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From 'Oz,' A Less Than Magical Prequel

Mar 7, 2013
Originally published on March 8, 2013 6:03 pm

Oz the Great and Powerful tells the story of how the Wizard came to Oz, answering a question I suspect no one was asking, but with considerable digital wizardry.

The prequel begins in black and white, just the way you hope it will, with old-fashioned theatrical credits dissolving into a square-screened Kansas circa 1905. A carnival huckster (James Franco), accompanied by a grumpily loyal assistant (Zach Braff), is doing magic tricks for dwindling audiences in a circus tent and, after the show, telling marriage-minded farm girls they should stick with their prairie boyfriends because he's dreaming of bigger things.

"Kansas is full of good men," he tells one sweet young thing (Michelle Williams), then adds, "I don't want to be a good man. I want to be a great one"

Almost immediately, a tornado sweeps him from flat, dusty, black-and-white Kansas to a wide-screen land where there's not just color but serious topography — waterfalls crashing down mountainsides, jungles made of crystal, rivers filled with sharp-toothed sprites. Also, a seriously sexy witch (Mila Kunis) in black leather pants.

Besides that friendly sorceress, the huckster is soon teaming up with a talkative flying monkey (voiced by Braff) and a wounded but surprisingly fierce ceramic doll (Joey King), and heading off on a quest to thwart a wicked witch.

You'll note that the screenplay (by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, using characters and situations loosely based on L. Frank Baum's Oz stories) mimics the 1939 movie's structure and style pretty closely here. Monkeys and witches and dolls, oh my. But director Sam Raimi, the guy behind the Spider-Man trilogy, has modern digital effects at his disposal, so rather than just one, there's a whole pasture full of those horses of a different color you've heard so much tell about. And when it's time to conjure up a witch in a bubble — a whole bunch of folks in bubbles, actually — well ... someday maybe that'll be one of those effects of a different magnitude you'll hear so much tell about.

Besides being roughly as gorgeous as it should be in a $200 million digital world, everything's bigger in Raimi's Oz — and real-er, which isn't necessarily a good thing. When the screenplay calls for a noncowardly lion to leap out of the forest, what leaps is a lion, not a vaudevillian in a lion outfit. And that talkative flying monkey is, to all appearances, a real monkey. The little guy has his moments, but with only a voice to work with, Braff seems hamstrung; the character ends up lacking the physicality and musicality Ray Bolger and Bert Lahr brought to their parts in the original.

Ditto the witches — there are three this time, the other two played by Williams and Rachel Weisz — and even James Franco. He's pleasant enough as the man-who-would-be-Wizard, but not someone you'll miss when he's not on screen.

Maybe that's the point — that he's nothing without his magic tricks — but a little pizzazz in the title role would still have been nice. Imagine the part played by Robert Downey Jr., who dropped out before filming started, and you'll get a sense of what's missing.

And without wizardly flair, this deliberately retro movie feels a lot more old-fashioned, at least in one respect, than was probably intended. You know how in most children's fare, boys get to have adventures, and girls just get to get rescued? Well, I hate to think what it says about progress on that front when, unlike the 1939 Wizard of Oz, in which everybody turned to Dorothy to fix things, in Oz the Great and Powerful, three strong women — witches with magical powers, no less — get overcome by this entirely unimpressive guy. Maybe what it says is that chivalry (or perhaps feminism) of the sort that Judy Garland could count on is not only merely dead, it's really most sincerely dead.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And finally this hour, another Yellow Brick Road. The enormous popularity of the 1939 movie "The Wizard of Oz" has inspired all kinds of spin-offs. There was "The Wiz," subtitled "The Super Soul Musical." There was "Under The Rainbow," a comedy featuring Chevy Chase and quite a few munchkins. There's Broadway's current smash hit "Wicked" and the novel it's based on and now there's "Oz, The Great And Powerful."

