We comic Geeks see the world differently. Our brains are wired in nine panel grids, bursting with Krackling Kirby energy. We are discerning and always, always looking for a good story. We have visceral responses to stories and we have a lifetime of comics written by the masters to compare every film experience to. So welcome to the column that will filter movies Through the Comic Book Brain.
Over the last decade, films that have relied on nostalgia have had varying degrees of success. A lovingly rendered call back to a minor detail of an original film can be reduced to trivia if a viewer’s memory does not match that of the filmmaker. This happened in Superman Returns and it happened in the, it couldn’t miss but it missed remake of King Kong, directed by a just off Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson. There is no more beloved a film than The Wizard of Oz, it transcends time and place and can bring even the most jaded film goer to the warm safe place of childhood. Each frame is memory, a memory of a time when the annual showing on network television was an event. As a child, surviving the Wicked Witch is a rite of passage. The characters are as part of Americana as anything invented in the past century and a half of film. Taking on this beloved classic takes stones and any fan can tell you, Sam Raimi has stones to spare. From bringing Spider-Man to life, to scaring the pants of us in Evil Dead and Army of Darkness, Raimi knows how to work a genre. And work it he does, as Oz, The Great and Powerful, is worthy to carry the name of Oz.
Where Jackson and Singer failed in Kong and Superman, Raimi succeeds and finds the sense of nostalgia the other films failed to locate. He knows where each character has to be when his film ends, but the steps of the journey could become complex because of audiences expectations. Oz has to be entrenched in Emerald City, the Wicked Witch has to become a creature of pure corruption and hatred, and Glenda, must be the kindly one ready to assist Dorothy. Getting there was the trick, and thankfully, Raimi had a hell of cast to help him succeed.
Let us start with the Wicked Witch of the West. Other than Darth Vader, there is no more iconic villain in film history. Raimi’s task of realizing this character was made even more complicated by the fact her origins had already been beautifully covered in Gregory McGuire’s novel Wicked. Raimi figures out an origin for the Wicked Witch that makes her sympathetic and loathed at the same time. She is a puppet, manipulated by her sister (and house magnet) Evanora, played by a sizzling Rachael Weisz. If Weisz is sizzling, Mila Kunis is hotter than a simmering Scarecrow. She has a classic beauty when she is introduced as Theodora and she even has an odd sort of gothic hotness as the green skinned, hooked nose Wicked Witch. Her fury is palpable and her hatred of James Franco’s Oz juxtaposes her stunning beauty to form a perfect combination of sensuality and iconic evil.
Franco’s performance is more subtle. He plays the huckster con man very well in the film’s first act, and he has a certain gawky sweetness as the hero of Oz in the film’s climatic battle. He plays the part with a subtle, classic feel; he is wide eyed and over enunciates like actors of yesteryear. He is completely the con man that used tricks and technology to make Dorothy fill her stockings in the original film and we get to see the origins of how he brought his sleight of hand false wizardry to the land that shares his name. The central journey of the film is how Oz goes from a con man to savoir and the journey is wonderfully executed by Raimi, but as they say, God is in the details and it is the details that truly make this film an experience for young viewers who are experiencing Oz for the first time or the veteran Oz fanatic.
There are loving nods to the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, the Gale family, and even a Horse of a Different Color. There are the Poppy Fields and the Winkies. Raimi doesn’t only borrow from the 30s film, he also liberally borrows ideas from the literary worlds of Frank L. Baum. One of the film’s highlights is China Girl, played by Joey King, from China Town, a place briefly seen in the Baum series. China Doll is a porcelain girl that Oz nurses back to health using glue. Her home was destroyed by Evanora and in one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, Oz and his monkey companion Finlay must walk over the broken crockery that was once sentient beings. China Doll is the only survivor and serves as the point of view character for young, female moviegoers entering Oz for the first time. China Doll serves as Oz’s salvation, as like the original it is suggested that the world of Oz is a dream and China Doll was a lingering memory of guilt from a moment early in the film, where Oz was asked to cure a wheelchair bound girl, again played by Joey King. Other characters appearing in both Oz and Kansas are Annie, played by Michelle Williams, who is Oz’s true love but returns in Oz as Glenda and Oz’s assistant Frank, who returns as the monkey, Finlay. Raimi does not forget that Oz is beloved by decades of women and does not turn the film into a masculine power fantasy like Snow White and the Huntsmen and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland did. This film is not a masculinization of Oz, but an original and gender sensitive exploration of the familiar setting.
The film’s color palette is rich and endless; the scenery is beautifully rendered, with lush and fantastic visuals that will make an audience want to return again and again. The only drawback of the film is prequelitis, as there is no real question as to how the film will end, but the journey is still worth taking. There is a sense of danger for China Girl and the flying monkeys’ Finlay, played by Zach Braff, as they, of course do not appear in the original. Sometimes, the comedy is forced, but the young audience loved it and chuckled constantly at Finlay’s antics.
The film has a great metatextual layer to it, as Oz uses a jury rigged film camera, inspired by the work of Thomas Edison, to combat the witches’ forces. Oz uses film to change the world of Oz, just as Victor Fleming and company used film in 1939 to change our world by presenting the first Wizard of Oz.
Oz, the Great and Powerful is not only a loving tribute to the characters of Oz, but a tribute to the original film’s longevity and status as America’s greatest fairy tale. Anyone with a heart will want to click their heels together and return to the world Raimi has recreated.
Den of Geek Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars