DVD Review: “Oz the Great and Powerful” directed by Sam Raimi

By on August 31, 2013

film icon

 

 

DAN WALKER ON FILM

 

 

 

 

Cast:

James Franco (“In the Valley of Elah”, “Pineapple Express”, “127 Hours”)

Michelle Williams (“The Station Agent”, “Brokeback Mountain”, “My Weekend with Marilyn”)

Rachel Weisz (“About a Boy”, “Best Supporting Actress Oscar® for “The Constant Gardner”, “The Fountain”)

Mila Kunis (“Gia”, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, “Black Swan”)

Runtime:  130 Minutes

(Sorry for the delay in getting this one out.  In my quest to live a minimal existence and avoid accumulating things I don’t really need, I’m at the mercy of my place on Netflix’s queues.  This movie released on Netflix on June 11 and I didn’t get it until this past week.)

_______________________________________________________________________

Oz posterThe first point I need to make is that this is a movie targeted toward children familiar with Victor Fleming’s 1939 “The Wizard of Oz.”*  That adaptation was an overwhelming and compelling movie the first few times I saw it.  I read Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (below in its original cover), which the movie was based on, when I was about eight and thought less of the movie as a result. The book’s tone was so much darker and I thought a more true adaptation would have made for a better movie.  I liked the story without the singing and dancing, although I think the film’s songs are all great and the film deserves its legendary status; it just took a lot of liberties with the story and concept.  Walter Murch’s 1985 “Return to Oz” (starring Fairuza Balk, an actress with a distinctive presence and who I think is underutilized) was much more true to the book’s tone and I was glad someone made the movie**.  Still, until my mid teens and before cable and VCRs, I enjoyed the 1939 movie when it played annually on TV.  Things on TV were more special before cable and any home video recording medium.  Now, like everywhere else you turn, television is just overload and I watch less TV than I ever have and feel better for it.

wonderful wizard of oz original coverThe story is essentially a prequel to the 1939 classic but you have to look past the inherent roadblocks to enjoy the movie.  I was fine leaving the 1939 version alone and looked forward to seeing a movie that stood on its own.  I didn’t read any reviews so I had no idea “Oz” borrowed so much from Fleming’s version.  Also, as the Oz part of the original story was Dorothy’s dream – and I hate using these words in the same sentence – it precludes the logical existence of a prequel.  (In the 1939 movie it was a dream but in the book she actually lands in Oz.)  Again, because the target audience is children who love the classic film, I can imagine similarities, specifically the primary color visuals, added to the experience for kids.  The yellow brick road, the Emerald City, Oz’s palace, the poppy field, return to oz posterthe marching soldiers; all closely resembled the 1939 versions.  For me, they were a distraction and a copout.  The story explains how the Wizard (Franco), whose nickname happens to be Oz (derived from combining the first letters of his first and second names) arrived in the Land of Oz, became the wizard and how the Wicked Witch of the West (Theodora in this film, played by Kunis) acquired her appearance and why she became wicked.  Theodora is initially good-natured but has self-esteem and anger-management issues.  I like how the stories used to be; characters were either good or bad and nobody had baggage or needed therapy.  Tossing aside logic, explaining the origin of both characters was a good idea.  For kids.


oz  new and original MunchkinsAfter the first few times I saw the 1939 movie, although I didn’t know the word at the time, I felt the use of little people was exploitative, even though I understood Munchkins (right, new and old versions side-by-side) were supposed to be little people.  It was unnerving to see them sing and oz tony coxdance in this movie very much the way they did in Fleming’s version.  The main little person, Knuck, was played by Tony Cox (left; he was Billy Bob Thornton’s character’s co-conspirator in Terry Zwigoff’s hilarious 2003 “Bad Santa”) who, it struck me in watching the movie, is a shorter male version of Wanda Sykes.  Given the same lines, I bet their deliveries would be identical.

This movie introduces two other groups of denizens of Munchkin Land, the Tinkers and the Farmers, who were concocted for the battle and climax scenes.  Bill Cobbs (right, with Franco)  is Master Tinker.  He probably lost a lot of roles to Morgan oz bill cobbsFreeman and himself has a sage presence, resonant voice, and relaxed delivery.  I liked him as the janitor/narrator in the Coen Brothers 1994 stylized “The Hudsucker Proxy” (which was written by Raimi) and as a one-episode reverend on The Sopranos.  The Tinkers are experts at building things and are responsible for the Wizard’s big-face-in-the-smoke effect.  The Farmers are good at making things like scarecrows, which answers a question I’m not sure anyone asked, although that skill was put to clever use.

