wicked witch of the land.
LS: And Kunis’s big break was also on television, on THAT ‘70S SHOW (1998 – 2006). Hey, don’t forget the part of the prophecy that says the wizard will have the same name as the land of Oz. I thought that was kind of goofy, but funny, too.
MA: Not to mention unbelievable, but since this is a fantasy, I let it slide.
Theodora falls for Oscar immediately and is convinced that he is the wizard from the prophecy, and that he will become king and she’ll be his queen. She brings him to the Emerald City where she introduces him to her sister, another witch, Evanora (Rachel Weisz).
LS: Finally, someone who didn’t start their career on television! Well, American television. Weisz began her career in television in England, but became familiar to American audiences in movies like THE MUMMY (1999). I also thought she was kind of amazing in Neil LeBute’s 2003 film, THE SHAPE OF THINGS.
MA: On their way to the city, they meet up with and befriend a talking flying monkey, Finley (voiced by Zach Braff). Oscar saves Finley from the clutches of a lion, and as result, Finley promises to be his faithful servant for life.
LS: Was it just me, or was Finley one of the best-looking CGI creations we have seen in a long time? The level of detail, and his facial expressions, were just terrific.
MA: No, it’s not just you. I thought the same the thing, and I also thought the little China Doll was just as good. Excellent special effects here!
The witch sisters show Oscar an enormous “treasure room” full of gold which will all be his once he has defeated the wicked witch, and all he needs do to accomplish this task is to destroy her magic wand. Unable to resist the temptation of all that wealth, Oscar agrees to the task and sets out along with Finley to destroy the wicked witch. Along the way, they rescue and repair a broken talking China doll (voiced by Joey King) who cries her way into becoming part of their team.
LS: Yeah, China is another amazing CGI creation. At least the effects in this movie are incredibly well done.
MA: Once in the dark forest, they attempt to destroy the wicked witch, but it turns out that this witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams), isn’t wicked at all, but a good witch. The true wicked witch, according to Glinda, is really Evanora.
LS: Hey, wait a minute. We’ve been walking along as we talked, and we’re in a dark forest now as well.
MA: Funny how that happened.
LS: Hmmm, we’re surrounded by apple trees. I could go for an apple right about now.
(LS picks an apple off a tree, and the tree turns around and slaps him with one of its branches)
TREE: Do I go around picking things off you?
LS: One of those cool talking trees from THE WIZARD OF OZ!
TREE: I asked you a question.
MA: Sorry. We don’t usually talk to trees. And where we come from, apples are food.
TREE: Food! How barbaric! I oughta knock your block off.
LS: Hey, how come you trees weren’t in OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL. I missed you guys when Oscar goes into the dark forest this time.
MA: I never liked those trees, and so I’m glad they weren’t in this movie. (An apple plunks him on the head.)
TREE: Maybe we were saplings back then and weren’t big enough to talk. How the hell do I know? Now give that apple back.
(LS hands over the apple he picked, and the TREE takes it)
TREE: Now hurry on off if you know what’s good for you!
LS: Okay, okay.
(LS and MA continue walking along the road)
MA: Anyway, Glinda introduces Oscar to the oppressed people of Oz and tells him that it’s up to him to free her people from the clutches of Evanora, and her unsuspecting sister Theodora, who it turns out, is about to undergo a dramatic personality shift, to say the least.
LS: Yeah, I have to admit, I didn’t see that coming. So let’s not spoil it further.
MA: OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL gets off to a slow and rather clunky start but ultimately improves to the point where it becomes a movie that I —surprisingly—- really liked a lot.
LS: I didn’t think the beginning was clunky at all.
MA: Well, not the very beginning, the black and white sequence where we see Oscar working as a sideshow magician with his assistant Frank, which I liked. These scenes were humorous and shot in the tradition of the original movie, THE WIZARD OF OZ. They also set the stage for the transformation to the colorful 3D extravaganza known as Oz.
LS: I also noticed that, during the black and white scenes, the screen we see is smaller. But when gets to Oz, it is not only more colorful, but the screen expands to widescreen perspective. A clever trick!
MA: But it’s in the early moments in Oz that I thought the film faltered. I did not enjoy the early scenes between Oscar and Theodora. I found Theodora to be incredibly naïve and as a result not very believable.
LS: There aren’t naïve people in real life? And wouldn’t it make sense if she never before saw a man fall out of the sky? It’s not something we see every day. And there is the prophecy!
MA: She falls in love with him in less than a minute. Naïve.
