Oz the Great and Powerful

And now in our journey through the films of Sam Raimi we have arrived at a difficult spot. We have come to the film that was at the time “the new Sam Raimi” but for a few years became “the last Sam Raimi?” I enjoyed OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL well enough when it came out in 2013 (here’s my review), even though a big commercial Disney movie that’s an unsolicited prequel to a famous story wasn’t high on the list of what I wanted to see from him. And it definitely wasn’t what I wanted to see him go out on.

Luckily he has now actually filmed his next movie, so a comeback is on deck. But isn’t it crazy that it’s been 9 years since the last Sam Raimi movie? To remind you of how long ago this was, it’s when FURIOUS 6 and MAN OF STEEL came out. It’s when they were on the first film of MCU Phase Two, IRON MAN THREE. We’re talking seven David Gordon Green movies ago (he was on PRINCE AVALANCHE, starring Paul Rudd, who was not yet Ant-Man). It’s when Franck Khalfoun’s remake of MANIAC came out, and Spike Lee’s remake of OLDBOY, and Ryuhei Kitamura’s WWE Films joint NO ONE LIVES. Remember those? No? You weren’t born yet? That’s what I’m saying – it’s been a while.

Although OZ was #9 at the box office that year, above THE HOBBIT: DESOLATION OF SMAUG, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS and THOR: THE DARK WORLD, I’d say its cultural mark was even less than those, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most of you haven’t seen it. So, without insisting anybody watch it, I will tell you that it has plenty that’s good about it, and bigger chunks of Sam Raimi than you might assume would make it through the Walt Disney Corporation filters. It’s beautiful to look at, it has some funny parts, and some visuals and strangeness that could only really happen in this odd circumstance of Sam Raimi directing a $200 million Disney family movie. He brought along EVIL DEAD II cinematographer Peter Deming, DARKMAN editor Bob Murawski, SPIDER-MAN trilogy co-star James Franco and longtime makeup FX collaborators KNB, he got EVIL DEAD stars Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker and Theresa Tilly and EVIL DEAD II’s Dan Hicks all into the movie in bit parts, he even somehow convinced Danny Elfman to work with him again after their falling out on SPIDER-MAN 2. And, filming on soundstages in his home state of Michigan, they made a lush, candy-colored, 3D special effects fantasy based on the works of L. Frank Baum.

In the intellectual property dominated entertainment of the 21st century Oz is an odd one – all 14 of Baum’s books are in the public domain, but the popular conception of them is from the MGM movie, which Raimi wanted to pay tribute to. So the production had to have a copyright expert on hand to help triangulate the amount of similarity they could get away with, down to the shade of green on the wicked witch and not allowing her to have a mole.

The idea of a Wizard of Oz origin story came from Mitchell Kapner (ROMEO MUST DIE), whose script was later rewritten by David Lindsay-Abaire (RABBIT HOLE, RISE OF THE GUARDIANS). The latter had worked on the script for Raimi’s aborted SPIDER-MAN 4 and would later write Ghost House’s POLTERGEIST remake.

Everyone had to start somewhere, and according to this movie the title character of THE WIZARD OF OZ started in early 20th century rural Kansas. A womanizing magician of low moral turpitude, Oscar “Oz” Diggs (Green Goblin Jr. himself, James Franco) also seems to be the ex-boyfriend of Dorothy’s future mother? Whuh?

In tribute to the MGM film, the prologue is shot in 4:3 black and white (which looks gorgeous), but it’s not about wholesome farm life. Oz is a two bit carnival performer primarily interested in getting laid – when his assistant/live score provider Frank (Zach Braff, CHICKEN LITTLE) comes into the trailer when he’s with his new audience plant May (Abigail Spencer, THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT 2: GHOSTS OF GEORGIA) he whines, “The sock is on the door! We’re rehearsing!”

We see his act performed for a half-empty house, and May is so flighty she forgets to volunteer. But there’s one very clever part in it. He pretends to levitate her, but people in the crowd notice wires and get agitated. Oz seems kind of panicked before he says, “Wires? What need have I of wires?” and slices them with a machete, and she still levitates. Good touch.

Unfortunately, that part so amazes a little girl in a wheelchair (Joey King, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES) that she thinks he’s really magic and begs him to make her walk again. “Uh… not now kid,” he says, but the crowd gets riled up at him, all apparently now believing he can do anything and is a total asshole not to cure this kid. (I would like to pretend this is Raimi’s depiction of the audience turning on him for SPIDER-MAN 3, but he definitely isn’t defensive like that. He always seems to accept the blame when his movies don’t go over well – remember, at one point he was convinced he’d been wrong to make THE QUICK AND THE DEAD so stylish!)

