So this morning I strolled down the Yellow Brick Road and revisited the enchanting land of Oz. Much as it was in 1939, the skies are blue, the forests dark and the promise of Emerald City is boundless. While Dorthy and Toto are nowhere to be found, several original characters including the Wizard, Glinda, and the Wicked Witch of the West have joined us on our new journey. And while there are not really any glorious songs to sing, there is magic and adventure and heart all around. The technology of 2013 has managed to imitate the craftsmanship of 1939, and the view from here is most satisfying.
As a child, I owned a set of the Oz books and read several of them, but I have very little recall of them. I don’t think this film is based on a specific story from Frank L. Baum, instead it is a bridge from his work to the story told seventy four years ago. This story tells the tale of the Wizard and the witches of Oz in an entertaining variation of the musical version. We learn the Wizards origins in the opening section of the movie, done in homage to the MGM classic by starting in black and white in old Kansas, and widening to a broad screen with a vivid color palate once we reach the land of Oz. Many might criticize modern Hollywood for following the lead of Baum in returning to the world of his imagination. It is often said that Hollywood is bereft of new ideas and is thus destined to strip-mine the past for material. That would be a harsh judgement to render here because the story is in fact original and the characters that we encounter simply operate in a world we think we know but for which the imagination continues to invent background.
We knew that the original wizard was a fraud, at least when it comes to the magic of Oz. Yet how does a fake wizard manage to become Oz the first, and wield power for years and be beloved by the citizens of the Emerald City? That’s what this movie is all about. It does nothing to step on the lore we knew from Dorothy’s visit, it fills in some blank spaces and paints a vivid adventure in the background of what we learned before. The scenes in Kansas create a real sense of place and time, where a carnival performer with big dreams might very well be launched into a giant adventure. Oz knows the kind of magic that men of his time learned to entertain the audience. He knows misdirection and story telling and pyrotechnics. He is a con man but not a malicious one. Women fall for his line but most of them seem to know in the long run that it is a line. I liked that the set up includes some elements that bring about the tragic parts of the story that come later. Oz himself is not blameless in the way wickedness grows in the Land of Oz. Yet it takes an evil twist to produce the outcome that drives the second half of the story. James Franco’s Kansas showman and Lothario, has to grow in the course of the story. His shallowness must be revealed to be swept away. It is this arc of the story that makes the film work.
There are four distinct characters that move his progress along. Theodora the witch who discovers and falls for Oz, represents the future without Oz growing. The beautiful Mila Kunis is a little young and not given much chance to show any depth in her character. In the long run, we will feel deeply for the impact the wizard ends up having on her. Finley, the talking and flying monkey, represents the need that Oz has to grow as a human being; loyalty and sacrifice demand from Oz, something he is reluctant to give. Many years later we will hear this echoed in the words that Oz bestows on the Tin Man when he wants a heart. This was a really effective CGI character that adds immensely to the entertainment value of the picture. The China Doll is the opportunity for Oz to act on the impulses he has always had, decency and caring, but that he has dismissed as impractical. He knows that he can’t do real magic but he can do a world of good if he gives himself a chance. If you don’t eventually fall in love with this ceramic CGI creation, there is something wrong with your heart and you better go see the Wizard yourself. Finally, Glinda the Good Witch, is his opportunity to stop being a good time Charley and instead be the good man that he despairs of being at the beginning of the story. Michelle Williams was deft and light in this part. She doesn’t sound like Billie Burke, but she comes across as sweet and loving as anyone could want.
Franco gets a lot of the notes wrong, but many more of them right. The director allows him to use his smile a bit too often when he could try another expression to convey his change. Sometimes the body movement is a little over the top, but it is forgivable because it is at heart a children’s story and things do get exaggerated there. When the Wicked Witch of the West appears, we get excellent foreshadowing of the elements that made her a nightmare for the last six generations of movie lovers. The face, the cackle and the broomstick will leave most viewers glad that we know it will only take a little water to save ourselves. While the effects are contemporary, the style is classic from 1939. This is the stuff I think makes it all work in the long run. We get characters that are true to the world we know, and a story we don’t know. The modern wizardry of computers is bent to the classic means of story telling. The movie is marvelous in appearance and manages to evoke the musical without making itself a duplicate. We don’t live in the world of 1939 anymore, and kids today grow up so much faster than they once did.This film tries to straddle the gulf between our age and the more innocent times of three quarters of a century ago. I am personally delighted that whenever they had to lean one way or another to stay balanced in that divide, they usually drift to the classical form. The battle at the end reminds us of the real wizards we had in our world, while still allowing the modern magicians to show off their craft. Just in case you need one more incentive to go, remember it hardly seems like a Sam Rami film without a little Bruce Campbell somewhere.