It’s not sacrosanct, no matter how much we want it to be. It never was either. When L. Frank Baum first published “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in 1900 – which the late critic Leslie Fiedler was wont to refer to as “the most beautiful book ever written by an American” – it was, to be sure, intended to be the one and only Oz book. But it was so successful that there were 13 more, as well as a stage play and – are you ready – a newspaper column called “Queer Visitors from the Land of Oz.”
The 1939 movie that has long since become one of the holy rites of delight in American childhood is such a classic to all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons that there are many among us who think of any other Oz story at all as a barbarian felony. They want to shoot the “perp” on sight.
All I can say is don’t shoot director Sam Raimi. Or stars James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz or Bill Cobbs either. They’ve given us a new and enjoyable Oz story – a prequel to the tale we all know about Dorothy, little Toto and the most lovable lion and scarecrow in movies, all of it bursting with songs from Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg.
What makes the 1939 “The Wizard of Oz” film such a classic, a perennial and televised rite of childhood is that it’s a movie about the triumphs of show business – and specifically vaudeville – over everything. It’s a movie from a bunch of lifelong troupers telling you, for real, how much joy and pride there is in being among them. When Bert Lahr uses his lion’s tail to wipe a tear from his eye and Ray Bolger goes into one of his incomparable floppy, eccentric dances, you’ve got a couple of the most seasoned performers of their era giving you all the performing wit they possess. Who could possibly be immune?
Let’s not even talk about little Judy Garland – formerly Frances Gumm of vaudeville’s well-traveled Gumm sisters – and her ability to sing an Arlen-Harburg song right into America’s heart for all time. One of the greatest triumphs – and greatest moments – in American showbiz turned veteran troupers into the new aristocrats of the American imagination.
OK, you’re right. “Oz – The Great and Powerful” trades a bunch of talented 21st century glamour-pusses for the original’s brilliant troupers: a badly cast Franco, a well-cast Williams, Kunis and Weisz. Franco is Oscar, the threadbare con artist and small-time magician just barely hanging by a thread on the Kansas carny circuit. He passes out music boxes to girls he wants to seduce and tells them they belonged to his grandmother. When challenged to elaborate on their provenance, he says they were given out during the “Battle of Kreplach.” (The screenwriter Mitchell Kapner further continues the ancient Hollywood gambit – even before Mel Brooks – of smuggling Yiddish words and Jewish cultural references into the damndest cinematic places.)
Williams, Kunis and Weisz are the three resident Oz witches. Williams is Glinda, the Good witch. Weisz is Evanora, the evil witch who can’t wait to torture Glinda. Kunis plays her sister Theodora, a born peace-lover in fetching red who is later besmirched by nasty makeup. The result is that the biggest and most beautiful eyes in American movies are taken away from the audience and replaced by makeup artisanship – a thoroughly inadequate substitute.
So our story is, of course, whether or not this bumptious, fraudulent, money-grubbing new visitor to the land of Oz is the Wizard, long promised in prophecy – the one who will deliver them all from the evil domination of the Bad Witch, her flying baboons and her phalanx of overcoated soldiers marching in lockstep. (All together now, let’s hum their chant as they march: “oh-we-oh, weeee-oh!”)
Director Raimi, no doubt, took the gig to give us a visually gorgeous new Oz, with incredible CGI and giant sunflowers the size of plasma TV screens at George Clooney’s house. For all that, he was also canny enough to keep a little bit of the backstage show business tackiness of the original, which purports to be telling you NOT to pay attention to the man behind the curtain but is really telling you just how grand and wonderful the world of that shameless old fraud really is.
And that leads to the worst problem in this new Oz, despite being exciting and with splendors on its own and, judging from all the adorable little laughter I heard at the screening, a smash hit with the undersize set.
Franco gives it his all as Oz, the Wizard who says he doesn’t want to be a good man but rather a great one. Let’s face it, though: Once you’ve seen that great old character actor Frank Morgan as the living showbiz symbol of threadbare, fraudulent grandiosity, everyone else is going to be a disappointing pretender.
Thankfully, there are no cowardly lions, scarecrows or tin men making this trip through Oz – only a wonderful CGI china doll and a cute little flying monkey who’s just as afraid of the evil witch’s army of flying baboons as everyone else.
The whole movie was smart enough to just be good in a 21st century fantasy way and not even try to be great. Great was done once. For all time. The kids will enjoy this good one. Parents and grandparents won’t mind it. After that, there will be time for the kids to see the one that will stay in their heads for life – if they’re lucky.
oz – the great And powerful
Starring: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Bill Cobbs
Director: Sam Raimi
Running time: 130 minutes
Rating: PG for scary images and brief mild language.
The Lowdown: Prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” follows a carnival magician and con man into an Oz beset by witches good and bad.