There’s an even bigger storm brewing outside the tent. Well, two. The literal one, and the figurative one where the strongman (Tim Holmes, S.W.A.T.: FIREFIGHT, STREET KINGS 2: MOTOR CITY, REAL STEEL, HOSTEL: PART III, ALEX CROSS) is coming for Oz for giving his wife (Toni Wynne, “Congratulatory Woman at Daily Bugle,” SPIDER-MAN 3) the same chintzy music box he gives to all the women he’s trying to get with. Oz ends up fleeing in a hot air balloon that gets sucked into a tornado, which transports him to Oz.

That sequence is definitely very Raimi, with its dynamic shots of shards of wood flying at Oz as he Bruce-Campbells around trying not to get stabbed by them.

And then everything turns calm, quiet and weightless for a bit, just as with Ash being transported through time at the beginning of ARMY OF DARKNESS.

He lands in Oz, a land of colorful and magical plants and cute little fuckers called River Fairies that try to eat him. And he immediately meets a nice witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis, SANTA WITH MUSCLES, AMERICAN PSYCHO 2, THE BOOK OF ELI), who believes he’s the wizard prophesied to become the King of Oz by killing the Wicked Witch who killed the last king. He knows that can’t be true but she’s hot and this king thing sounds like a good scam so he goes with her to the Emerald City.

Along the way he pathetically uses basic magic tricks to protect them from dangers, for example using a puff of smoke to scare of a not-so-cowardly CG lion. This saves the life of an animated flying monkey bellhop named Finley (voice of Braff), who swears a life debt right before Oz admits to him that he’s a phony. But there are no takebacks on life debts.

In the palace in the Emerald City they meet Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz, DEATH MACHINE, CONSTANTINE), who shows him the Smaug-sized treasure room he would get if he was King of Oz. For a second he seems circumspect about it, then he drops into the treasure, swims around in it, holds up a chalice, asks what it’s called and says “I’ve always wanted a chalice!” So Evanora sends him to the Dark Forest to kill the Wicked Witch by destroying her wand.

On that journey, as tends to happen on these Land of Oz journeys, Oz and Finley make a new friend. There’s a village called “China Town” which is like a giant tea set inhabited by living china dolls. But it’s all been smashed by the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys, and the only survivor they find is a little girl doll whose legs have been broken off. She has the same voice as the little girl in the wheelchair, Joey King, but this time Oz actually does have the ability to help, because he has a tube of glue in his bag. So he heals her! Good for him, for once.

I really like that it goes from that first genuinely sentimental scene in the movie to the very Ash-circa-ARMY-OF-DARKNESS scene where he tries to send this now-orphaned girl off on her own with directions to the Emerald City. He only takes her along after she cries and won’t let go of his leg. It’s a funny scene and is also the first sign that the China Girl character is actually gonna get some laughs.

Raimi treats her as 90% saccharine and 10% the doll at somebody’s grandma’s house that made them scared to go into that room. I like that she’s a little unhinged and that Finley seems kind of afraid of her.

They find the hooded, silhouetted witch on the edge of a spooky cemetery, but of course they’ve been lied to – this is actually the good witch Glinda (Michelle Williams, SPECIES, HALLOWEEN: H20). Oz immediately hits it off with her (though he keeps calling her Wanda) and though he doesn’t fall for Evanora’s trick and kill her, she’s able to show them to Theodora through the crystal ball, turning her against him.

I don’t remember if that was a surprise or if I knew it going in – yes, Evanora is obviously a Wicked Witch, but it’s Theodora who becomes the Wicked Witch, after Evanora gives her a magic apple she says will cure her broken heart. Instead she becomes the green Mac Tonight faced monster, and she ends up doing wicked shit, cackling, flying around on a broom (which is her taunting Oz because he thought witches flew around on brooms, something she’d never heard of before). The cool part of the transformation, I think, is when her tears cause burn marks on her skin.

Now there really is a Wicked Witch that the kingdom needs to be protected from. The flying monkey army of course can’t look much like the MGM one. Those guys creeped me out when I was a kid, and now I just like their outfits. Raimi’s are baboons, which I think was a good idea, because those are some scary looking animals. Of course, they’re animated characters and the designs are a little stylized, so they’re not totally terrifying. But I’m sure they kindered a few traumas or whatever.

