Okay, so what is the most famous film in the world? Which is the film that is most ingrained into everyone’s consciousness? Everyone has heard of Casablanca but I would imagine there is a fair proportion of the population that couldn’t give you a satisfying account of the synopsis. There’s a bar and Ingrid Bergman walks into it, something about a hill of beans and a beautiful friendship, it’s set during the war? Gone With The Wind would get a similar reaction. I bet if you ask the next ten people you talk to if they’ve seen Citizen Kane, less than five of them will have done.
On the other hand everyone knows the Wizard of Oz. The details are all familiar; the wicked witch of the west, the scarecrow, the tin man, the cowardly lion, Toto, follow the yellow brick road, there’s no place like home, I’m melting… melting, the gingham dress, somewhere over the rainbow, the flying monkeys, the munchkins. If you mention any one of these things to anyone they will instantly know the reference. There simply isn’t a better known film and the attention is well deserved because The Wizard of Oz is clearly good, it is really good.
Obviously it is of its time but it hasn’t really dated in it’s attitudes. It is enchanting, it is scary and it is still mesmerising even by contemporary standards. Ten years ago when I was a Primary School Teacher I showed the Wizard of Oz to a class of under 7s, who were all obsessed with Harry Potter and poor Star Wars prequels. The moment when Dorothy steps out of her crashed house into the technicolor world of Oz was greeted with an audible expression of wonder and amazement by every single child in the room.
You would think that all of this would make The Wizard of Oz an untouchable property. No one would dream of making a sequel to Mary Poppins or a new version of E.T and on the rare and misguided occasions when classic films are played with, such as Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho, the critical and commercial response is not good. Interestingly though, people don’t seem to be precious about The Wizard of Oz.
If you enter ‘Oz’ into IMDb (I know, the depths of my cinematic research capabilities are staggering) you instantly get eleven film or television versions of Dorothy’s adventures. Everyone has been to this land over the rainbow from Michael Jackson to The Muppets and then there is the stage show Wicked and the intriguing modern day TV miniseries Tin Man adding to the mix. There are numerous versions of this story, at least eight of which actually predate the 1939 classic, and Sam Raimi’s new film is not even the first time Disney have gone there as they made the (in my opinion) very good sequel Return to Oz in 1985. It doesn’t matter that Oz is so crowded though because Frank L. Baum’s fantastical world is so rich and with so many possibilities that there is room for everyone to play there without stepping on anyone else’s ruby slippers.
As a prequel, Oz the Great and Powerful has no Dorothy Gale but what we do get is the story of how the man who would be Wizard was set up for his curtain call. There are plenty of familiar motifs shot through a modern lens: the yellow brick road, the emerald city, the flying monkeys and many of them are handled quite knowingly. The Munchkins we already know are twee and that is played with quite nicely here. Similarly Glinda the Good Witch’s method of travelling by bubble, which is a little lame by contemporary standards and is nicely mocked in Wicked, is dealt with well. The one iconic item that doesn’t appear in the film is the ruby slippers as, unlike with Return to Oz, Disney hasn’t paid MGM the rights to use them. This is a shame as at the end there is a place where they could have fitted into the story quite well. Other aspects of the story you know are worked in effectively; the wicked witch sisters, the cowardly lion, the scarecrow, the big booming wizard voice. They also have to deal with the fact that the hero is already known to be a schmuck.
Admittedly it isn’t as tricky as the Darth Vader problem where we were asked to accept that one of the most evil forces in the universe was once a slightly nauseating kid called Annie but the fact is that the Wizard is a shameful and somewhat pathetic con man. I liked what they did with this as they actually manage to make the character’s greatest flaw his greatest asset.
The main problem with Oz the Great and Powerful is that it isn’t based on any of Baum’s original books. The Wizard of Oz and Return to Oz both where and managed to capture the effortless and endearing surrealism of his world. This is actually a very hard thing to emulate and like Disney/Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland this film comes across as too self consciously weird. It is having to try a little too hard.
Oz the Great and Powerful is a perfectly entertaining two hours and it looks magnificent but I don’t think it can even hope to have anything like the enduring appeal of Judy Garland’s film. Also, because the story is set in a traditional fairytale world of evil witches it carries with it all the old fashioned ideas of femininity that this brings. I wouldn’t call Dorothy Gale a strong female role model but in having a female lead The Wizard of Oz sidestepped these outdated notions of men coming to save the day from hideous women, this new film, coming seventy four years later somehow doesn’t seem as enlightened.
Glinda the Good Witch of the South plays a much more important role here than in the original classic and Michelle Williams is great. Both she and Rachel Weisz are fantastic actresses who can’t help but be brilliant in every film they are in. As evidence of this you need to see them rise above the material in My Week With Marilyn and The Bourne Legacy respectively. I thought Mila Kunis was very good in Black Swan but in this company she just doesn’t measure up.
All of this considered Oz the Great and Powerful is a fun and enjoyable film. There would be little reason to see it unless you are taking children or are an Oz film completist but if you do fit into either of those categories then go and be entertained. Sure, it doesn’t measure up to The Wizard
of Oz but it really isn’t fair to expect it to.
Is this one for the kids?
Oz the Great and Powerful is a PG but in the same way that the 1939 classic is a little scary so is this. As this film is so referential of the other it would have somehow have been wrong if it wasn’t. As with The Wizard of Oz it is the flying baboons and the witch that might force little hands over little eyes and consider that this time they are not limited by what they can do with special effects. These simians are not men in monkey suits dangling from wires. They can also open their mouths this time and they scream and have sharp teeth.