Casablanca is the holy grail of American movies. It shouldn’t be remade because, well . . . why? It’s perfect as it is. It holds up beautifully 70 years later. All you’re going to do is invite comparisons to the original, and that’s a fight you’re going to lose. Who’s going to be able to touch Peter Lorre’s “Reeeeek! Hide mee, Reeeeeek!”
I thought about that a lot as I watched Disney’s Oz The Great and Powerful. The Wizard of Oz is another ironclad classic. Casablanca is #3 on the AFI list of 100 Greatest American Films while The Wizard of Oz ranks #10. There’s always seemed to be a little more wiggle room as it related to Dorothy and her pals, though. There’s a series of Oz novels, and other Oz properties have existed over the years. The Wizard of Oz is a frequent production of high school and community theaters. It’s never been only just a movie to us.
While I think messing with a classic is a bad idea (and post-converting the 1939 Oz to 3D is a truly awful idea), the people at Disney had no such trepidation and have waded into the waters of L. Frank Baum’s over the rainbow series. The comparisons to the original are inevitable, and they aren’t going to be very favorable.
Things start off great.
Director Sam Raimi loves to play with the opening credits (Remember the Alex Ross credits from Spider-Man 2?), and the title sequence here is a doozie. Shot in black and white, the titles play out as if in the world of pop-up books and puppet-theater. In 3D, it’s pretty stunning. Ditto for the film’s opening scenes. Using the 1939 movie’s famous framing device, Raimi opens the film in black and white and Academy ratio before switching to color and widescreen. The opening is also gloriously soundstagey and introduces us to James Franco as Oz, the once and future wizard. Oz is a Kansas conman and circus magician. After raising the ire of the circus strongman, Oz uses a hot air balloon as a means of escape. But, before you can say, “There’s no place like home” (Well, actually you can’t; more on that later.), Oz is sucked into a violent tornado. Guess where he winds up? Also, like the original film, three actors in the prologue will wind up as characters in Oz, as well.
In the original film, there was that amazing moment (and must have been truly remarkable for audiences almost 75 years ago) when Dorothy steps out of sepia Kansas and into Technicolor Oz. Maybe it’s because we know it’s coming, but this new film had kind of the reverse effect on me. The black and white sequence is easily the most thrilling in the film. Raimi employs letterboxed aspect ratio and 3D like Ang Lee did in that incredible flying fish sequence in Life of Pi, with occasional objects (the most beautiful was snow) appearing to be coming literally out of the screen.
Once in Oz, Franco meets three witches, Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evandora (Rachel Weisz), and Glinda (Michelle Williams). Theodora and Evendora are sisters, so that means one of them is going to one day have an ill-fated encounter with a flying house. Oz is immediately greeted as the great wizard that has been prophesied to fall from the sky and rule the kingdom.
He’s joined by a winged monkey in a bellhop suit named Finley (voiced by Zac Braff) and China Girl, an anamorphic porcelain doll voiced by Joey King. I liked these two characters a lot, even though I wasn’t keen on the design of Finley. He’s the comic relief and quite a bit of his lines are genuinely funny.
But, this isn’t just the wizard’s origin story. We also get to see somebody transform into the Wicked Witch of the West. Disney’s PR people are asking critics not to reveal who goes green in the film, and I will respect their wishes. But, since she’s currently on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, I’m not so sure it’s going to be a big surprise. I love transformation scenes in movies, but I was really disappointed at how this one largely takes place off camera. I know they were going for a PG rating, but I was hoping the director of Evil Dead would have a blast with this sequence.
I really felt the movie gets slow and baggy once the wizard gets to Oz. There isn’t much of a story being told. Baum wrote 14 Oz books, yet he never wrote an origin story for the wizard. He must have thought it wasn’t all that important, and I’d have to agree with him. With all this source material at their disposal, the filmmakers have come up with a script with almost zero forward momentum. It’s flat and really goes nowhere.
The script also strands the cast with unplayable roles. Make no mistake, this is a great cast. You’ve got an Oscar winner (Weisz), a three-time Oscar nominee (Williams), a Best Actor nominee (Franco), and a Golden Globe nominee (Kunis). Yet nobody really gets much to play. I loved Franco in 127 Hours, and I don’t mind saying his work in that made me cry like a little girl. Robert Downey, Jr. was originally attached to this role, and I really think he’d have been a better choice. RDJ is all rakish charm, and that’s what Oz needs. Franco seems to be flailing the whole movie, never really finding what he’s trying for. He’s wildly uneven and inconsistent. Williams is given nothing to do except be really, really perky, which is criminal since she’s so great. Weisz probably gives the most rounded performance. She also seems to be having the most fun.
At this point, does Danny Elfman know he’s just self-parody? Every orchestral score he writes now sounds exactly like the previous one. The original film had one of the most memorable scores in movie history, and “Over the Rainbow” is one of the greatest American songs ever written. This has a score that sounds like the USC Marching Band falling down a flight of stairs.
The original music was off limits, and many of the movie’s problems stem from copyright issues. The Baum Oz novels were written from 1900-1920, and they are now considered public domain. If I wanted to use them for the basis of an Oz movie, I could, and I wouldn’t have to pay any royalties at all; however, the original 1939 Wizard of Oz movie is owned by Warner Bros., and they hold all copyrights over it. That means anything in the books is fair game, but ideas unique to the movie aren’t. This included dialogue, production design, performances, makeup, etc. The Emerald City exists in the movie, because it exists in the books. But, it can’t look too much like the Emerald City in the original movie.
This creates kind of a problem, because what Disney has produced is most certainly a prequel to a film they don’t hold rights to. Instead of a swarm of flying monkeys, now we get a swarm of flying baboons. Yep, baboons. The Wicked Witch calls people “my pretty one” instead of “my pretty.” In a way, this is craven commercialism at its worst – trying to create a film franchise from free source material but not going all the way and using any of the great parts of the original. Would it have been so hard to have partnered with Warner Bros. on this and produced a prequel that lined up with the original film?
This trip down the Yellow Brick Road is not so great and powerful.