Thursday, March 28, 2013

New Oz Has Two Daddies: Walt and Sam

As soon as I saw the first preview for Oz the Great and Powerful, I knew I couldn’t miss it.  I nudged my daughter towards characters in the previews she’d like to engage her interest as well.  Embarrassingly between the initial discovery, and when it reached theaters, I completely forgot why I needed to see it. Luckily, the drive to catch it on the big screen remained.

Part way through the stylized opening credits, what made the latest version of this famous fantasyland a must see appeared on screen.

“Directed by Sam Raimi”

That was the big draw.  I needed to know how the sensibilities of the guy who brought us the most awesome movie ever: Evil Dead II, would infuse this renowned, recognizable realm with his style. Especially when Oz was already likely to be getting massive style infusions from Disney this time around.

Amazingly, while there were pieces that clearly bore the fingerprints of each of them creatively, somehow it all managed to fit together impressively.

First of all, some explanation for the non literary minded. 
This film is officially a prequel to the 1900 novel, not the nearly infinitely better known 1939 movie.  Despite the fact that many people believe the original is a Disney film, possibly because of the Great Movie Ride, or because it does have Dorothy saying, “Jiminy Crickets,” and plays “Night on Bald Mountain” a year before Pinocchio and Fantasia were released. Disney, however, only had the rights to the books (for there are many).  This did give the writers and production designers a much larger box of toys to play with when creating the locations and characters of the world they were working in.  That isn’t to say that the Disney lawyers didn’t work their magic to have the picture look as close as legally possible to the Judy Garland musical.

The legal concerns may explain why the opening is in true black and white instead of sepia. However, it’s probably more because everyone incorrectly remembers the original in greyscale from years of unrestored TV airings.  Perception equals reality, kids.

There are a couple of points from the book they deliberately adopted, which helped this new version to stand on its own.

A)  In Oz the Great and Powerful, Glinda is correctly identified as the witch of the SOUTH.  In the novel she is a separate character from the Good Witch of the North. The 1939 film combined them into a single bubble.  
Having the one that provided Dorothy with the slippers at the start of her journey be different from the one who tells her how to use them to get home at the end of the journey makes Glinda a much less smack-upside-the-head deserving individual when she reveals that information, and worthy of her regal and respected role in the new film.

Although, she does have a subversive steak in both incarnations. “Be gone before someone drops a house on you,” indeed.  I love that the Witch sells it by looking up and flinching.

B)  Oz is a real location, not a dream. The “powers that be” in a massive difference from today’s studios, figured audiences would be too intelligent to accept the fantasy world’s existence, and forced the framing sequence. To show the "massive difference" didn't mean they were any smarter:  they also almost cut "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" because it was undignified to sing in a barnyard, and slowed the movie down. 

In the sequel novels, Dorothy finds various ways to “Return to Oz.”  This allows the new film to exist as an occurrence not a delusion.  The advantage of that, besides providing a more satisfying ending than, “Oscar woke up,” is Oz can provide a safe haven for Toto.  If Oz was a hallucination: that means there is absolutely nothing preventing Almira Gulch from popping in right after the 1939 “The End” title card, and shooting him.  Sorry, my pretty, but your “little dog too” has a date with destiny.

Any-hoo, back to the two main influences.

This is definitely a Disney film:

A huge, colorful, detailed world that uses the high definition 3D technology to its maximum,

Lost parents but new families forged through the adventure,

A princess,

Fireworks over the castle finale.

One that could go either way was the “Don’t dream it, be it,” type mantra, in this case
“If you believe, anything can happen.”
It’s very Disneyish, but Sam Raimi did beat us over the head in Spider-man to remind us, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
However, since it's similar to the Mary Poppins  idea of "Anything Can Happen if You Let It" and they also bludgeoned home the difference in importance between being “a good man” and “a great man,” similar to Poppins comparing a “Good Man vs. a Good Idea,” I’ll leave this one on the Disney side.

And of course the romance and happily ever after ending sealed the Disneyness of the new Oz.

