Shock and Oz

April is one of the cruelest months for movie lovers — studios are off-loading turkeys and the early summer films are still in the pipeline. The pickings are slim and when my son and I decided to hit the local mini-plex last night, the only real options were Admission and Disney’s Oz: the Great and Powerful. I let him pick and he went with Oz — because he liked Sam Raimi, he said. I should have made him flip the coin again.

For there is no awe in this Oz, though I had been forewarned. When I see a movie this misconceived, that clearly costs so much money and involves so much acting talent, I wonder if anyone is called to account for it? It costs $215M to make, and has barely recouped that since it was released last month and small wonder: you could feel the air going out of the small audience as James Franco (playing the young Wizard of Oz) mugged his way through the movie. “It could have been so much better,” a kid behind me muttered as he headed for the exits.

Oz: the G&P probably owes more to the books written by L. Frank Baum than the 1939 musical, though it is sprinkled with gags and ideas that seem to have sprung from the mind of whichever studio hack wandered onto the set that day. When we first meet Good Witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), for instance, she is as sweet and trusting as Snow White — except she is wearing leather pants and dominatrix boots. (Presaging her later turn to the dark side, I guess.) And when Evanora (Rachel Weisz) engages in a climactic battle with the Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams) it looks like one of those wand wars at the end of every Harry Potter movie. Why not?

I guess you could say that Disney was brave to try anything that reminded us of the original, which was a great example of Hollywood capturing lightning-in-a-bottle, combining vaudeville talents like Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger with great show tunes (by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg) and a truly witty screenplay (by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allen Woolf). But the little touches meant to evoke that film — a rainbow here, a frightened lion there — just remind us of how far we’ve fallen.

Personally, I prefer Walter Murch’s 1985 Return to Oz. While maligned in its time, and a bomb at the box office, it was far more faithful to the tone of the Baum books and may have even trended darker (with the spooky witch Mombi and her collection of heads).  At least Murch chose a lane and stayed in it. His movie gave my son nightmares then, and me too. This one only gave me indigestion.


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