Oz The Mighty Good
After settling in for a 3-D screening of Oz the Great and Powerful, I patted my pockets in alarm: OMG, I’d forgotten my inner child! The prospect of sitting through another cloying, in-your-face, crackhead-paced blockbuster from the marketing boys in Hollywood suddenly turned dire. If I couldn’t lose my cynical art-house critical apparatus fast, I’d lose my mind.
The opening credit sequence paid homage to the magic of old-time moviemaking, quite in vogue these days (The Artist, Cinema Paradiso). In a kaleidoscopic spiral, the film’s titles and themes popped up and flickered before us in the form of paper cutouts; when a Busby Berkeley-esque synchronized swirl of Indian Head pennies (the coin of the realm in 1900) spun round the drain of a tornado-like vortex, I sank back in my seat and surrendered.
Every generation has its own Oz. My grandparents had the books. My parents had the 1939 movie with Judy Garland as Dorothy, which they bequeathed to us thanks to Disney’s annual Thanksgiving screenings in that long-ago age before DVDs, Netflix or YouTube. In the mid-1970s, The Wiz broke down walls and opened doors on Broadway, only to be turned into a surreal Diana Ross/Michael Jackson/Richard Pryor vehicle campier than Sister Sledge at Studio 54 at midnight. These days, for those born into the “Glee” club demographic, there’s Wicked, the stage musical. The progression has been to make the story edgier, more like Mean Girls. The trend continues in this version, starring James Franco as the Wizard and Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams as a trio of sister witches who must choose to ally themselves with the Dark Side or The Force.
This setup doesn’t reveal itself all in one scene: We’re diverted and distracted by the Land of Oz and its creatures. Director Sam Raimi nods to the scary flying baboons but stays out of Tim Burton territory. Raimi can direct big-scene business, as his kinetic Spider-Man trilogy proves, but here he’s tapped into the wonder of it all. And it is wonder-full.
Franco plays Oz the con man with a bit of Iron Man’s Robert Downey Jr., but without the swagger and the scientific genius. He’s likeable, sweet and not the least bit creepy (i.e., not Johnny Depp or Gene Wilder). A little hint of adult action spins the bottle quite suggestively, thanks to Mila Kunis, but nothing your 9-year-old will deign to notice.
The emotional charge comes from what happens to Kunis, but telling you would spoil things. Let’s just say the movie works on many levels. It captures the spirit of 1900s America, an age personified by Thomas Alva Edison and his marvelous electrical light bulb. In its belief in the power of belief, it’s right in step with the century; The Music Man is just around the corner from Oz, in River City. It’s emotionally resonant, too. There are plenty of the usual snappy asides and wisecracks that supply so much of the connective tissue in big-budget films, but the banter doesn’t reek of Red Bull and Adult Swim. While the film tempts me to expound on subconscious desire and the role of accidental head injuries in Kansas tornadoes, I’ll just say go, see and enjoy before some cynical art-house movie critic ruins it for you.