James-Franco-Oscars-drag_450Either Franco was miscast or misdirected or misguided by his dialogue coach because, for a movie set in 1905, he sounded too much like James Franco in 2013.  He says “gotta” “gonna” and pronounces “to” like “duh” with a “t” and “you” the same way.  Also, and maybe I’m wrong here, I think people back then took the time to enunciate their words so they don’t run all together the way we speak now.  Because no effort was made in making his delivery more fitting with the period, it made his performance seem flippant oz franco williamsand detached.  I may still resent him for displaying those traits when he hosted the Oscars in 2011 with poor Ann Hathaway(above), who worked hard to compensate for his apathetic performance.  It was as though he decided at the last minute the show was beneath him because he was apparently great in rehearsals.

Maybe he was cast in the role because this Oz not only was a con man, he was a womanizer.  Despite how that fits into the storyline, I didn’t find it appropriate and it was another aspect of the film I didn’t care for.  It’s odd that the movie was targeted toward children and its one adult element was out of place.  It had never occurred to me before that the 1939 film made no references at all to sexuality or romance.

Mila Kunis 70s show

I like Mila Kunis, who plays Theodora, a lot.  She couldn’t have been better in Darren Aranofsky’s 2010 “Black Swan” (below, right) and was good in the 2008 quirky and funny “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”  On That 70’s Show (left, with Laura Prepon’s back), she did something I usually dislike on TV, which I refer to as “the Murphy Brown syndrome”; she over-read all her lines.  Murphy Brown was unwatchable because the entire cast did it (Candice Bergen always sounded past being out of breath by the time she got to Mila Kunis Black Swanthe end of her lines) but Kunis made it work.  Plus, like with Lucy and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, it doesn’t hurt a comic actress to be a beautiful woman.  She doesn’t get to do much on Family Guy but I like the irony that such a beautiful woman plays Meg, who gets slammed for her looks several times in each episode and is often mistaken for a man, despite her resemblance to her mother, Lois, who is considered a knockout.

Despite my appreciation for her, the casting of Kunis never felt right to me in this movie.  When her character is first introduced, she’s overly made-up (something she doesn’t need) and very corset-era Helena Bonham Carter, Jr. (below, with Franco).  When (spoiler alert) she transforms into the WWOTW, she’s made oz kunis and francoto look as much like Margaret Hamilton’s 1939 version as Kunis can look, but with cleavage.  She did everything she could with the role, the most pivotal in the movie, but I kept thinking she was over her head or simply miscast.  Still, I like her enough I didn’t hold it against her.

Oscar®-winner Weisz portrays Theodora’s sister Evanora, who, it turns out, is the real wicked witch and is responsible for the death of Glinda’s oz weisz(Williams) father, who had once ruled Oz.  Since her sister is the WWOTW,  Evanora is the witch Dorothy’s house falls on later.  Both Weisz and Williams are great in their adversarial roles, with Williams (who seems to get better and better as time goes on) getting much more screen time and a more interesting character to portray.  It’s ironic that I say the least about the performances I felt were the film’s strongest.  As with Franco’s entire performance, I was distracted when Glinda prefaced a oz franco williamscomment by saying the very modern-sounding, “For the record.”  Zach Braff, as Oz’s non-dream assistant Frank and the voice of winged monkey sidekick Finley, was unnecessary for me but I guess he was essential for children as comic relief.  Another secondary character provided for children is the China (as in porcelain) doll, voiced by Joey King.

The movie’s opening extended crane shot of the Kansas carnival where Oz is performing as an illusionist is very oz opening shotauthentic, busy and promising and is shot in a black and white 1:1 ratio picture (square and only takes up half the screen, right).  Like the 1939 classic, after Oz’s balloon is carried by a tornado and is plopped down in the Land of Oz, the picture fills the screen and transforms to (excessive) color.  As technically tight as the movie is, I preferred the black and white part’s look.