I also thought the dialogue here, especially Theodora’s, was particularly bad, and the scenes inside the castle where Oscar meets Theodora’s sister Evanora aren’t much better.
Things pick up once Oscar sets out to destroy the wicked witch, along with his faithful monkey Finley and the little China Girl, two CGI creations who not only look terrific, but who are also two of the better characters in the movie. They’re better than most of the “real” people here.
LS: I’ll agree with you on that point.
MA: And then things really get moving once they confront Glinda and we learn that she’s not really a wicked witch. When she explains to Oscar what his true mission must be, and he accepts, the movie takes on an entirely different and more rewarding emotional feel. The scenes where Oscar must lead the various groups of Oz inhabitants, farmers, tinkers, and of course Munchkins, are light, funny, and ultimately gratifying.
LS: I actually had a mixed reaction to the scene where we first meet the Munchkins. They begin to sing, and Oscar discourages them. In a way it’s funny, and I’m not normally a fan of musicals, but at the same time, the music was one of the indelible stamps that made THE WIZARD OF OZ so unique. How there was music and singing, but it wasn’t really a musical per se. I think this new OZ could have let its hair down a little more.
MA: I’m glad Oscar told them to shut up.
Of course, these scenes also coincide with Theodora’s transformation into the true threat of the movie, a transformation that I both bought and enjoyed.
LS: Enough of that!
(A MUNCHKIN suddenly walks by. He’s holding a stick over his shoulder with a knapsack on the end, like a hobo)
MA: Hey little guy, where are you headed?
MUNCHKIN: Far away from here. They won’t let us sing in this movie.
LS: Is that so bad?
MUNCHKIN: Don’t know a lot about Munchkins, do you? We were born to sing. It’s in our hearts, it’s in our souls. We live to sing! And this Oz character shows up and tells us to “Take 5.” The nerve of that guy!
MA: So where are you headed? Going to go to Middle Earth and hang out with the Hobbits?
MUNCHKIN: Of course not, they don’t sing either!
LS: Going to go sit in a display case at Dunkin’ Donuts?
MUNCHKIN (sticks out his tongue): Very funny. That would be a big No.
MA: So where does a Munchkin go if he’s not allowed to sing?
MUNCHKIN: Why the show GLEE of course. I’m sure they’d invite me to join the cast.
LS: Good luck with that.
(MUNCHKIN walks away)
LS: Back to our regularly scheduled program.
MA: In spite of its slow start, I liked OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL a lot. Sam Raimi has hit yet another home run with this colorful, agreeable, and highly entertaining fantasy tale that has a lot of things going for it.
LS: I agree with you. I liked it a lot, too. And I think a lot of the credit goes to director Raimi. This sure makes up for the awful SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007)! Nice to see him back to full power again.
I went in wondering how it would compare to THE WIZARD OF OZ, because comparisons are inevitable. And it compares quiet well. The level of acting and the script are good, but do not seem to be as solid as the original film. And strangely, though technology is so advanced now, I think the original 1939 film still looks more amazing and the land of Oz looked more “real” back then.
MA: James Franco is excellent as Oscar, “Oz,” and in a movie driven by special effects, he still manages to carry this movie and drive it along. I bought into his character and accepted his flaws as genuine. He basically plays Oscar as a guy who succeeds in spite of himself, and I liked this.
LS: Oscar isn’t the most likable character in the world, but that’s okay. He’s not supposed to be. He’s actually kind of a fool. But this is a tale of redemption, and Franco shines in the lead role here. I love that goofy grin of his. He’s making it up as he goes along, but he has no idea what the rules are in this new world, and so he’s going to get duped sometimes, as a lot of us would be.
MA: Michelle Williams makes a sincere and touching Glinda, and I’d have to say I thought she delivered the best performance in the movie, which is saying a lot because I didn’t expect much from this character, and yet she makes for such a strong and attractive presence, I found myself that much more interested in the story whenever she was on screen.
LS: You know, in our COMING ATTRACTIONS column earlier this month, we made a big deal of Mila Kunis being so beautiful in the trailer for this movie. But the truth is, Williams is just as beautiful (and Weisz is certainly no slouch, either) here. The thing is, you’re right—she does deliver the best performance in the movie. I thought she was perfectly cast here. It’s so easy for such a completely “good” character to be just plain boring. Usually the bad guys are the most exciting ones. But Williams makes Glinda believable. And I liked her character a lot—which amazed me, because I always root for the bad guys! She really has become an amazing actress over the years. I thought she was great as Lily in BLACK SWAN (2010).