Glinda/Wanda knows Oz is not really a wizard, but thinks he’s the only chance to save the kingdom anyway. Raimi has fun playing with the notion that he’s too much of a coward to do it. I laughed at a joke where Glinda is telling some people, “Don’t be frightened. Now that the wizard is with us…” and turns to see Oz’s top hat abandoned on the yellow brick road. (I bet there was a puff of smoke and sound effect when he darted away.) And even after Oz makes a big plan to fight off the witch and sets it in motion he tries to load up a hot air balloon with treasure and slip off. (SPOILER: It turns out to be a trick – but I like that part of his plan is based on the knowledge that everyone believes he’s a total piece of shit who would try to cut and run.)

It’s fun to see the Sam Raimi elements in this very different setting. For example, here’s the famous ending of EVIL DEAD II, where Ash is taken for the chosen one who will fall from the sky to deliver us from the Deadites:

And here’s Oz deciding to accept a similar fate in the Land of Oz:

Pretty different look, huh?

Because of the sorts of storytelling traditions they’re both building off of, this really has a ton of parallels to ARMY OF DARKNESS. We have this arrogant buffoon who gets sucked into another word and falls from the sky. He’s assumed to be a sort of chosen one who was prophesied to lead them to victory against evil. He doesn’t believe he is, but plays along to take advantage of the castle and attractive women and stuff. Eventually he’s revealed as a fake and a coward but he realizes he does have some ideas of how to use tools and technological differences from his own world to protect the castle from the invading armies (in this case by creating illusions). He even uses a book he brought with him with designs for machines he can use (much like Ash’s chemistry textbook). He finds his inner hero, makes an inspirational speech, and there’s a montage of him teaching them and leading them in preparing weaponry, including fireworks made with “black powder.”

Theodora largely serves as the Sheila character – the one who starts to believe in him, helps him, then turns evil. In this case it’s from heartbreak, not possession, and is not reversible, but they serve the plot similarly.

And I think it’s pretty clear that Oz is an Ash type, at least as portrayed starting with ARMY OF DARKNESS. They are scoundrels and losers who don’t care about other people’s feelings (especially women’s) and only attend to their own base desires, but become heroes through a combination of accident (or fate) and finally managing to pull together a couple good ideas, a shred of decency and a reserve of courage. But both are pathetic liars managing to scrape by better than they deserve using only charm and audacity. Of course, they also are very different because Oz may be a little smarter and more aware that he’s full of shit, because Ash wins us over through the universal language of turning into a badass action hero, and because he was already more in our pocket anyway just because Campbell’s charisma is so different from Franco’s.

Of course the casting of Franco brings along more baggage now than it did then. With our current understanding of allegations of sexual misconduct against him, it may hit too close to home that he’s playing this sleazy womanizer trying to smile and handsome his way through life. It actually seems more in judgment of Oz’s behavior than of Ash’s “give me some sugar, baby” attitude, but it definitely made me wonder where the “oh, that horny rascal” humor of characters like this overlaps with the things Franco got sued for and now awkwardly addresses in interviews.

Setting all that aside, it was a weird casting at the time. Though he had been Oscar nominated for 127 HOURS, and though RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES had surprised us all, it seemed like it had been clear for years that Hollywood’s conception of him as mainstream leading man had been misguided. He was a weirdo and a goof, and was usually so much better as a comedic supporting player, like in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS or SPRING BREAKERS. But Raimi must’ve liked him from SPIDER-MAN, and Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr. both turned it down, so here’s Franco trying to play his type of character while holding the whole movie on his shoulders. I think there’s something that feels kind of off there, but also I kind of like that about it. It’s just weird to see this particular actor surrounded by hundreds of millions of dollars of special effects and kneeling down to talk to two very short animated companions. (I read that the voice actors were on set and he had puppets to look at but it’s still funny to imagine him playing pretend in so many scenes.)

One small thing that bothered me (and my original review reminds me that it bugged me the first time too) is the animation of Finley’s facial expressions. There are multiple scenes where he looks very sad and it reminds me of the lesser computer animated features where they try to force in an unearned Very Serious Emotional Part Like Pixar Would Have.

My theory is that they’re exaggerating the expression like they would with a cartoon, but because he looks very realistic, it comes off as bad acting. Anyway, I’m not sure we needed any sad faced Finley scenes, but there are three or more, and none of them work for me. I’m glad China Girl is there to weird it up.

