Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
An exception to the rule.
Oz the Great and Powerful is about a lowly magician with aspirations of greatness. He travels from city to city peddling his tricks to gullible locals until everything comes to a head in good ol’ Kansas. He gets booed off the stage, runs out of dough and his girl leaves his ass for another man in town. Not a good day. So with a pissed-off strongman looking to wring his neck, he hops in a balloon and gets caught in a tornado. Figures. But just when he thinks he’s a goner for good, he finds himself transported to a magical land. As soon as he arrives, he’s treated as a messiah: the fabled wizard who will rid this kingdom of its wicked ways. Though quick to accept the unearned praise, he soon comes to realize that he’s in over his head.
So can someone explain to me what the deal is with all these fairy tale reboots? Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters? Jack the Giant Slayer? How could such things exist in this world? I’m assuming it has to do with all the money Tim Burton made off Alice in Wonderland three years ago, but since that was a flaming-hot pile of ass, I have a hard time believing the obvious. Might just be easier to blame the Twihards and move on, which in all likelihood probably isn’t too far off. And while humanity never asked for a Wizard of Oz prequel, I suppose it’s no wonder that we got one anyway.
With that said, there wasn’t much about this movie that initially piqued my interest. Never seen Wicked, nor have I ever felt like amending that situation. The last time I saw The Wizard of Oz was during an ill-advised fourth grade assembly which nearly caused a riot because it wasn’t Jurassic Park. Nothing against the cast, nothing against The Wizard of Oz, I just didn’t understand why we needed this movie? And had it been anyone else but Sam Raimi behind the wheel, I wouldn’t lose sleep over that question going unanswered.
I don’t know what the general consensus on Raimi is these days, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the guy. When all is said done, he’s the man who gave us The Evil Dead and his is a style you could pick out of lineup. The weird thing is that I often forget that about the guy, so each new reminder proves more refreshing than the last. With that kind of logic, he’d be a mighty good fit to helm any old movie. But to make something decent out of something like this, well that’s a tall order for anyone to fill.
From the outset, the most baffling thing about Oz the Great and Powerful rested with its main character. I know he was a big deal and all, but there was only so much to be gleaned about The Wizard from the last time we met him back in ’39. We only met him for all of ten minutes and he didn’t quite live up to his reputation. Then again, the loose ends were there for the taking. How did this guy end up in Oz and why’s he hiding behind that damn curtain? While we’re on the subject, what was with the Wicked Witch of the West straight-up melting ’cause of water? For such an utterly devastating weakness, it sure was random. Not that these questions ever detracted from The Wizard of Oz, it’s just strange in hindsight that we embraced them without question. With that in mind, it’s pretty darn impressive how the writers make the most of their situation by tackling these questions head-on.
Take our man Oz for example. Within the first ten minutes of meeting him, we know everything we need to know. True to form, he’s a snake oil salesman whose brass tongue and empty promises betray his kind soul and good heart. He’s not a bad guy, he’s just a big fish in a little pond and an amusing one at that. Rather than go the Alice route and reinvent him as, I don’t know, Gandalf or something, the writers play to his established flaws and virtues. Once those ten minute are over, he rolls on over to Oz. He saddles up with some misfit toys, all of which bear a striking resemblance to the company he kept back in Kansas. From there, he hits the Yellow Brick Road, tells the believers what they want to hear and spends the rest of his journey trying to live up to the potential they see in him. If all this is sounding a lot like Dorothy, you’re certainly not imagining things.
The devil’s advocate in me wants to say that an approach like this is lazy. You can change the names and change the faces, but at the end of the day, you’re still giving us an unnecessary remake with a story we’ve already heard. And while we’re on the subject, that’s not the only issue. The laughs can be hit-or-miss, there’s one last witch-off that didn’t need to happen and it sure goes heavy on those 3D effects. But that’s not even the worst part, that honor goes to why the Witch of the West turns wicked. For such an iconic villain, you’d think she’d have a proper motive, right? Oh well…
To the advocate’s credit, he makes some good points. Nevertheless, I’m sticking to my guns on this one, the reason being that it wasn’t until now that I started piecing all these structural similarities together. Even though they exist in the same world, even though the characters are in many ways alike, Oz the Great and Powerful felt inspired in the moment and remains that way a month after seeing it.
Admittedly, a lot of that has to do with my fuzzy memory of The Wizard of Oz and my love for the way Sam Raimi makes movies. It’s not an easy thing to verbalize, but there’s this flow and this flair in the way he tells a story that makes it seem like he and everyone else is simply having a ball (except for A Simple Plan, that was a total buzzkill). As a result, Oz is as playful as it is serious, it doesn’t feel derivative and it was hard to resist all the fun this fine cast was having. The Land of Oz was more appealing than I ever remembered it being and it wasn’t until the final Act that the attraction only grew.
Again, some might interpret this as yet another case of laziness, but as it just so happens, Oz the Great and Powerful isn’t actually an inspired spin on/half-baked prequel to a childhood classic we all grew up with. Turns out, it’s Army of Darkness-meets-The Wizard of Oz, she-bitches and all.
From the worlds of fantasy that they magically arrive in to the saviors of legend that they’re quickly hailed as, Oz is Ash every step of the way. Can’t say I was expecting it, can’t imagine how anyone would, but once Oz and Co. start gearing up to storm the Emerald City, the connection was undeniable. More importantly, it was groovy as hell. I can’t help but smile at the idea of Raimi being approached about this movie and him seeing the opportunity to swap Flying Deadites for Flying Monkeys. Like I said, there’s just something about Raimi and it’s epiphanies like these that remind me why I’m a fan.
I realize I’ve been making a lot of comparisons in this review, and I’m not sure how much that’s helping my argument. The main problem I’ve been having with movies like these is that too many exist for the sake of existing, that they don’t add anything worthwhile to the equation. Seriously, folks, we had two Snow White movies last summer. Two. That’s just uncalled for and Oz the Great and Powerful could have easily fallen into that fold. Not only that, but it begs to be compared with Alice thanks to a score by Danny Elfman and a world that looks a whole lot like Wonderland. But I’m glad the similarities are only skin-deep, I’m glad that it appealed to me as much as it did. I’m still not sure if that justifies its existence, but that’s starting to become a moot point anyway.
At any rate, the most surprising thing of all is that it’s now hard to imagine The Wizard of Oz without Oz the Great and Powerful. The Wizard of Oz no longer feels like a standalone film, but rather the third part of a trilogy that has yet to play out. I don’t know if it’ll happen (it probably will), but I’d actually like to see how that second part brings things full circle. There’s still ground to cover, loose ends to be tied and a large gap of time before Dorothy rolls up. There’s more fun to be had and I want in.
I can’t quite believe the tune that I’m whistling, but I guess I’ve got Burton and Raimi to thank for that.