MA: I have to agree with everything you just said, and I think that’s why I liked her so much. For once, the “good” character was just as interesting as the bad!
I did not enjoy Mila Kunis early on as Theodora, to the point where I was hoping she wasn’t going to be in the movie much. But I really liked her dark side, so much so that it made me forget completely her lame interpretation of Theodora at the beginning of the movie.
LS: Oh give Mila a break! The way she plays Theodora early on is crucial to what happens later, and I think she does a good job.
LS: She is beautiful, and her character is supposed to be clueless and easily manipulated. That is vital to how she ultimately reacts to both her sister Evanor and Oscar. I will admit, there are some scenes where Kunis did seem a little stilted, and her performance isn’t the best one here, but she’s coming along nicely as an actress. Who knew, when she played a supporting character on THAT ‘70S SHOW, that her career would be so huge. I don’t think she’s an amazing actress, yet, but I think she’s getting better and better.
MA: Like we both said earlier, the two CGI creations, Finley the monkey and China Girl, voiced by Zach Braff and young Joey King, were two of the most captivating and enjoyable characters in the movie. They’re on par with Yoda in the STAR WARS films and Gollum from the LORD OF THE RINGS movies.
And the 3D effects here are excellent, too. I’d have to say that this is the most visually satisfying movie I’ve seen since HUGO (2011).
LS: Yeah, I saw the 2D version. Maybe I should have seen it in 3D instead. But I will say that seeing the 2D version didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the film at all.
As for the special effects, everyone who worked on them for this movie deserves heaps of praise. OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is way above average, which made it stand up much better in comparison to the 1939 movie, which set a high bar.
(A FLYING MONKEY from the original WIZARD OF OZ walks by, carrying a knapsack over his shoulder)
MA: Hey little guy, where are you headed?
LS: Is there an echo in here?
FLYING MONKEY: I thought the wicked witch’s flying monkeys were one of the coolest things about THE WIZARD OF OZ, and now I find I’m out of a job.
MA: There are flying monkeys in OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL.
FLYING MONKEY: Let’s be specific here, shall we? The flying monkeys in this movie are flying BABOONS. There’s no sign of the monkeys from THE WIZARD OF OZ this time around. We’ve been replaced.
LS: You mean you don’t want to put on a little bellhop’s outfit and pretend to be Finley?
FLYING MONKEY: That wimp? No way! If the only choices I have are dressing like a bellboy and being all cute, or being out of a job, then I’ll be on my way.
LS: I do agree this was a little annoying. As a kid, I always thought the flying monkeys were the best part of THE WIZARD OF OZ. They didn’t need to be improved, and they didn’t need to be changed into baboons. Hell, if you want scarier monkeys, why not go all out and hire some mandrills?
MA: I didn’t mind the baboons here, although I’ve always liked the flying monkeys from the original, so admittedly I did miss them a little bit.
LS: The CGI flying baboons were okay, but they were one of the things I liked least about OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL.
FLYING MONKEY: Well, unless you can hire me on as an evil henchman, I’ll be going.
LS: I’m tempted. Honest I am.
MA: It’s not in the budget!
LS: I know. Farewell, scary monkey.
(FLYING MONKEY continues walking down the yellow brick road)
MA: The screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire manages to tell a compelling story with lots of references to the original movie, from a lion in the woods, to scarecrows, to the poppy fields. There are many moments that will indeed bring back memories from the 1939 classic.
LS: A movie you admit you don’t like.
MA: Guilty as charged.
LS: As a fan of the 1939 film, I was surprised how good OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL was. I really thought it would look shallow in comparison, and it stands up quite nicely. The script is clever, and sticks to the story of THE WIZARD OF OZ pretty closely. It explains a lot of things in a smart way.
MA: One thing I didn’t like, or at least didn’t understand, was that in the 1939 film, the characters that Dorothy meets, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, Wicked Witch, and even the Wizard himself, all resemble people she knew in Kansas, which makes sense because at the end of the movie it’s revealed she was dreaming. Here, characters Oscar meets also resemble people he knew back home, yet here it’s not inferred that he’s dreaming.
LS: Maybe he is. Then again, maybe he died in that tornado and Oz is the afterlife! The way I saw it, maybe it’s not inferred because maybe he wasn’t dreaming, and maybe Dorothy wasn’t either. Maybe she really visited this other dimension (or perhaps she had a near death experience and got a glimpse of the afterlife as well), too. You can debate it all you want, because it’s open to interpretation.
