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I saw Oz the Great and Powerful last night, and found it quite fun. Now technically, for legal reasons, this movie is based on the books and has nothing to do with the Wizard of Oz movie, but I feel like it fits in quite well with the original Wizard of Oz movie, and the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory movies in terms of the general fantastic feel and imaginative set work, even if I have some quibbles with it. Considering the number of times Hollywood ends up trying to do these reinvisionings that end up horrible (Tin Man comes to mind…), I found Oz the Great and Powerful to be a pleasant surprise.

There’s a lot of movies that put so much into special effects and eye candy that they forget that things like characterization and storyline are still important in creating a memorable movie experience. Oz the Great and Powerful avoided this trap. I had always wondered how the Wizard of Oz had come to such an exalted place in Emerald City, when his power was illusion and trickery. How did all the munchkins come to speak of The Wizard of Oz with such reference? It actually feels like the Wizard of Oz makes more sense after seeing the backstory of the wizard brought to life. James Franco was pretty awesome as Oz, and conveyed a lot through facial expressions.

Okay, the rest of the review is a bit more spoilerific, so

Theodora was interesting as “a witch” in the beginning that we come to know has a temper problem, and the backstory to how she became a wicked witch was intriguing, most especially for what it leaves out of the story. Her surprise at the ways Oz was willing to interact with her even knowing that she was a witch gave rise to some curiousities about what the beliefs about witches were, particularly when it meant such general rules would be applied to any witch regardless of whether they were good or wicked. Mostly, I am intrigued by what was left out of the movie: Evanora presented a music box that Oz supposedly gave her the previous evening when they danced. I think the most interesting part that they left out of the movie was how Evanora got the box.

We know that Oz was having misgivings when he realized Theodora was planning to be his Queen. We know his pattern of having It is true that Oz had given many women this “music box from his grandmother” at the circus, and that he had given one to Theodora as well. We see when he is packing his bags that he has several of those music boxes with him. What we never see is whether he gave a music box to Evanora, or whether she was watching through her crystal ball the evening that Theodora danced with him, whether she snuck one out of his bag or created it through magic as the perfect tool to manipulate Theodora into feeling so betrayed. Both possibilities are consistent with the character’s past actions. I loved how each tear scarred Theodora’s face (though I was disappointed that the scars did not remain there when she transformed to the Wicked Witch of the West).

I am very glad that it isn’t clear how that music box gets to Evanora. We get to experience the feelings that Theodora has when she sees the music box more like Theodora did, and the point of transition at which Oz becomes a good man becomes all the murkier for it. I love that the movie does not clearly explain how Evanora got the box, (even though my distrust of Hollywood movie plot decisions keeps me thinking that they probably filmed such a scene and then decided to cut it for the sake of movie time rather than this being a brilliant decision to leave it out from the beginning. I am scared that I will see this as part of the “deleted scenes” when it comes out on DVD).

I think it is interesting that Theodora never confronts Oz about the music box. She is too angry and vengeful to explain what she’s really angry about. Oz never gets a chance to feel the guilt over his actions (if he gave the box to Evanora), or to protest his innocence. He never knows what it is that changed Theodora, but he still offers her an olive branch at the end. In addition, I like how even though Evanora was the wicked witch who ordered the flying baboons to attack peaceful villages, manipulated people into believing that Glinda was the wicked witch, and manipulated Theodora into taking the apple, we also see signs towards the end that the power and wickedness of Theodora will start to surpass that of her sister. Though one quibble I have is that Mila Kunis does not make a convincing transition to being the Wicked Witch of the West. Yes her skin turns green, her nose gets bigger and her fingernails grow, but it still seems like strapping a coupla bad features onto a very pretty face: Her skin is still smooth, unscarred, and her facial expressions and vocal tones don’t carry the level of wickedness I would hope for. In fairness, though, even 80 years after the original Wizard of Oz movie is released, I think it would still be hard for anyone to capture the level of wickedness that Margaret Hamilton did in the original Wizard of Oz movie. Seriously, how could anyone think they could pull off such a role without being able to do that fingernails-on-the-blackboard cackle?

I liked the parallels with the original Wizard of Oz, of opening the film in black & white and moving to color as we get to the Land of Oz. I liked the parallels between Kansas and the Land of Oz: Most people pick up on the parallel of Annie (who discusses her engagement to a farmer with the last name of Gale, leading to some neat connections with Dorothy Gale) and Glinda, but there are other parallels too that many miss until the end credits: The China Doll who has broken off her legs that Oz helps to walk again is the same actress as the girl in the wheelchair at Oz’s show that asks him to help her walk again. What he couldn’t do there is possible in the Land of Oz. Similarly, his partner Frank in the real world that he chastises early on about how ‘they aren’t friends’ is the one who receives Oz’s friendship in the very end.

There are some parts of the movie where the plot falls short and is obviously contrived to try and get the audience to think there is more doubt about what Oz is going to do at the end. His “change of plans” at the end is so unconvincing to the audience that its hard to see why his comrades are taking it so seriously or thinking he’s actually going to run away. Part of it too, though, is that this is almost like a prequel: We already know how it turns out in the end, so its hard to pull “fakeouts” that would lead to a different conclusion than what we know happens. And the reason why he is loading up the basket with gold is pretty inscrutable. His comrades knew the plans about the projection unit, but they weren’t trusted to know the part of the plan where he’s faking his death, so that leaves Oscar himself to be the one running back and forth loading the hot air balloon full of gold. Who was he trying to convince that he was running away? The witches? If he was trying to make gold rain down upon the people of Oz, it doesn’t seem like that it would have the right dramatic effect to the audience for that moment, and the filmmakers should have known that there are limits to how you can generate suspense in a prequel.

Other than that though, I did enjoy the movie. I didn’t go in with a lot of expectations about it, and I wouldn’t list it as my favorite movie of all times or anything, but there were plenty of things I enjoyed about it enough that I will probably see it again.