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(3.5) Pretty Magical in and of Itself.

  • Mar 20, 2013
  • by
The original Wizard of Oz from 1939 has always amused me.  For as much as people yell at me for not caring about whether or not the movie follows the source material, I'm always surprised that The Wizard of Oz has become so big as a film that people kind of sort of forget it's even based off a book (and it really IS nothing like the book... like, at all).  This always amused me.  It's a great movie, but sort of proves why I have the "Who cares if it didn't follow the book," mantra.  Because sometimes the decisions made with the film as a film are good ideas. 

What people forget about L. Frank Baum is that there wasn't just one Oz book.  There were tons of them.  And I do mean tons.  About thirteen or so.  I haven't read them all (The Wizard of Oz was a barely passable book as it is--sorry fans, it was just not that good of a book).  The movie is more recognized because the world of Oz within it is a lot more memorable.  So here's what's unusual.  When The Wizard of Oz came out as a film... color in Cinema was a pretty new thing.  I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be funny if technicolor actually turned out to just be a gimmick?"  And then, of course, I found out that... yes, the color in The Wizard of Oz was just a gimmick.  No, seriously, the film being in technicolor was just a new way to show off some new technology.  It explained why so much attention is drawn to the colors.  It also explains why Dorothy has ruby slippers in the movie but silver in the novel... and a lot of other things. 

The film is a beloved classic.  I do enjoy the movie a lot.  It's simple and magical (the book sure as hell was simple but was it magical?  No... the book was, by comparison, very dry and boring).  A couple of years ago, Tim Burton released Alice in Wonderland.  A movie that had a lot of magic and eye-popping visuals as well.  In terms of using 3D it's one of the few movies that did a really good job with it.  Oz the Great and Powerful seems to be trying to follow that success.  Although, unlike Alice in Wonderland, it's not really a sequel to the classic tale.  Oz the Great and Powerful is actually a prequel.  It does quite a bit to evoke the classic film (although instead of changing to color it's more concerned with changing to widescreen and adding in 3D effects because that is the new gimmick).  And in the long run, I actually liked it.

There is always a problem in reviewing a movie more aimed at kids when you're an adult.  For instance, Oz the Great and Powerful is an overtly predictable film.  For me personally a predictable film has never been a problem.  It's now what happens that's important.  It's HOW it happens.  We all know how many movies will end and how many movies will eventually turn out.  This is because every movie follows a formula and if you figure out just WHICH formula the film maker is using before the movie ends you can figure out any film in just a matter of seconds.  There are some exceptions (Pulp Fiction is one... but Being John Malkovich is by far the BEST example).  So for the complaints of it being predictable, I think those people are forgetting that for the adult in the room it is VERY predictable.  But for the eight year old seeing the movie for the first time... not so much (and please save me your bullshit story of, "It wouldn't have fooled me if I was eight!"). 

The story is as simple as the original Wizard of Oz itself.  Oscar is a magician and a con man.  He's good at telling lies and making a lot of things up.  This is pretty damn important in the long run of the film as it really establishes his character.  When escaping from a mad man, he gets sucked into a Tornado and carried off to the land of Oz. 

This is where the story begins to rely on some really tried and true tropes.  There is a prophecy and Oscar is the key to it.  He's supposed to be the wizard come to save the world of Oz from the wicked witches.  He's quickly discovered by Theodora who takes him to the Emerald City where he will sit on his throne.  If he can save Oz all the riches will be his.

There are a few shoutouts to the 1939 classic.  For instance, the cowardly lion makes an appearance.  There's a reference to the scarecrow (and even one to the Tinman).  What really ends up happening is how Oscar begins to grow as a character.  There's little said for most of his supporting cast, though.  By this point it's just playing to all the tropes of a children's movie.  The only real problem with the cast is that not everyone is really integral to the plot.  See, in most children's movies, there's usually the main character who is often serious and he has a sidekick that is there for nothing more than the comic relief.  Pirates of the Caribbean is perhaps the best example.  The story of the original film actually has William Turner cast in the role of the main character (Johnny Depp just did such a fantastic job he upstaged Bloom).  Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow is actually the goofy sidekick.  The reason for the goofy sidekick is that someone has to provide the laughs, and the main character is often too busy achieving his goals to do it.  Disney LOVES this in every movie aimed at kids they make.  Aladdin has the Genie for this.  The Lion King has Timon and Pumbaa.  Even Beauty and the Beast assigns this to Lumiere and Cogsgrove.  Mulan has Mushu... so on and so forth. 

