L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" was published in 1900, but was such a modern fairy tale that it's still read today -- and still watched, in the 1939 film version starring Judy Garland as the plucky young Dorothy. It's the character of Dorothy that made the novel such a contrast to traditional fairy tales. Baum, who married the daughter of a suffragette, hewed to tradition in putting a girl at his story's center, but eschewed it in having the girl work to solve her problem herself -- showing up a great wizard in the process.
The new film "Oz the Great and Powerful" claims to be "based on the works of L. Frank Baum." But it clearly takes inspiration more from the 1939 movie than the original novels. That movie and, unfortunately, the type of traditional stories Baum completely upended. The problem of "Oz" is not the debt it owes to previous storytellers. It's one thing to remake, or reimagine, a fairy tale. It's quite another to trade in the tired tropes of centuries.
The finale of "Oz the Great and Powerful" is actually quite dazzling, using modern technology to re-create the showmanship that must have made the Wizard of Oz the keeper of that kingdom. But flashy tricks couldn't hide the ultimate powerlessness of the original Oz. And modern, even flashier tricks can't hide the primitive views of sex and race at the heart of this story.
"Oz the Great and Powerful" is rated PG, but with a running time of over two hours, it's hard to imagine most children sitting still throughout, as they did watching the original "The Wizard of Oz" with wonder back in 1939, and in the decades since. This Oz is not very child-friendly, either. Oscar Diggs (James Franco), known as Oz, is a magician in a traveling circus who finds himself back in Kansas in 1905. He gets into the hot air balloon that takes him to Oz because he's running away from his troubles -- which mainly involve womanizing with the wrong women. The right one is sweet on him. But Oz rejects Annie (Michelle Williams) precisely because she wants him to settle down with her and become a good man. He doesn't want to be a good man, he says, he wants to be a great one.
|'Oz the Great and Powerful'|
|» Rating: 2 out of 4 stars|
|» Starring: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz|
|» Director: Sam Raimi|
|» Rated: PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language|
|» Running time: 127 minutes|
Annie is transformed -- along with the black and white screen that becomes 3-D color -- when Oz lands in Oz. (The man and the place share a name.) She's Glinda, one of the three witches struggling for power in the land that's lost its king. Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Theodora (Mila Kunis) are the other two. All three have been waiting for Oz. None of them, it seems, can accomplish anything in the land without a man -- even if one of them has a very powerful wand.
There doesn't seem to be a particularly wicked witch among the three. But that changes when Oz rejects the neediest of them. Hell hath no fury like a witch scorned. To defeat the now-wicked witch, Oz will put to work Glinda and the other citizens of the city, including two characters played by black actors using the worst excesses of the blackface "tradition."
The womanizing con man turns out to be exactly the guy for the job, of course. And the climax of the film, which re-creates the 1939 movie's giant wizard visage in a cloud of smoke, is a lot of fun. It's too bad you have to sit through over an hour of archaic ideas to get to the ode to modern film trickery.