When I was a kid, I was quite literally obsessed with The Wizard of Oz. I used to skip through my grandmother’s house with my hair in braided pigtails, carrying a tiny stuffed dog in a basket. My imaginary friend was The Scarecrow. And Oz help the man who tried to come between me and my slowly eroding VHS copy of the film.
I even love the much-maligned 1985 Oz sequel, Return to Oz, which I believe is responsible both for the fact that I am a total headcase and for the fact that I absolutely adore science fiction and fantasy. The two Oz films (and the L. Frank Baum books, which I read again and again) played a major, major role in my development into the knock-kneed mess of a girl you see before you.
Which is why to say that I was excited for Oz the Great and Powerful is something of a giant understatement. I was thrilled when I learned that Disney was making a prequel. Thrilled.
And then I was even more thrilled when, on Tuesday afternoon, frequent guest blogger Joshua Blum invited me to join him at a free, 3D advanced screening of the film the following night. Um … yes. Yes, Joshua. I would fucking love to go see Oz the Great and Powerful with you.
Because I promised a spoiler-free review, here are some things you need to know: First of all, this is a family film. There are lots of silly jokes, lots of sight gags and lots of pratfalls. Embrace the funny, even if you think it’s overdone. And it is a little overdone.
One need look no further than the film’s leading man, James Franco, to know what I mean when I say overdone. He is nearly perfectly suited for the role of Oz—a stage magician and circus flimflam man—and he over acts the role with gusto. All of the actors, and especially Michelle Williams (as Glinda), get in on the over-dramatic fun, actually. It’s mostly delightfully cheesy.
That said, it’s also a bit dark and scary. We’re not talking about your standard Raimi darkness (this is, after all, Disney), but there are a few genuinely scary moments, and I jumped in my seat at least once. If you’re going with small kids, be prepared for some hand-gripping moments of horror and the possibility of a couple of tears. The flying monkeys and the Wicked Witch of the West are particularly menacing.
But there are also moments are pure joy here. Oz itself is lovely, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but the opening and closing credits are a great example of carefully crafted and perfectly timely joy. They made me smile so hard my face hurt. And I loved the establishing black-and-white section of the film. I’ve seen some critics call it “overlong,” but I am practically obsessed with old-timey circuses, so it was fascinating for me.
I should also note that I saw the film in 3D, which I think made a huge difference. Typically, I don’t like 3D films, but here it worked. The extra depth gave even more life to a beautiful setting, and the “oh, no things are flying at me!” stuff wasn’t too terribly overdone. In fact, I’d say it was more than appropriate for a family film and really quite fun.
A lot of folks I’ve talked to have said they’re going to wait until the film comes out on DVD to see it, but I would encourage you to see it in the theatre even if you don’t splurge for 3D if only for the incredible sound. During the tornado scene and during the big “final battle” scene, the sound is so loud and booming that you can feel it in your chest, and that physical manifestation of excitement really added something for me.
Someone else will come along and write about the film’s score, which left nary an impression on me, but what did, unusually, leave a mark on me was the look and feel of every character on the screen—even the ones without lines. Especially the ones without lines.
The background citizens looked ah-mazing! Everything from the hair to the clothes to the impeccably quaffed mustaches felt jolly, familiar and downright-Oz. They didn’t mimic the costume design of the 1939 film, but somehow it feels very cohesive and comforting. It was like we were in an Oz with a group of people that I instantly recognized from my childhood.
As for the witches themselves—these are some pretty stylish witches! Theodora’s outfits had me drooling with their old-world elegance and rich, striking colors. And Glinda’s ethereal gowns are beautifully complex and lit lovingly—and their details are captured on film in the most lovely and unexpected ways. Clearly, Raimi loves Williams as much as I do. (And he possibly loves beaded gowns a lot more than I do.)
The sisters’ outfits are simultaneously character building, foreshadowing and a cheerful tribute to the source material. I do wish there’d been some kind of nod to the stripped socks worn by the eventual Wicked Witch of the East (who Dorothy kills—accidentally!!—during her visit to Oz). But even if that reference wasn’t there, there are a million, billion tiny nods to its source material—both the book and the 1939 film. In addition to pretty obvious nods to the story structure, Dorothy’s companions and the color-changing horses, the landscape is a great example of that.
Much like in Baum’s books, the fantastical setting is a character—literally and figuratively—all its own, and all of that personality is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. The CGI is a little overdone in places (especially when we first enter Oz), but overall, I really wish they’d had this kind of technology in 1939 because the setting of the original film always struck me as not quite living up to the imaginative world in the books. This film corrects that for sure.
And because it wouldn’t be Joshua and I seeing a movie together if we didn’t get ridiculously excited over Disney details (whether they were put there purposefully or not), I hope you’ll keep an eye out for a couple of things:
First, there is a moment where there is some serious Cave of Wonders shit happening—and Franco even references it in the dialogue. Oh, how I love Aladdin.
Second, during Oz’ greatest magical performance in the film, the two of us practically squealed with delight over what really could only be a reference to IllumiNations (if you’re an EPCOT nerd). It is epic, and I still can’t stop smiling.
A final thought: Throughout the film, I couldn’t help but wonder how it might have been different if Robert Downey Jr. had played Oz. Yea, he’s a little old for the role, but his comedic chops and charming ability to overact without getting too silly would have really been perfect here. Franco is great, but his cheesy smarminess is two shades too close to being a turn off for me. At certain points, all I could see was Franco being Franco (not Oz), and I feel like RDJ would have more seamlessly fit into the fantastical world of Oz.
With that said, if you love The Wizard of Oz—the book, the 1939 film or any of its incarnations—you will very likely enjoy this film. It’s nearly impossible not to.
Yes, the story is thin. Yes, Theodora is literally the worst female character in the history of movies (get a grip, girl!). And, yes, there are a lot of inconsistencies and some unevenness. But nothing is perfect. And there’s no place like home. And if you decide to make the return visit to Oz, you won’t be sorry.
Are you planning to see Oz? Have you already seen it? Let us know what you’re thinking in the comments!
Disclosure: I attended this event free of charge as a guest of a friend who works in PR. The opinions expressed are my own and are based on my own experience.