Oz the Great and Powerful has the flying Monkey.  The thing is that here... he sort of doesn't do anything BUT provide the comedy.  See, the reason this trope works in so many other movies is because the sidekick is still actively doing something to help the main character or has motives of his or her own.  Will Turner actually NEEDS Jack Sparrow's help, for instance.  The Genie is more or less WHY the plot of Aladdin takes place.  Timon and Pumbaa even play a role in The Lion King.  First they save Simba in the desert and THEN they help distract the Hyenas so that he can actually get to his showdown with Scar.  In Oz the Great and Powerful the flying Monkey doesn't really do much.  Sure he helps, but at some point I kept failing to see how the absence of the Monkey would be an inconvenience to Oz in many moments.  The other issue is that some things move just a little too fast, either for the sake of plot convenience or something else.  Theodora and Oscar develop this romance pretty much because they looked at each other (or because he's literally the only man out there).

The other supporting characters, however, add quite a bit to the tale.  They seem necessary.

That aside, however, Oz the Great and Powerful is saved by actually quite a few things that will make the movie quite delightful and entertaining.  The little China Doll is a sweet innocent character, but manages to be so darn likeable.  The Wicked Witch of the West has to make an appearance at some point, and she does and there's a lot of life.  For a character that did next to nothing in the actual book "The Wizard of Oz," she has certainly become an iconic character thanks to the movie.  And she's well represented here, although to be honest there were moments I wish it were a different actress (but to name who would spoil a big deal of the movie).  But it's delightfully over the top. 

On the other hand, what I felt helped save the film the best of all was that they went for something different for its climax entirely.  In a lot of kids movies a lot have relied on two things as of late.  At the end there's either a giant chase (as in The Lorax---but let's not talk about that one) or there's some enormous battle of sorts (How to Train Your Dragon).  And when it comes to movies like this you pretty much expect a battle.  The movie pretty much sets you up for this.  Ever since The Lord of the Rings a movie seems to need an epic battle for its climax.  With the exception of The Two Towers, the reason much of this works in Lord of the Rings is because of the emotional investment we've got in the characters (The Two Towers is the exception because... I was made to feel sorry for a character I NEVER knew).  What most audiences are looking for, however, isn't always a battle... just a confrontation of sorts will do.  We want to see good and evil.  The Dark Knight works because the Climax isn't about facing The Joker, it's about facing Gotham's fallen knight... and they don't even fight.  They exchange words.  That's it.  But it works.

Oz goes for something else entirely and this actually works.  We're set up for this final battle but we get something completely different.  It's hard not to give it some credit for opting for something different.  There's no big final battle here, just a lot of trickery and clever planning.  But for those wondering about connecting it to the original 1939 film... it actually works.  But the biggest reason it works is because it remains consistent with the tone of the film beforehand.  Oscar isn't a warrior, he's a magician.  What does he know about combat?  Nothing.  But what does he know about "fooling" people?  A lot.  He's a con man.  It's a nice break from every other movie having a giant battle at the end.  It doesn't have a lot of emotion invested in it, though.  Which may drive some mad, but for me it was still a welcome breath of fresh air.  For the past ten years every other film has done something along those lines.  And I applaud Oz The Great and Powerful for opting for a different approach.

You still know how it's going to end.  Which is often the problem with prequels.  You already know the Wicked Witches won't die.  You already know the good witches will survive and you already know that Oz himself can't die.  You know they'll save the land of Oz.  It's the only thing that makes Oz the Great and Powerful not so great.  It doesn't quite fall as flat as The Hobbit or the Star Wars prequels (they fall much further for other reasons...) but it's really hard not to notice.  At least we're not seeing Oscar team up with the cowardly lion or the scarecrow or anything like that.  In fact, much of the cast he teams up with are either wholly original or were merely mentioned in The Wizard of Oz.

