Oz the Great and Powerful–Movie Review

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4 Stars

Oz Movie PosterFirst, I want to make it very clear that Oz the Great and Powerful (IMDB) is not a prequel to the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz (IMDB) which is still under copyright. Instead it is based on the original 1900 novel by L. Frank Baum, which is in the public domain. Disney is a highly ethical corporation which is famous for defending its copyrights with the fervor of a rabid pit bull and lobbying voraciously for copyright extensions. They would never ever make a derivative work of someone else’s copyrighted movie.

Except…oh, who are we kidding? It is obvious from the very beginning of the blank-and-white opening sequence that this is totally based on the 1939 movie rather than the book. Oz the Great and Powerful (OTGAP) is loaded to the brim with shots, imagery, lines and jokes taken directly from the 1939 movie. Furthermore if this were based on the book the witches would all wear white, the Munchkins wouldn’t be singing dwarfs and the Wicked Witch of the West wouldn’t skywrite.

If the owners of the 1939 movie (Time Warner?) were to sue Disney they would have a pretty good case. However even they might quail at the thought of going up against Disney’s mighty army of lawyers.

OK, but aside from the little matter of copyright fibbing, how does OTGAP stack up as a movie, considered on it’s own terms? Actually it’s pretty good. It is funny and charming and it actually seems closer to the spirit if not the text of L. Frank Baum’s book.

In both the book and the original movie the Wizard tells Dorothy the story of how he came to Oz. He was a carnival magician and balloonist who was caught in a tornado and crash-landed in Oz. The people who saw him fall assumed that he must be a wizard and with a mixture of fast talking and sleight-of-hand he convinced them to make him their king.

The source material doesn’t give much more detail than that, so the screenwriters have to come up with enough of a story to fill a 130-minute movie. The Wizard (James Franco) is, of course, an unscrupulous con-artist with (of course) a heart of gold. Once in Oz he makes friends with a pretty witch (Mila Kunis), a long-suffering flying monkey named Finley (Zach Braff) and a fragile but brave china doll (Joey King).

Finley is hilarious–the best thing in the movie. The china doll is the only evidence I can see that the screenwriters even glanced at the original book.

The 1939 movie combined two characters from the book, the Good Witch of the North and Glinda the Witch of the South, into a single character named Glinda. This had the unfortunate effect of making two decent characters into one insufferable character: smug, dishonest and condescending. OTGAP keeps the the combined Glinda (Michelle Williams) but she comes off as much more likeable.

L. Frank Baum’s Oz books were like the Harry Potter books of their day: a revolutionary fantasy series devoured by a generation of tweens. They were witty, richly imaginative and far ahead of their time with their strong female characters. (They were also refreshingly free of the unconscious racism that pervaded so much of that era’s fiction.)

But the 1930s were not a friendly time for fantasy fiction. It was considered self-evidently unsuitable for adults and quite possibly harmful to children. The 1939 movie is quite justly considered a classic but its makers were trying to appeal to a mass audience and felt pressure to assuage parental concerns. Thus they made some questionable choices including the decision to frame the whole story as a dream–something that is usually considered the very hallmark of bad storytelling.

OTGAP blessedly drops the dream nonsense. Indeed it is hard to see how they could have kept it. Still, Oz seems to be a place where you meet people who resemble people you knew back in Kansas. No attempt is made to explain this which is probably just as well.

I don’t think I would call OTGAP a great classic but it is well-adapted to modern sensibilities and makes a pretty entertaining movie.