The new movie tells the story of how the Wizard originally came to Oz, thus answering a question that our critic Bob Mondello suspects no one was asking.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: It starts in black and white, just the way you hope it will, old-fashioned theatrical credits, then Kansas in 1905. A carnival huckster doing cheesy magic tricks and telling marriage-minded farm girls they should stick with their boyfriends on the prairie...

(SOUNDBITE FROM "OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL")

JAMES FRANCO: (As Oz) Kansas is full of good men.

MONDELLO: ...because he's dreaming of bigger things.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL")

FRANCO: (As Oz) I don't want to be a good man. I want to be a great one.

MONDELLO: Then a tornado sweeps him from flat, dusty, black-and-white Kansas to a land where there's not just color, but serious topography, waterfalls crashing down mountainsides, jungles made of crystal...

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL")

FRANCO: (As Oz) I don't want to die. I haven't accomplished anything yet.

MONDELLO: Also, a seriously sexy witch in black leather pants.

(SOUNDBITE FROM "OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL")

FRANCO: (As Oz) Am I dreaming?

MILA KUNIS: (As Theodora) You're in Oz. I'm Theodora, the good witch.

FRANCO: (As Oz) Where's your broom?

KUNIS: (As Theodora) You don't know much about witches, do you?

MONDELLO: Besides this friendly witch, he'll soon be teaming up with a talkative flying monkey...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As crows) You'll die, you'll die.

ZACH BRAFF: (As Finley) did those crows just say we're going to die?

MONDELLO: And a talkative ceramic doll...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL")

JOEY KING: (As China Girl) I'm not as delicate as I look.

FRANCO: (As Oz) That didn't hurt.

MONDELLO: ...and heading on a quest to thwart a wicked witch. You'll note the screenplay's mimicking the original's structure and style pretty closely here. Monkeys and witches and dolls, oh my. But director Sam Raimi, the guy behind the "Spiderman" movies, also has digital effects at his disposal, so instead of just one, there's a whole pasture full of those horses of a different color you've heard so much tell about.

And when he conjures up a witch in a bubble, a whole bunch of folks in bubbles, actually, well, someday maybe that'll be one of those effects of a different magnitude you'll hear so much tell about. Everything is bigger in this Oz and real-er, which isn't necessarily a good thing. When the screenplay calls for a non-cowardly lion to leap out of the forest, it's a lion, not a vaudevillian in a lion outfit.

And that talkative flying monkey is, to all appearances, a real monkey. The little guy has his moments...

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL")

BRAFF: (As Finley) You gotta really seem contrite. You gotta sell it. Maybe you could even cry. Can you cry? I could cut up an onion.

MONDELLO: But he lacks the physicality and musicality that Ray Bolger and Bert Lahr brought to their parts. Ditto the witches, there are three this time, and even James Franco, who's pleasant enough as the man-who-would-be-Wizard...

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL")

FRANCO: (As Oz) How hard could it be to kill a wicked witch?

BRAFF: (As Finley) Hard.

MONDELLO: ...but not someone you'll miss when he's not on screen. Maybe that's the point, that he's nothing without his magic tricks, but a little pizzazz in the title part would have still been nice. Without it, this deliberately retro movie feels a lot more old-fashioned, at least in one respect, than was probably intended. You know how in most children's fare, boys get to have adventures and girls just get to get rescued?

Well, I hate to think what it says about progress on that front when, unlike the 1939 "Wizard of Oz" where everybody turned to Dorothy to fix things, in "Oz, The Great And Powerful," three strong women, witches with magical powers, no less, get overcome by this entirely unimpressive guy.

Maybe what it says is that chivalry, or perhaps feminism, of the sort that Judy Garland could count on is not only merely dead, it's really most sincerely dead. I'm Bob Mondello.

BLOCK: And our own Backseat Book Club is going back to the origins of Oz this month. We're reading L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," published in the year 1900. As always, we want to hear from you. Send your comments or questions about the book to Backseat Book Club at NPR.org. Also, have you or your kids ever dressed up as a character from Oz - Dorothy, a scarecrow, a flying monkey?

If so, please share your photos with us. You can submit them at NPRBooks.org. And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.