A personal highlight was the treasure room scene.  Throughout oz treasure roomthe movie and as part of his charade as a magician, Oz makes up magic words like “sim sim salabim” for his illusions.  When he’s shown the treasure room that comes with being the Wizard of Oz , he dives into the pile of gold coins, throws them in the air in greedy celebration and, while sliding down the pile, yells, “Ali Baba!”.  Even before he said it, I recognized Ali Baby Bunny Daffythe reference to the Chuck Jones 1957 animated Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck short, “Ali Baba Bunny”, where Bugs and Daffy find themselves in a similar cave of treasures and Daffy dives into a pile of gold coins and throws them in the air in greedy celebration.  Other than the closeup scene where the skeletal hands cup and finger coins in a miserly fashion in Eric Von Stroheim’s butchered-but-still-brilliant 1924 silent classic, “Greed”, the Daffy scene is the best ever depiction of that trait.***

Here’s a link with a making-of video and stills of the “Oz” treasure room scene:

http://www.cgmeetup.net/home/making-of-oz-the-great-and-powerful-treasure-room-shot/

Here’s a link to “Ali Baba Bunny”:

http://www.kidswb.com/video/Looney-Tunes/Ali-Baba-Bunny/70a8759b-ed6c-45e6-9143-98bc877cf8f9

oz titleI guess Sam Raimi (my favorite Raimi film is 1998’s “A Simple Plan”, which I watch every winter) saw the project as ambitious, but it was so derivative of the 1939 film I found it unimaginative and, along with Franco’s portrayal, came out of the viewing unsatisfied.  Adults with low expectations and kids, however, are likely to find the film enjoyable.

DPW

August 31, 2013

________________________

GWTW leigh gable fleming* It’s ironic that Fleming (right, with Leigh and Gable on the GWTW set and below, with producer Melvyn Leroy, Garland and the Munchkins) directed both “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz”, which are not just classic movies but classics with huge gay followings.  Fleming was excessively macho, a no-nonsense, strong-handed director and a WWI veteran.

Fleming was not the original director for either movie.  He replaced George Cukor (“Dinner at Eight”, “The Philadelphia Story”, the 1954 Judy Garland/James Mason version of “A Star is Born”) on “Gone with the wizard of oz leroy garland flemingWind.”  Richard Thorpe, the original director of “The Wizard of Oz”, made 185 films between 1923 and 1967, the most famous of which were the 1952 Robert Taylor / Elizabeth Taylor / Joan Fontaine / George Sanders film, “Ivanhoe” and the 1957 Elvis Presley vehicle, “Jailhouse Rock.”  He was chosen to direct “Oz” because he was good at bringing movies in under budget and on time.  He had no particular style at all, wasn’t doing a good job on “Oz”, and was fired after two weeks.  Fleming was brought in GWTW the making of a legend VHSon both films to iron out problems each was having.  Obviously, MGM made the right decision in both cases, although he never remotely approached the success of either film with his subsequent efforts.

If you want to watch a fascinating and entertaining film documentary, watch 1988’s “The Making of a Legend:  Gone with the Wind.”  As with the back stories of “The Godfather”, “Star Wars”, “Jaws” and “Apocalypse Now”, the documentary explains how GWTW faced a lot of difficulties and a lot of doubt.

_____________________________________

english patient poster** I left the Shrine Auditorium side-by-side with Walter Murch after he won two 1996 Oscars® for Editing and Sound on “The English Patient”, as well as Anthony Minghella (who won for Best Director) and Gabriel Yard, who won for Original Score. That was a lot of hardware to accompany.  Harvey was also part of the group.  Everyone was in a really good mood that night.

_____________________________________

chuck jones young*** Chuck Jones is one of the few people I consider to be a genius out of artists in my lifetime (Lennon/McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Prince, and the music video and film director Michel Gondry are others that come to mind).  He has been cited as an inspiration by Mel Brooks (who makes great references to Jones cartoons in both 1974′s “Blazing Saddles “and 1987′s “Spaceballs”), George Lucas (the Jones short “Duck Dodgers and the 24 ½th Century” played before “Star Wars” at its premiere), Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, and Eddie Murphy.  Anyone with a well-rounded knowledge of film understands Jones’ significance to the medium.  His best known work is probably his 1966 collaboration with Dr. Suess, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”  While I idolized Jones from a young age, I myself lacked the talent to progress with my drawing.  I was commended by teachers but, even at that age, I recognized my limitations.  Besides, at that age, sports was much more fun.