MA: But if we are to infer that it’s all a dream, then how does this tie in with Dorothy’s dream later? Can they both have the same dream? Or is Oz real? No doubt, I’m overthinking this, but it was something that was definitely on my mind as I walked out of the theater.
LS: That’s a first. You can barely think and now you claim to be overthinking. I think poor Finley has more brains than you.
MA: Which goes to show just how clueless you can be sometimes!
LS: You know, one thing I was worried about was that Disney would make this story extra bland to appeal to the widest audience. They have a way of doing that sometimes, although I must admit, it wasn’t a problem with Andrew Stanton’s underrated JOHN CARTER (2012). Just last week you were complaining that JACK THE GIANT SLAYER was super homogenized and didn’t have any kind of edge to it. I was surprised that OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL has any kind of edge at all. But Franco’s Oscar is certainly a flawed character, the witches here can be kind of scary, and while it’s a great movie for the whole family, I didn’t think it was reduced to Disney-flavored pablum. What did you think about that, Michael?
MA: I agree.
It’s funny because JACK THE GIANT SLAYER was rated PG-13, and OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL was rated PG, yet OZ has more of an edge than JACK! Now, there are more battle scenes in JACK than there are in OZ, but Oscar has more flaws than anyone in JACK, and the witches and even the baboons are scarier than the giants in JACK.
Nonetheless, to my surprise, since I hadn’t been looking forward to this one, I really enjoyed OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL. Sam Raimi can add another notch to his belt because he’s made yet another classic movie.
I give it three and a half knives.
LS: Well, I have to admit, I’m amazed by your reaction, because you have gone on record as saying you don’t like THE WIZARD OF OZ.
MA: I’m just as amazed.
LS: And yet the reason why this new OZ is so good, is because it sticks to the original story so well. It makes a good companion piece to the 1939 film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if kids of the future get exposed to both films together, the way we got exposed to THE WIZARD OF OZ as children. Despite your dislike of the original, I remember it being a big deal as a kid. It was shown on television just once a year, and EVERYONE seemed to watch it, and make it a special occasion. Videotape wasn’t around yet, so you couldn’t watch the movie whenever you wanted. You had to wait. And that created an anticipation around it that made it seem very special.
With a movie that is such an important part of a lot of people’s childhoods, it’s going to be very tough to make something new that can stand alongside it. And yet, I think Sam Raimi has done a terrific job here.
I don’t think OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is a perfect film. I don’t think everything works, and there are moments when it seems stilted or that it’s trying too hard to be clever. And not all of the characters are equally interesting. While I like Rachel Weisz a lot, I didn’t find her Evanora all that interesting, even though she was crucial to the storyline (and Weisz seems to do what she can with the role). I don’t think all of the special effects are equally good – but that only makes sense, because they’re so expensive to do. I think Finley the monkey is amazing, for example, but I was less impressed with the flying baboons that Evanor commands. And I still think that THE WIZARD OF OZ packs more of an emotional wallop. In comparison, the new OZ is a love tap, but a very good one.
I also give it three and a half out of five knives (and,just to put things in perspective, if I had to rate the original WIZARD OF OZ, it would get four and a half or maybe even five knives).
By the way, this isn’t Disney’s first trip to Oz since the 1939 original. In 1985, there was a sequel called RETURN TO OZ, with Fairuza Balk as Dorothy, It was rather dark and I liked it a lot. But it wasn’t an all-star blockbuster like this one. I think the world of Oz still has a lot of potential – there are so many stories and characters created by L. Frank Baun that haven’t been tapped into yet.
(They reach the gates of the Emerald City. A GUARD waits outside)
GUARD: Halt! Who goes there.
LS: Hey, wait a minute, you’re Bruce Campbell, right?
GUARD: Of course not, I’m Winkie the Gatekeeper!
LS: I saw Bruce Campbell’s name in the credits, but I didn’t see him anywhere. I was sure he was Winkie.
GUARD: You are sorely mistaken.
LS: Rats! I always wanted to meet Bruce Campbell. Speaking of Bruce and director Sam Raimi, I wonder if the remake of their classic EVIL DEAD (1981) will be any good.
MA: That doesn’t come out til next month! (to GUARD) Hey, will you mind letting us in? We’ve come a long way.
GUARD: Well, boo hoo for you. No one goes inside today! The Emerald City is under renovation.
LS: Double Rats!
MA: Oh well, I guess we’re headed back home.
LS: Can we at least take a hot-air balloon this time?
© Copyright 2013 by Michael Arruda & L.L Soares
Michael Arruda gives OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL ~ three and a half knives!
LL Soares gives OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL ~three and a half knives, as well.