However, that didn’t prevent Sam Raimi from leaving his unmistakable mark on the movie as well:

One movie style Flying Monkey used as a wisecracking smart aleck, while the rest of the Winged Monkeys (baboons are still monkeys) were given a major horror upgrade,

A cameo by Ted Raimi speaking out of turn,

Several “Sam-O-Cam" Evil Dead style point of view shots,

Multiple plants in the Dark Forest that look like cartoonier versions of ones that would be right at home Within the Woods around a certain cabin in North Carolina.

A cameo by Bruce Campbell getting physically abused.

I think the key Raimi influence was Oz himself.

Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs (bonus points for pulling the whole name from the book) was a self-centered, loud mouthed, buffoon who thought he was God’s gift to women.  However, though prone to frequent visible signs of panic, he was also extremely valuable to have around when someone was needed to lead an army of non-combatants, and take out a supernatural adversary in strange and unusual ways.

In other words, he was basically Ashley J Williams.  Sure, he received a classic Disney redemptive ending, but there was no part of James Franco’s performance that couldn’t have been aced by a young Bruce Campbell. (Or even the current Bruce, if Hollywood didn’t demand skewing younger all the time.)

Aside:  Oscar’s redemption is greatly prodded along by China Girl, who as a plucky, sympathetic orphan is massively Disneyesque, but also packs a knife to display her Raimi influences.  More importantly, my daughter really liked her and asked me to include her picture.  Here it is kiddo:

Similar to Ash filling the “final survivor” role in the Evil Dead films, Oscar is a gender swapped lead in this kind of “lost in a fantasy world” fairy tale.  It is interesting to note that when these tales involve girls (Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy in Oz, Sarah in the Labyrinth, Wendy in Never-neverland, Coraline in the Other World, etc.) they grow, learn, save the world, find inner resolve and talents, but the main goal is returning home.  Their ending triumph tends to include discovering, “The next time I want to see my backyard I’ll look right behind my house, because if it isn’t there it isn’t anywhere.”  Or something like that, anyway.

In this fairy tale, where a guy travels to the fantasy world, Oscar grows, learns, saves the world, finds his inner resolve and talents, but he also gets to stay in the magical realm as king with a giant treasury and a cute blonde. So much for equal work for equal pay.

The overall end result was a family adventure with amazing visuals presenting a new and intriguing look at a classic, magical land. Unlike some other Oz prequels I could mention, this one also kept the character interpretations consistent with the original.  Plus there were some bonus laughs and cheers for us Deadite fans…and a theoretical explanation why those Ruby Slippers generated electricity.

It really only stumbled seriously in one area.

While it was set in Oz, and tried to look as un-actionably close as possible to the 1939 film, it stayed tangential to direct copies in most cases. 

Sure there were nods and references.
From the obvious:
Glinda’s bubble,
Possible origins of the Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man,
The Wizard’s special effects theatrics.

To the more subtle:
The horse of a different color,
Dorothy’s parents,
The large number of random, unusual birds hanging around Oz. 

There were also recreations of some settings: a crossroad here, a poppy field there, Winkies marching in cadence over yonder, a gang of singing Munchkins elsewhere. However, it tended to use them in different ways, avoiding a direct link, or poking fun at the reference to prevent a serious comparison in the viewer’s mind.

The exception was a necessity.  If an Oz film is made, a Wicked Witch of the West will be expected.

They delivered one, following some hints before the reveal that used levels of “subtlety” Disney usually reserves for its merchandising arm.  This witch was fueled with all the modern acting methods, makeup effects, digital movie magic and technology a modern powerhouse film studio can bring to bear.  She made her debut full reveal in a high tech homage to the fire ball tossing, broom riding, evil cackling, smoke and brimstone spewing appearance from the original. 

With all that behind her, sadly I can only rate her as “relatively scary.”

To borrow, stretch, and mangle a very famous quote.

I saw Margaret Hamilton.

I got annual nightmares from Margaret Hamilton.

No matter what she said on Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street,
No matter how kind she was to animals in ASPCA ads,
No matter that she was a beloved kindergarten teacher,
I still suffered panic attacks every time I saw a can of
Maxwell House because of Margaret Hamilton. 

You, new lawyer-approved slightly different shade of green lady,
are NO Margaret Hamilton.

Honestly, I think the low tech special effects made it worse.  I knew teleportation wasn’t possible, but the 1939 witch appeared to travel via previously unseen trap doors. 

One of those could easily be under my bed,

Or yours…

Pleasant dreams, my pretty!

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