chuck jones young and oldHere’s an irony for you:  Thirty years ago I met a guy named Alex who had a very haughty east coast prep school upbringing (his parents were both Georgetown professors).  He displayed his own artwork in Manhattan (NYC) galleries as a teen and was brought up listening exclusively to classical music and watched very little TV.  He didn’t live the regular life of a kid and was very sheltered.  As opposite as we were, we got along extremely well and I learned CJ DD24-5Ca lot about art from him and he learned a lot about popular culture (music, movies, TV shows) from me.  One of the things I was more than happy to introduce him to were Chuck Jones’ Warner Brothers shorts. I also explained to him the different styles of all the guys who directed animated shorts for Warners Brothers.  He really took to them because he was visually oriented and had a great sense of humor.  Even though he was an anthropology major, Alex decided he wanted to get into selling art as a profession.  He started by selling animation cells and animation art in San Francisco and, eventually, became first a business associate, then a very close friend of Jones, someone he had never heard of until he met me.  CJ PPLPI had a quick introduction to Jones though Alex, which was all I needed, even though Alex invited me to dinner whenever Jones was in town.  I didn’t go because I didn’t feel I had anything interesting to contribute to their conversations and, besides, their conversations were about business.  I’ve turned down a lot of introductions to famous people whose work I respected – including Stevie Wonder (who performed twice at my high school during his mid-70’s peak) and Gladys Knight – because I just didn’t see any value in it, especially for them.  I’m not good at being a gushing admirer.

Gay_Puree_DVD_coverBesides being business associates, another thing Jones and Alex had in common was a love of art.  Jones wrote the 1962 animated feature “Gay Purr-ee”, about cats in Paris.   http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0057093/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1     The characters were voiced by Judy Garland, Robert Goulet, Red Buttons, Morey Amsterdam and Paul Frees, a legendary voice actor who did Boris Badenov, many narrations (including the late 1950′s Walt Disney space documentaries, which are exceptional), and he was the funeral parlor director in Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic “Some Like it Hot.”  Here’s his scene: Paul Frees in ‘Some Like it Hot’ better.

While Jones is only given credit as a writer, the film’s character designs bear his strong stamp and it’s clear his love of the French impressionists impacted the backdrops of the film.  In addition, the film’s songs were written by the team from “The Wizard of Oz”, composer Harold Arlene and lyricist E.Y. Harburg.  I saw the movie in the theatre in a re-release as a child and loved it and now own it on DVD.  In 1998, when I was in the film industry, the phone at my desk rang, I picked it up and this conversation transpired:

Gay Purr-ee Italian posterMe:                “This is Dan.”

Not me:          “Hi Dan, this is Red Buttons.”

Me, in no way expecting the other person to say that:    “Red Buttons the actor”, said like a sentence but implying a question, just to make sure I heard right.

RB:                 “Yeah, yeah.  Red Buttons, big movie star, all that stuff.” in a very self-deprecating way and having fun with it.

Implying the coincidence, I said, “I just watched ‘Gay-Purr-ee’ this past weekend.”

He immediately lit up and, in his full voice, very emphatically said:

“Ohhhhhh, I loved making that movie!  That was the best experience of my life!  Judy was so beautiful and wonderful to work with, and Bob, and Morey…that was such a wonderful, wonderful experience!  You just made my day!  Thank you, Dan!

gay purr-ee robespierreWhich made MY day.  The conversation really made him remember back to the experience as he spoke, which was a priceless moment for me.  He voiced Robespierre, the feisty kitten, and it made sense he had a good time doing it because he was perfect and hilarious.  We talked about the movie – he really was taken by my appreciation for and knowledge of the film – then I got to the point of his call.  He received an Academy screening VHS tape that was broken and he needed a Sayonara-posterreplacement.  I had nothing to do with getting Academy screeners out but told him I’d handle it, got his address and it was in his hands within the hour, which gave him another reason to call and thank me profusely.  Buttons won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Josh Logan’s 1957 “Sayonara”, which starred Marlon Brando, Ricardo Montalban and James Garner.  Imagine being in a movie starring Brando and you’re the one that wins an Oscar.

I forget about moments like that until something triggers my memory.  I really have a lot of those stories and they’re all positive and entertaining.  I was good at making talent smile and laugh immediately upon meeting them.  Even the interactions that started out contentious end up great.  Like with the Buttons anecdote, I always seemed to say the right thing when I dealt with talent and was quick at disarming them.