There are a lot of visuals effects.  But in a film that takes place in a different world, I would expect that.  I actually did see this one in 3D.  And it must've been good 3D because I had a searing headache at the end of it.  It is a pretty immersive world.  I've come to reject the idea that CGI and the like take away from storytelling.  If only because so many other goddamn movies have gotten away with using spectacular effects before.   The CGI didn't make those Star Wars prequels bad, for instance.  The story was already bad.  The CGI didn't do that, though.  The bad script and directing did.  The same is true of almost any movie.  But I'm not sure Oz the Great and Powerful was made so that the story could live on.  Rather, I'm pretty certain it was so that the land of Oz could live on.  And yes, if you're the type that likes to imagine new worlds... that's pretty important.  It's more about the context of the world.  So the CGI here doesn't really do much of anything in terms of story, but it definitely does a lot to make the world lively and energetic.  It's dazzling stuff and easy on the eyes.  And yes, for the naysayers that's important if we're talking about creating worlds and set pieces (if you're the type that refuses to read graphic novels or play video games because of their particular art styles... you've got no business complaining about an absurd amount of CGIs ruining storytelling in movies).

In the long run most of it works out rather well.  The world of Oz comes to life.  As with most things, though, there is a moment where it's important to point out that much of Oz is still left unexplored.  We don't really go anywhere "new" in the land of Oz.  Many of the locales are familiar places.  When Oscar enters Oz it's a little different but before long we're only revisiting places we've already been.  Another failing of prequels, I'm afraid.  The fan service is heavy here.  Again, not as heavily as in The Hobbit or the Star Wars prequels, but it's still pretty heavy.  Most of your enjoyment is dependent on your nostalgia for the 1939 classic.

Last thing I want to mention because SO many people kept bringing it up in discussion is whether or not this movie will have anything to do with Wicked.  And my first response is that you should damn well know it doesn't.  The reason this seems to be confusing the hell out of people is that there are a lot of established canons for Oz as it is.  L. Frank Baum wrote quite a few books, but nothing that really took place before Dorothy showed up.  So Gregory Macquire wrote Wicked in the 1995.  A prequel that explained and expanded on the Wicked Witch of the West.  This has its own canon.  Oz the Great and Powerful has nothing to do with this particular canon.  It's its own thing.  Now for some nerds out there this is going to drive them bonkers.  A lot of people like canon.  They like it so much that when you mess with it people get mad.  This is why comic books went from being fun to being soap operas for men.  Because in some minds you can't just ignore it and re imagine it. 

But The Wizard of Oz was is mostly just something that people got really attached to, became big fans of, and some of them just didn't let Oz die.  Gregory Macquire was just one of those fans.  And don't quote me on this, but I'm pretty damn sure he wasn't the only one to write a book that took place in Oz.  His just happens to be the most famous (certainly more famous than L. Frank Baum's book, which is so overshadowed by the movie a lot of people hardly seem to know it WAS a book). 

So the movie has nothing to do with Wicked and the people who cry foul because it doesn't are... probably just looking for a reason to bitch at this point.  The Wicked Witch of the West is just a strangely iconic character who, like some characters in comic books, resonates with a lot of people and have different interpretations.  Here, you might not accept what makes her so wicked as it isn't an in depth character study (but it probably shouldn't be). 

In the long run the movie is pretty good.  It's enjoyable enough.  As a prequel it actually fares better than say... The Hobbit or the Star Wars prequels, but for different reasons.  As a film it's a lot better than those Star Wars prequels.  And it's better than the Hobbit... but again for very different reasons.  If you want to have a good time and enjoy yourself with some laughs and step back into the wonderful world of Oz, I would recommend it.

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Sean A. Rhodes ()
Ranked #7
I'm a more analytical person. I believe that the purpose of the review is not for me to give you my opinion but for me to give you an analysis and help you decide if you want to get it. If you reading … more
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