“You’re capable of more than you know.”
Walt Disney was always fascinated with the world of Oz. After his Snow White experiment proved that fantasy films were economically possible, he was planning to journey to Oz next. Unfortunately, he was a victim of his own success. It was the very box office magic that Snow White brought in that inspired MGM to purchase the rights to The Wizard Of Oz and create their iconic film. Because of that turn of events, the rights were not available for Walt and his magic studio.
He didn’t give up, however. In the 1950’s he was able to purchase 11 of the Oz books and immediately began work on something he was calling The Rainbow Road To Oz. It was planned as a two-part television film and would star the Mouseketeers. The production went so far as sets being constructed and costumed rehearsals begun with the actors. Songs had been composed and production was about to begin when Walt pulled the plug, having some reservations about the plan.
The next attempt at Oz came in the plans for a 1960’s major ride attraction for Disneyland. Again concept art was drawn and models of the characters were created. But again Walt had misgivings and the project was halted. Albums of Oz music did follow as well as a claymation film called Return To Oz. But Walt never did live to see his dream of a major production of Oz brought to the screen.
Perhaps it’s been a long time coming. The MGM version of The Wizard Of Oz has been captivating audiences for over 80 years, introduced to new generations of admirers, first through frequent re-releases in movie houses. Then it was annual showings on television, where I first encountered the classic film. Finally, the many phases of home video have made it a popular choice and a staple of any truly complete film library. The film is memorable for so many reasons. The technological achievements for 1939 were nothing short of magical. The cast took to their parts and gave soul to the lovable, and not so lovable, characters. Judy Garland’s short and tragic life will forever be identified for most of us as Dorothy. Now in 2013 it takes a lot more to wow an audience, and who better to make the attempt than the collaboration of Walt Disney Studios and Sam Raimi? Together, with the legal hawks from Warner Brothers watching every move, they have set out to take us on a magical journey to Oz, and a breathtaking journey it is. It might become a classic in its own right….if it only had a heart.
Oz The Great And Powerful is the inevitable origin story of the once-wonderful Wizard Of Oz. Oscar Diggs (Franco), his friends call him Oz, is a showman. His magic isn’t quite as flawless as he might like, and he barely holds together a circus show. He also has another problem. He’s quite the womanizer with a flair for playing on the gentler sex’s emotions. Of course, it’s bound to get him in trouble. To flee the wrath of an outraged strongman, he climbs aboard the hot air balloon owned by the circus and makes his escape. His relief is only temporary, as he finds himself flying directly into the path of one of those famous Kansas twisters. By the time he has crash-landed, he realizes that he’s not in Kansas anymore. He finds himself in a wonderfully colorful and exotic place where he is quickly befriended by Theodora (Kunis) who believes him to be the prophesized great wizard. She and her sister Evanora (Weisz) have been keeping the Oz throne warm for his eventual return. He’s tempted with the riches of a kingdom if he’s willing to slay the wicked witch Glinda (Williams). He sets out to his grand task with a talking flying monkey named Finley (Braff) and an injured China Doll (King) whom he is able to repair with some magic from his traveling bag… glue, that is.
Of course, all is not what it appears, and the trio quickly discovers that Glinda is actually the good witch and the sisters have the evil agenda. He changes sides, which drives Theodora into the clutches of her much more evil sister. The transformation into the famous green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West is more than even her sister bargained for. She becomes a powerful menace and a woman scorned. It will be up to Oz, the man, to outsmart the witch in order to protect Oz, the place, from her rage.
Disney was very much limited in what parts of the Oz legend we have come to know that they were permitted to use. The Warner Brothers lawyers watched over every aspect of production, ready to leap like winged baboons on the slightest infringement on their property. While the Baum material was fair game, most of us are more familiar with the original film than the books from which it was taken. The wonderful melodies were off limits. So there is no singing of following any yellow brick roads. There is no “Off To See The Wizard“. In fact, there is no singing at all, with the lone exception of a brief tune delivered by the Munchkins, and it’s a very weak effort indeed. Music wasn’t the only thing that Disney needed to stay clear of. Some of the best lines and images we remember are protected and could not be used. That meant that screenwriters Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire and director Sam Raimi had an unenviable task before them.
What they did manage to deliver is quite visually stunning. The first part of the film does take place in black & white with an old full-screen aspect ratio. Just as in the original film, the image becomes gloriously colorful as Oz touches down in Oz. With today’s computer-generated technology, this is a world that could only be dreamed about in 1939. The transition is quite well done, and the production design is stunning. The story certainly honors the important beats. But the magic ends about there.