____________________________

2011 03 18 KC downtown (17)Having had the misfortune of living in the Midwest for two years, I’m using this opportunity to point out a flaw in the 1939 “Oz” movie (and the book); someone from a small town in Kansas would never introduce herself as coming from Kansas.  She would instead specify the town where she lived because she could never see past that affiliation.  Dorothy being in a foreign land and saying she was from Kansas is a step away from her saying she’s from America.

 

2011 06 19 Nelson-Adkins Museum (1)When I first moved to Kansas City, I met a guy who was in the downtown area doing what I was doing at that moment, taking pictures of the well-preserved 1940’s buildings.  I explained that I just moved there from New York City (you can’t refer to it as “Manhattan” there because they assume you mean the Kansas town and, even if you split a molecule with your mind in front of them, intelligence does not register with them) and lived in LA and the Bay Area prior.  He said he lived in Topeka.  I responded, “Oh, so you’re from this area”, meaning that relatively close geographical area.  He said, “Oh no, I moved to Topeka from Wichita.”  I didn’t see the difference he did and looked forward to leaving that place the first chance I got.  And I did.

The row of books is the parking garage for the main branch of the Kansas City Public Library, which was three short blocks from where we lived.  It was a Jeopardy visual clue under the category of “U.S. City Buildings”.  None of the contestants tried to guess its location.  The other picture is the front of the Nelson-Adkins Museum, which is a beautiful structure and complex with massive grounds and sculptures interspersed throughout.  My favorite part of the museum is the Asian section.

____________________________

a star is born poster 1937 what price hollywoodFinally (cue applause), I have to acknowledge the coincidence of mentioning three Judy Garland movies in one review.  ”Oz” makes sense but the other two don’t, other than to follow the stream of consciousness way I think and write.  I’m not even a big fan and, in fact, could never finish her version of “A Star is Born” or any other Garland movie other than “Oz.”  (I need to see Stanley Kramer’s 1962 “Judgement at Nuremberg”, where Garland earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.)  I prefer by far William Wellman’s 1937 version with Janet Gaynor, Fredric March and Adolphe Menjou but wouldn’t touch the 1976 Streisand version with a ten-foot pole.  I also like George Cukor’s 1932 predecessor, “What Price Hollywood?”

About Dan Walker

As part of an Air Force family, I went to elementary school in Great Falls, MT, junior high in Cheyenne, WY and high school and college in the San Francisco Bay Area, graduating from San Francisco State University with a degree in business. I was fortunate to have worked for great companies in Silicon Valley (Oracle Corp) and Hollywood (Miramax Films). I also lived and worked (primarily in financial services, which has no great companies) for eight years in Manhattan, New York City. I now reside in New York's beautiful Hudson Valley.

3 comments on “DVD Review: “Oz the Great and Powerful” directed by Sam Raimi

  1. Thanks for confirming what I thought about this movie and saving me time. I had no desire to see this. I am not attributing not seeing it to your review only that you confirmed my thoughts about it.
    In lieu of a prequel or sequel, I prefer watching something original like the movie “Return to Oz” which was truer to the book. I think the beauty of the 1939 film, despite the fact that it was not true to the book, was that it was made without the aid of computers.
    You mentioned “making of” documentaries and I wanted to add to that list the documentary, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 50 Years of Magic”, this along with the ones you mentioned are delightful to watch.
    There were so many other marvelous tidbits in your review, that I am happy they made “Oz The Great and Powerful” because in your review, you share other stories and bring back fond memories, Red Buttons, in particular. You confirmed in my mind that he was a genuinely nice person. One of my favorite Red Buttons performances is as the D-Day parachutist who lands on the church and gets tangled in his parachute in “The Longest Day”.

  2. Daniel B on said:

    Havn’t watched the Wizard Of Oz in many years but you’ve reintroduced my childhood to me. Love the Red Buttons part. Can’t wait to see A Simple Plan again this winter. Very small town memorable. You really made my day with the Paul Frees scene. Thanks

  3. Jeremy Walker on said:

    Good stuff again, Dan. Anytime cartoons are referenced, it makes my day. Greedy Daffy Duck! Also, enjoy all the references and “did you know” Comments. Especially when I get stuck remembering and it is like you to beat me to it.

    I tried one time using “Gay Purr-ee” as a reference to the kids and they have no clue. Times have changed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

HTML tags are not allowed.