OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013, Sam Raimi): 7/10
In 1986, a group of fundamentalist Christians in Tennessee filed a lawsuit in an attempt to get The Wizard of Oz banned from classrooms. Their claim: the book promotes the idea that witches can be benevolent, and that “integral human attributes are individually developed rather than God given.” Well, they’re exactly right — that’s what the book does (and the film adaptation, etc.), and it’s all the better for it.
Sam Raimi’s new film, a prequel of sorts to Baum’s text, is first and foremost a Disney thrill ride for kids, full of wondrous 3D imagery and bright colors and loud noises to keep people entertained and distracted for two hours, briefly forgetting the pointless dead-end lives smothered by mediocrity and failure they’ll resume on their way to the parking lot. But so much of it also drills in this idea of the folly of believing in the outlandish possibility of he-who-cures-all deities.
The people of Oz are expecting the fulfillment of a Prophecy, which states a powerful wizard will arrive in their land to wipe away evil and free their citizens. James Franco’s circus charlatan Oscar, whisked away from Kansas in a tornado, does come to Oz and claims to be that wizard, but the only good will come when he stops pretending to be God and starts using his individual skills to win. And the people, for their part, just have to have faith in humanity — and in their own qualities — to get the job done. Glinda the good witch, played by the reliably adorable Michelle Williams, even gets to deliver some speeches about how the existence of a true “wizard” isn’t important: as long as you pull enough tricks to give the people confidence.
But something struck me throughout this film, especially in the third act. The plot that screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire have concocted is freakishly similar to John Landis’s campy ’80s comedy THREE AMIGOS! Early 20th century showbiz charlatans? Check. Brought to foreign land and asked to destroy evil? Check. Revealed to be cowardly phonies? Check. Instructs the people to use sewing skills to defeat the bad guy? Check. Ultimately assume responsibility and forsake riches in favor of selflessness? Check. For fans of THREE AMIGOS!, it might be too bad that OZ isn’t as funny.
Yet, hang on a second. It almost is that funny. This is a surprisingly sarcastic movie, full of not-taking-itself-seriously dialogue that puts the entire charade in quotes. Take, for example, an early scene where Franco first sees Williams in Kansas. She comes into his circus tent, dressed as a poor farm girl, and he says, “You look lovely. What is this, gingham?” Franco’s delivery on this line is the key to whether or not you’ll like this film. Judging by its reception amongst my peers, most people hate it. I think Franco nails it, and continues to provide the right attitude for his character — like an incredulous stoner denied the weed he so desperately craves, but given an experience that surpasses the feeling of being stoned. The entire premise of the antagonist’s journey in this story is based on a joke about psycho ex-girlfriends. Franco’s first love interest in Oz is Mila Kunis’s Theodora, a perfectly nice witch whom Oscar seduces — but then she gets clingy really fast. On the second day she’s already talking about spending the rest of their lives together, and Franco’s face expresses a hilarious whimper of fear. Knowing he has to dump this crazy broad quickly, he escapes into the arms of Williams, and Kunis’s response, with the help of her wicked sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz, having fun), is to unleash hell upon the world and remain cold-hearted and vindictive for the rest of her days, until Dorothy melts her in the sequel.
Plenty of other gags get big laughs here. Oscar doesn’t know the word for “chalice,” so when he celebrates the prospect of having a lot of gold he gleefully shouts… “and… one of these… things!” When some crows overhead foreshadow doom before the third act climax, Oscar rhetorically asks, “Did those crows just say we were going to die?” And for fans of BAD SANTA, simply the sight of Tony Cox is pleasure enough — but he gets to play a similarly grumpy character here, pissed off, put upon, and short-tempered. But not that there isn’t some earnest cuteness too. In Kansas, Oscar is unable to fulfill a paralyzed, wheelchair-bound little girl’s wish to have him make her walk. But in his “dreams,” he encounters her as a tiny china doll with her legs broken in shards on the floor. He takes out a jar of glue and repairs her legs, and she walks along side him the rest of the film. It’s corny, it’s easy, but it works.
Maybe my expectations were too low, and maybe I’ve seen too many obnoxiously self-serious blockbusters and stupidly empty-headed comic book movies, but Raimi does for OZ something close to what he did for SPIDER-MAN in 2002: he brings a sense of childlike joy and lightweight humor (along with his trademark horror jumps and angular camera) to a story that fits it like a glove. I would rather see Raimi do more films like THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, A SIMPLE PLAN, and EVIL DEAD II, but if Hollywood is going to foist upon us a cash-grabbing franchise picture to support amusement parks and merchandise, they could do worse than hire the gifts of Sam Raimi.