The first problem is casting. James Franco is a wonderful young actor. His career has taken him on quite a ride of late from Spider-Man’s side-kick. But he’s terribly miscast as Oz and struggles through with a con man’s smile and an obvious awareness that he’s in over his head. He’s entirely too young for the part and fails to fill the mighty shoes of such an essentially strong character. Another bit of unfortunate casting has to be Mila Kunis as Theodora. Again, I think she’s a pretty solid actor in other parts that I’ve seen. She’s given a very awkward character here. She plays a lovesick ignorant girl who just will never measure up to the dominating character so well played by Margaret Hamilton. The character never really appears to have much….well….character, or direction. It gets worse once the transformation is made. Kunis appears completely lost in the powerful role, and the makeup or CG facial work is absolutely horrible. Her face looks like a balloon about ready to pop. Again, I don’t really think the fault lies with the actors. Raimi needs to take the hit here and should have done a better job casting the parts. Bruce Campbell is along for his traditional Raimi cameo. One might say he was too old, but Campbell would have made for a brilliant Oz, as would Robert Downey, Jr. for whom the role was originally intended. It’s sad that Raimi had the perfect wizard there on the set but wasted him on an amusing but completely throw-away character. Rachel Weisz is much better as Evanora but is underused in the part. Joey King voices the cute China Girl character, while Zach Braff voices Finely, who is a little too cute and full of wisecracks. He’s fine, but in somewhat smaller doses. In another nod to the original a few actors play multiple roles mirroring their live-action characters. Finely is his assistant and is voiced by the actor who plays his partner in the prologue. The China Girl is voiced by the actress who played a crippled girl that asked Oz to make her walk. In Oz he does help make the China Girl walk.
There are also quite a few nice homage moments to be found. You’ll want to pay attention in order to catch them all. I’m sure I’ll discover even more on a second viewing. Raimi even manages to throw in a line aimed at the Evil Dead fans. To point them all out here robs you of the treasure hunt fun you’ll have during the movie.
Oz The Great And Powerful is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30-35 mbps. The opening segment is in black & white and full frame format. I must say that the reveal is quite spectacular, and I love the choices that were made here. None of the problems I had with the film involve the production design or the magical images brought alive in this high-definition image presentation. Colors are absolutely spectacular here. Reds are particularly brilliant and jump off the screen. Thanks to a razor-sharp image with wonderful contrast, these colors live in exact spaces that only heighten the visual splendor. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking CG or actual sets and costumes, this is an explosion of color. For some reason Walt Disney did not send us a 3D disc to review which is a bit of a shame. I suspect it’s light years ahead of the image I already love.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 is just as alive with wonderful brilliance. Danny Elfman delivers yet another quirky but wonderful score that takes us on as much of an imaginative ride as the visuals themselves. Dialog is perfect throughout. Oz provides wonderful moments for surrounds to fill out our senses, and the sound design team didn’t miss any of them. Subs aren’t quite as powerful as I might have liked during the twister scenes, but that can be forgiven by the fullness the rest of the speakers managed to provide here.
Second Screen: This allows you to use an app and sync the film to a portable device for extra info during playback.
Walt Disney And The Road To Oz: (10:13) This piece reveals Walt’s personal attempts to bring Oz to his studio.
My Journey In Oz By James Franco: (21:43) Franco provides us with his video journal. He interviews members of the cast and crew while offering his own insights into the experience.
China Girl And The Suspension Of Disbelief: (5:26) Cast and crew talk about the CG character, and you’ll get plenty of behind-the-scenes looks into how she was pulled off.
Before Your Eyes – From Kansas To Oz: (11:02) This is a very sweet look at the production design.
Mila’s Metamorphosis: (7:43) Inside look at the makeup process for the witch.
Mr. Elfman’s Musical Concoctions: (7:13) Elfman talks about scoring the film, and we get to see several moments of the orchestra at work.
In the end we get plenty of spectacle, but we must avoid looking at the man behind the curtain, because, the film fails to capture the heart and soul which has made The Wizard Of Oz such an endearing and enduring classic. Trust me when I tell you that no one will be talking about this movie in 8 years, let alone 80. It’s a rather sweet diversion with plenty of technical magic, but where is the real stuff? You can’t really blame the Warner lawyers for that oversight. Last I checked MGM/Warner Brothers didn’t have a trademark on heart. I suspect Disney believes they have a franchise on their hands, but Oz doesn’t really belong to Walt Disney Studios. Oz doesn’t belong to MGM, Warner Brothers, or even Baum himself. “It belongs to you.”