Oz The Not-So-Powerful

I’ve always had a great affection for The Wizard of Oz, having seen the movie at least 15 times in my youth. It was our family ritual to watch it when it came TV on every year. Thinking of it now reminds me of something JRR Tolkien once said – that Britain had no mythology, so he decided to invent one. L Frank Baum did the same for our country, even if he only considered it to be an American fairy-tale. So I had to see the new prequel “Oz the Great and Powerful” when it came to the theater. The trailers featuring Mila Kunis in leather pants were also a motivator. Sadly, Mila’s pants didn’t make up for this not-so-great movie.

Like the original 1939 classic it begins in black and white. The early 1900’s artifacts and costumes seem convincing. The protagonist, carnival magician Oscar Diggs, gets to Oz in the expected way, the tornado-based time-warp wormhole. Big surprise: when in Oz, the movie switches to color. This new Oz looks like an acid trip combining elements of Dr Seuss, Lewis Carroll, and 1970’s Yes album covers. As Oscar narrowly escapes death and crashes into a river, good witch Theodora comes strolling along to rescue him. She immediately assumes he’s the Great Oz of the late king’s prophecy, the wizard who will save the realm from the wicked witch. To me it was puzzling. Why was she walking when witches can fly? And why did she need Oscar’s protection, when (as we later discover) she can shoot thunderbolts from her fingers?

There are a lot of clever effects and cute moments, many of which hearken back to Baum’s book (such as a “China Town” inhabited by porcelain people), but those elements don’t salvage this predictable story. They seem to be trying too hard to make a non-musical clone of the 1939 masterpiece. As in the original movie, the main characters in Oz are the same actors (or voices) of people from the Kansas segment. In this case the concept makes little sense, since Oscar never “wakes up” from his dream. Also, this Oz seems strangely modern. The dialog sounds too 21st Century. The people of Oz are a diverse PC bunch, with blacks, Asians, and a guy in a wheelchair, though they forgot to include gay munchkins. One of Oscar’s new compadres is a flying monkey; the new, scarier baddies are flying baboons. Because Oz has a 3-D version, this movie is full of annoying “things jump out at the screen” moments. The overriding theme is, as with the original, “believe in yourself.” This time, however, it’s less about overcoming one’s own fears and more about being tricked into self-confidence by a phony wizard.

I wouldn’t say that Oz the Great and Powerful was a total stinker, though it wasn’t really worth the cost of a full-priced theater ticket. Neither was it bad enough to accuse it of blasphemy against America’s Oz mythology. In fact, it only increased my appreciation for Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, and the rest of the old gang. Wait for this one to come out on cable, and until then, have another look at the original.