I once read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Though there are many who love it, I didn’t care for it. To me Baum’s creation lacked rigor and any sense of history. All these crazy and unlikely beings were thrown together with no explanation other than it was magic. Plus I don’t think his magical system had any internal logic to it. Magic users could or could not do things whenever it was convenient to the plot. Perhaps I would have felt differently about it if I’d read it as a child or before I read Tolkien.
Loved the movie though. Which is strange because it suffers from many of the same faults as the book. It is a story that depends on spectacle, and either Baum’s writing skills weren’t up to the task of describing what was in his imagination or the more formal style of writing in those days doesn’t speak to us modern readers. And of course, I did see the movie when I was a kid just like every other member of the last three and a half generations of Americans.
So I wonder if Oz would have been the cultural touchstone that it is if the 1939 masterpiece had never been made. Certainly the book was a bestseller, so successful that Baum wrote thirteen sequels and when he died in 1919, the publisher hired another writer to pen a sequel a year until 1942. There were theatrical productions and even a musical, and three silent films were made from it before ’39. But the ‘39 film is such a colossus that it’s hard to believe that it hasn’t overshadowed its source material. There’s nothing in the book as glorious as Judy Garland singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow, or that first shot of Oz in Technicolor. I suppose we’ll never know.
So now Disney has hired visionary director Sam Raimi to make a direct prequel to the film, not the book. Oz the Great and Powerful is the story of Oscar Diggs, played by James Franco, an itinerant carnival magician of dubious ethics, who comes to Oz, accidentally and becomes the great wizard, ejecting the wicked sisters Theodora, played by Mila Kunis and Evanora, played by Rachel Weiss, from the Emerald City, while forging an alliance with their good sister Glinda, played by Michelle Williams. It sets up the geo-political situation in Oz that exists when Dorothy arrives.
Raimi creates a beautiful film that takes its art direction and costuming from the 1939 movie. It even steals the trick of filming all the Kansas scenes in black and white. Of course this is done with state of the art special effects that technically surpass The Wizard of Oz, although the old film still holds up really well. There are certain scenes where Raimi lingers too long over his pretty pictures, creating some pacing issues.
He also directs his actors to act in the style popular in the 30’s and 40’s. You get used to it, but I’m not really sure they pulled it off. The main case in point being the lead performance. I like James Franco and there are many things he can do well. But he lacks the stage presence and the voice of an old time carnival magician. When they show him performing his act, he doesn’t own the stage like a veteran performer and when he roars with indignation it comes off as petulant and not magisterial. The role was seriously miscast.
I guess I can’t tell you which of the wicked sisters becomes the witch, but while both did fine, Margaret Hamilton was a force of nature and there was no way she was going to be topped.
The plot was decent. I liked the way that he used Oscar’s particular talents to win the day. There were several points in the film where it resonated with the classic, homages that also cleverly set up the events in the earlier film.
But I’m sorry it doesn’t even come close. The Wizard of Oz had five directors and nineteen screenwriters. It was a troubled and for the time expensive production. By all rights it should have been a mess. But out of that chaos came a masterpiece. People have tried to play in this world before but their efforts are long forgotten now like Disney’s own unofficial sequel, Return to Oz. And soon Oz the Great and Powerful will be too.