Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013)

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Cleveland-born Margaret Hamilton (1902-1985) appeared in over 100 film and television roles. Later in life she appeared in several films cast as a crazy woman, such as the cantankerous Professor Crabwell in the MTV movie The Night Strangler (1973, starring Davin McGavin as investigative reporter Carl Kolchak) and Robert Altman’s odd Brewster McCloud (1970). But Hamilton is forever and invariably linked to her portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (1939). Her witch is my vote for the single scariest villain of all time. When asked to reprise the role in an unrealized sequel, Hamilton politely refused on the grounds that a resurrected Wicked Witch would be too traumatic to children. Much later in life she donned hat and robe and made a short appearance, albeit toned down without the green makeup, as the witch on a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episode. Now, almost 75 years later actress Mila Kunis appears in the role of the Wicked Witch of the West. She must have been 1) flattered, and 2) mortified.

After watching Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013), a decent film with a few purely magical moments, it became clear to me that: 1. Mila Kunis is no Margaret Hamilton, 2. James Franco was horribly miscast of the turn-of-the-Century Kansas side-showman, and 3. The technical achievements of the 1939 classic are cost-prohibitively unsurmountable even in the modern digital age. I’ve done it again and compared a modern film to a motion picture classic, and I realize the new Oz stands on it’s own.

I liked the opening sepia-toned beginning shot in the old Academy aspect ratio (roughly 4:3), and the tornado sequence was fine and reminiscent of the 1939 film. I’m sure the 3D effects were effective but I settled to watch the movie in good old 2D. James Franco is such an unremarkable and flat actor IMO. Based on a theater full of teenage girls I understand the casting decision. I’ve never liked the guy in anything and as a Kansas sideshow magician he simply didn’t pull it off. Likable Frank Morgan did pull it off. W.C. Fields, an early choice as Oz would’ve pulled it off -Not Franco. Sorry girls.

The transition to color and widescreen looked fine, but the emotional context and timing was off -Remember Dorothy opening the door to the crashed farmhouse? The new Oz just happens as most CG-rendered films do.

Mila is a fine actress. As Theodora she is ok. As the Wicked Witch she is slightly better, especially with Greg Nicotero’s extraordinary makeup. The real magic is a CG-animated little porcelain doll (who has some of the best lines in the film) that is just remarkable and in spirit with L. Frank Baum’s literary works. I also liked the animated winged monkey Finley (voiced by Jach Braff). Cast-wise, Michelle Williams also seems flat as Glinda, but I did like Rachel Weisz as the Wicked Witch of the East, here named Evanora. She of course gets clobbered by Dorothy in the opening moments of Wizard. Having Kunis as the wicked sister was a nice twist the I didn’t see coming. Kudos to Bill Cobbs as Master Tinker and Tony Cox as the smart-alecky munchkin Knuck. And there’s Bruce Campbell, in a cameo, as one of the Winkie guards.

Oddly, we see no elaborate musical numbers (one truncated Munchkin dance). No talking trees. No rusty tin woodsman. The dark and dangerous forest is present and so are the poppy fields. A lion briefly appears. So do really weird looking snapping vines which I liked. The winged-apes are now bat-like baboons that might frighten small kids.

The ending worked with the Wizard pulling out his tricks courtesy of Thomas Edison. I don’t know. They don’t make ’em like they used to.

*** For Effort.
**1/2 for film. Might be better in 3D.

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