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Oz recalls its glorious past April 19, 2013

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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oz-the-great-and-powerful-poster-1(Warning:  a few subtle spoilers herein.)
One hallmark of a great prequel is that it shows/explains how something well-known came to be.  For example, just how did X-Man Dr. Hank McCoy, a.k.a., “Beast,” become, well, so blue?  You find out in “X-Men:  First Class.”  Just how did Indiana Jones develop a pathological aversion to snakes?  You find out during the prequel segment of “Last Crusade.”  So it goes for the Oz canon.  Just how did this so-called wizard make his way from Kansas in a balloon to this famous, enchanted land?  Just how was the relationship between the sister witches?  All of that and more is explained in this movie.

By now, “Oz the Great and Powerful” has been released in theaters for over a month, so it’s likely that most readers have seen the film.  As a Johnny-come-lately to the party, it’s hard to say anything that has not been said already about this film, but I nevertheless feel strongly compelled to try.  The reason I do is simple:  there is so much to like about this film that it is hard to know where to begin.

Why not start with the actors’ portrayals of the main characters?  James Franco delivers as the protagonist; sure, a number of others could pull it off just as well, but his portrayal of the so-called “Wizard” of Oz — in reality, a traveling circus magician/con man/womanizer — is quite satisfactory, and gives you a plausible origin of how the whole Wizard myth began.  When circumstances take him to a place that most certainly is NOT Kansas, he encounters not one, not two, but three witches, and eventually learns that the combined encounter is a family power struggle in which he is now ensnared.  Oops!  The first witch he meets, Theodora, played by Mila Kunis, ends up taking character development to the extreme.  We the audience first meet her as a young, naive, pretty young lady, almost exuding Meg-like innocence (she provides the voice of Meg in “Family Guy”*).  Nobody would consider a witch, though she is, and moreover, she later undergoes a metamorphosis, shedding her naive facade and afterwards remains, shall we say, jaded, both inside and out.  Soon, though, Oz meets her sister, Evanora, played by Rachel Weisz, who, as the story unfolds, seems to be channeling her inner Famke Janssen-as-Xenia Onatopp (you fellow James Bond aficionados know what I mean!) both in terms of appearance/attractiveness (Giggity!* — although that changes at the end of the film) and in terms of which side of good/evil she truly has chosen.  Not until Oz meets the third witch, Glinda, that he becomes enlightened as to who is actually good and who is actually — queue the Mike Myers voice — evil (/puts pinky finger to side of mouth).  Speaking of Glinda, her portrayal by Michelle Williams is superbly charming.  Any man with a pulse would jump at the chance to make her queen of his kingdom.

The secondary roles are more than ably filled, too.  Tony Cox, whose image as the foul-mouthed, sawed-off sidekick in “Bad Santa” is forever humorously etched in my mind, is extremely well-suited for his role as an irascible munchkin.  Bill Cobbs as a jack-of-all-trades tinkerer practically brings a smile to your face, too.  Other key characters are brought to you via the wonders of modern film-making magic.  Indeed, the biggest reason we the movie-going public were never treated to a big-time, big-budget adaptation of, say, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia was that the things described in that story were so fantastical, the special effects technology simply was not there until the middle of the last decade to finally do it justice on the big screen.  Same things goes for this film in question in many respects, one being two of the characters that become part of Oz’s group as he finds himself on a mission in a land that coincidentally bears his name.  Only the latest in special effects could properly portray a flying monkey dressed like a ritzy hotel bellhop, or a young girl who is a walking, talking china doll.  The latter character brings much to the proverbial table, as some of the interactions between her and Oz are the most tender scenes in the whole film.

But what I loved most about the film was all the special efforts made in recalling the original 1939 masterpiece to which this movie is a prequel.  Start with the treatment they give to the opening segment of the film.  In the 1939 original, everything is in black and white.  Only when Dorothy’s house crashes into Oz, thus sending the Wicked Witch of the East to an early albeit timely demise, does the film turn to color.  Keep in mind that color films in the late 1930s were few and far between. Color alone would have amazed the audience, but the Technicolor that MGM employed was exceptionally vivid.  Same thing goes for this new film.  The opening, “real-world” segment of the story is also depicted in sepia, and only after the protagonist survives his ordeal of a journey into the magical land does the eye-popping color open up before the audience’s eyes.

But that is just for starters.  The start of the Yellow Brick Road as a spiral directly recalls MGM’s standard-bearing predecessor, as does the physical setting of the Emerald City.  One can see its sparkling skyline in the distance behind fields of ultra-colorful poppies, which in turn run up to the edge of a dark forest.  Speaking of the city’s skyline, it also recalls the original from ’39; maybe not as art deco, sadly, but it makes up for it with its realistic imagery, not just a large painting on the wall of a sound stage.  Even the way the curtains drape in the throne room and in the hallway leading up to it seem to recall the timeless classic.  Better yet, Glinda’s memorable arrival in a magical bubble is recalled in fashion more splendid than ever before.  Speaking of memorable entrances, one of the witches making a scary entrance with red fire is a fitting nod to how that character did the same thing in the [much] earlier film.  Moreover, though the story obviously predates the rest of the dramatis personae (Dorothy et al.), it does well in making oblique references to both the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion.  Even the turban that Franco’s Oz wears on his head while an illusionist with the traveling circus in Kansas recalls that atop Frank Morgan‘s head as Professor Marvel.  Let us also not forget the parallel characters in the protagonist’s life between Kansas and Oz.

Regarding the explanation of how things come to be, not only is the origin of the Wizard’s throne room act of smoke and bombast cleverly explained, what is even more clever is the scenario that first necessitated it.  Plenty of other things about the film recommend it, though, in addition to the wonderful references to the 1939 classic.  When Oz finds himself in this strange yet beautiful world, part of the incredible scenery he takes in are various exotic plants making music; such is a classic, vintage Disney touch, right out of “Fantasia” or “Alice in Wonderland.”  Ol’ Walt would have been proud of these touches, and indeed of the whole film.

*See?  Even when talking about the Wizard of Oz and Disney, we can still make Family Guy references!  And who’da thought that Meg could so effectively channel her inner Margaret Hamilton?



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