There are also some live action Emerald City characters who help with the plan. Tony Cox (CAPTAIN EO) plays the herald, Knuck, who throws insults back and forth with Oz, something I bet they had him do because he’s so good at it in BAD SANTA. Master Tinker (Bill Cobbs, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS) gets along with Oz a little better and seems to recognize that he has some good ideas. Which is obviously charitable of him.

Disney had wanted Raimi to direct PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 5, but he chose OZ instead. I’m not sure of his reasoning, but I would guess he knew he would have more to play with by re-imagining Oz than walking in Gore Verbinski’s footsteps. Especially in the context of this retrospective it’s fun to watch for all the little Raimi-esque images within this rainbow-colored children’s fantasy. Like when some scary carnivorous flowers snap at Oz and friends, and we see their terrified reactions in distorted evil-flower-POV::

Or the various animated shadow gags. Or the way Glinda gets tossed around and slammed against walls in a magic duel. Or the Wicked Witch’s hand clawing the table, which I remember being a very effective ending to the trailer:

There are a couple instances of one of my favorite Raimi-isms: collage-like superimpositions of different shots in the preparation montage. 

There are some straight forwardly spooky looking scenes. A couple examples:

But I particularly like when those sorts of scares happen in daylight. One of the more inspired scenes involves the baboon army swooping down to attack Oz’s army. It turns out to be a trick – they couldn’t see in the fog that the army are actually mechanical (non-sentient) scarecrows being used as bait to lure them into a poppy field and make them sleepy. But what I love about it is the pretty colors, the simulated sunlight and the cotton-candy like fog juxtaposed with the scary imagery of these monstrous monkeys savagely ripping out what they expect to be guts.

By the way, this is the only time Raimi had to haggle with the MPAA and cut his movie to get a PG rating. I like that scary business, but also it’s fun just to see him revel in the fantastical beauty of Oz. Some of the best looking stuff here doesn’t really have precedent in his other movies. Production designer Robert Stromberg (AVATAR, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, later directed MALEFICENT) brought his team to the Walt Disney archives to study art from animated classics for inspiration. One thing they don’t mention as inspiration, but that it kept reminding me of visually, is the “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” scene from SONG OF THE SOUTH. There’s no uncomfortable racial shit, but the brightness of the backgrounds and the way they light and composite the actors in front of digital effects really reminds me of those live action/animation combo scenes. I’ve read that they used large sets with digital enhancements, not straight up green screen, which makes it even cooler that they went for this aggressively artificial look.

I don’t think the movie makes a slam dunk case for needing an Oz prequel, but I liked it much better than Tim Burton’s similar ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Part of that comes down to the premise. The whole idea of that one bothers me because the joy of Lewis Carroll is in being nonsensical, and the screenplay crams all of that nonsense into the cliched box of a chosen-one-saving-the-kingdom plot. The point of combining one thing with another thing is to come up with something more cool, or at least differently cool. But in that case the combination was just immediately, on its face, way less cool than the original thing. I don’t think OZ has that same problem, because it follows the lost-person-on-a-quest-in-a-strange-world format of THE WIZARD OF OZ but with the twist that the lost person is a selfish doofus. In my original review I think I had a good point about what makes him different from many chosen one narratives and hero origin stories: he’s “a protagonist who’s not pure of heart and is not destined for greatness, exactly. The bigger thing he’s working toward is to be a total phony who ends up cracking under the pressure of a lost farm girl.” That last part is built into the character and thankfully they didn’t run from it.

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL was released a week after the sort-of-similarly-themed JACK THE GIANT SLAYER, which it ended up making almost 2 1/2 times as much as. It was #1 at the box office for two weeks, but then THE CROODS and OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN came out. Long time Raimi fan Roger Ebert was still writing until shortly after this, but he doesn’t seem to have reviewed it. Overall the reviews were pretty middling, which is fair.

Mila Kunis won an MTV Movie Award for “Best Villain,” beating out Benedict Cumberbatch in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, Donald Sutherland in THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE, Barkhad Abdi in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and (I swear I’m not making this up) Michael Fassbender in 12 YEARS A SLAVE.

A sequel was planned and written, but Raimi said he wasn’t interested in directing it. And I’m sure we’d all agree that was a good choice if this opening in his schedule had been filled with directing another movie – any other movie. But that’s it for Sam Raimi’s feature films until (barring new Covid waves or something) May 6th. Nevertheless, tune in tomorrow for the thrilling epilogue to this series – Sam Raimi, the TV Years.

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