July 11, 2014
Twenty-First Century Oz!
Whether they’re admirers, appreciators, adulators, or some amalgam of any and all, Oz devotees have several things in common. One of these would be the general but genuine lack of any overwhelming need for outside validation. Coming to a love of Oz is a personal, emotional preoccupation and dedication, and while we fans are often able to happily find (and then bond with) others on the same page, those members of -- in L. Frank Baum's words -- "the great outside world" who would tease or taunt or malign us invariably fight a losing battle:
Ain’t nuthin’ gonna change US! J
Of course, Oz aficionados are buttressed by an apparently non-stop and ongoing world-wide fascination with so many different permutations of Baum’s original creation. I was reminded of this the other day when someone casually referenced last year's box office blockbuster, Oz the Great and Powerful.
That Disney production grossed nearly a half-billion dollars in its first three or four months of release. Its home video sales have added almost fifty million more to its total income. Apparently, the general public enjoyed the film; they overrode some critical apathy and subscribed instead to some critical praise -- and/or formed their own opinions after viewing the film. Thereafter, they also must have shared their enthusiasms, for cinema attendance reflected a definite level of pOZitive word of mouth.
I've seen "the Franco film" (to shorthand the title a bit) several times now -- on the big 3D screen and on home video. After a first viewing, in the theater, my initial on-the-way-home reaction was, "Well....B-minus. Maybe C-plus." But the motion picture refused to let go of my emotions and imagination. Over-night and into the next morning, I reflected again and again on different aspects of the story, its execution, the actors’ performances, the visual effects, and the project’s (however random) moments of "warmth and charmth."
After twelve on-and-off hours of such mental permeation, I'd considerably revised my initial reaction -- upward -- to an overall B-plus. And for those who as yet might not have seen it, I would recommend Oz the Great and Powerful for the sheer Ozzy envelopment it can provide.
Oh, there are problems -- no question. With thousands of would-be writers in the motion picture industry, it seems odd that comparatively few of them possess the ability to write humorous, in-character lines or create genuine and suitably comic situations. (That's a lack that even more heavily impacted the recent film, Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return, which is the subject of a forthcoming blog.) After its wondrous opening credits and an exciting, engrossing, and beautifully envisioned Kansas sequence (sepia!), Oz the Great and Powerful hits a stretch of twenty-or-so underperforming minutes. Instead of adapting or expanding upon the glorious W. W. Denslow and John R. Neill designs in the original Oz book illustrations, Disney instead opted for a pastel vista that looks like an Easter Egg rendering of Peter Jackson's Middle-Earth. Story-wise, we're then saddled with Oscar Diggs' (blessedly mostly off-camera) seduction of the first two women he meets.
There are, to be sure, some fleeting, redeeming moments therein: the sudden threat of a winged monkey; the rescue of the more genteel monkey, diminutive Finley; and some of the distant and interior views (ah, that treasure room!) of the Emerald City. And the picture swings back into a brighter, more involving tempo once Diggs and Finley set off on their journey, help the spunky China Girl, and become embroiled with Glinda and her sage, for-good machinations. The Wizard's subsequent expansion of his Kansas humbuggery to commandeer the capital and banish the wicked witches is in the very, very best of Baum tradition. And the closing sequence in which teamwork and personal commitment is movingly acknowledged by the protagonists makes for a happy and reasonably satisfying ending.
Franco's performance has strengths and lulls, as well, but his Wizard is unquestionably possessed of enough personal charisma to save a country or waylay a wench. Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams as the Witches of Oz are as effective as can be, even when the script doesn’t always offer them much in the way of character delineation and motivation. Zach Braff demonstrates a happy dedication to both his in-the-flesh Kansas adjunct and voice-over work as Finley; Joey King is even more poignant and pithy in the (better written) dual role of Kansas waif and Ozian figurine.
So…I more than liked the picture. I look forward to future viewings. I would pray for an even more entertaining – i.e., funny (at least in part) – and Oz-centric sequel. But far beyond my own enjoyment, I like the fact that people turned out to pay to see Oz the Great and Powerful. Its financial success – along with that of Wicked (now in its eleventh year as a stage sensation), the 2013 3D/IMAX adaptation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Wizard of Oz of 1939, and (on a smaller scale) last month’s successful Oz festivals in Chittenango, NY, and Grand Rapids, MN – are cheerful proof of the never-ending appeal of the land we love.
Or, to paraphrase the great Ira Gershwin: “It’s very clear….our Oz is here to stay.”
Article by John Fricke