In the words of Harry Callahan, “A man’s got to know his limitations”, and in this case director Sam Raimi knew his going into this project of creating a prequel to one of the most beloved children’s movies of all times. The fact that Warner Bros (who owns the rights to the 1939 movie) put the kibosh on all of Raimi’s idea’s about pulling stuff from the movie, didn’t help matters much either…
It’s 1905 and Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) is a traveling circus magician who is also an egotistical womanizer, a cheat, and con man. Billed as “The Great and Powerful Oz” on his hot air balloon, he is caught in a tornado one afternoon, after making an escape from a jealous boyfriend. The movie switches from black and white Kansas to glorious color (and widescreen) when “Oz” lands in the Land of OZ. My…isn’t that convenient!
He immediately meets good witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who thinks Oz is OZ’s prophesy about “a wizard will come and save OZ from the Wicked Witch and bring peace back to its people”. Oscar falls for her (naturally) and lies that he’s THE Wizard!
En route to the Emerald City he saves Finley, a talking flying monkey dressed in a bellhop uniform (voiced by Zack Braff) and the trio are welcomed into the huge green city and it’s current caretaker, Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who takes a shine to the handsome “Wizard”. But Oz soon learns that being King and getting all the gold in the treasury has a price: he has to first kill the Wicked Witch of the West to get it.
Armed with his so-called “magic” and Finley, they venture off to the Forbidden Forest to nab the witch’s wand (the source of her power) and find, on their way, little China Doll (voiced by Joey King) the last child resident of China Town, destroyed by the Witch’s baboon army.
All three finally find the evil witch, but it turns out to be… Glinda, the Good Witch! Whaaaaa? What gives? Evanora has sprung her trap, but missed her opportunity to kill her good sister.
Thinking swiftly, she fools heart-broken Theodora into becoming (cue the music) THE Wicked Witch of the West, complete with green skin, pointy hat, and flying broomstick. Pissed off at Oz for cheating on her with Glinda, Theodora declares war on Glinda’s castle and land which include the populace of the Munchkins, Tinkers, and more. Oz, fearing the jig is up, wants out of OZ, but suddenly comes up with a wacky plan to save OZ and its people from the evil witch sisters and become the true Wizard of OZ!
Working from a fine screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner, this visual eye-candy movie does have some scary moments for the kiddies, thanks to Raimi’s classic directorial style. The man just can’t help himself.
The plot does meander a bit and takes a while to deliver its dramatic and satisfying conclusion, but the biggest mistake in this otherwise wonderful movie is James Franco. He just is NOT right for the Wizard. He is far too passive to play the conniving, yet luvable huckster that ought be the Wizard and Raimi should have gone with a more seasoned actor instead of his buddy from the Spider-man trilogy.
Another point worth mentioning: I believe that if Warner Bros had played ball with Disney in letting them use elements from the 1939 film in this movie, it could have been a much better film.
“OZ” movies in the past: A trip down the Yellow Brick Road
“The Wizard of OZ” (1939)
It would seem no man, woman, or child on Planet Earth doesn’t know this movie about Dorothy and her journey over the rainbow, only to hook-up with three total strangers in a seemingly futile and impossible effort to kill a witch just so she can return home. Culled from the 1900 book by L. Frank Baum called “The Wonderful Wizard of OZ”, this wildly adapted MGM screenplay threw out the book’s ‘silver slippers’ in favor of the more colorful ‘ruby slippers’, and beefed up the musical aspect with songbird Judy Garland (who replaced the studio’s original choice, Shirley Temple, whose contract couldn’t be negotiated) in the lead.
This masterpiece is an American icon and a cinematic classic, even though it wasn’t a box office smash at the beginning. The movie made it’s big bucks after repeated theatrical reprises and when it hit TV… not to mention video and DVD sales. It is a crown jewel for every age to watch and simply endures to this very day.
Here are some factoids: Wicked Witch Margaret Hamilton got 3rd degree burns during the filming of her fiery “disappearing” act in Munchkin Land.
Actor Buddy Ebsen had to hospitalized for a violent allergic reaction to the Tin Man’s silver make-up and was replaced by Jack Haley.
Watch Judy Garland’s hair throughout the movie…it constantly changes length!
Professor Marvel’s (Frank Morgan) old coat was found by Morgan in a thrift store and okay’d by the director to wear as his costume. One day he looked inside the inner pocket of the coat and saw a hand-sewn tag that read: “property of L. Frank Baum”
The song “Over the Rainbow” was almost cut from the film because it “slowed the tempo of the movie”.
RETURN TO OZ (1985)
A dangerous and risky move by Disney in 1985 proved to be disastrous by rolling out an “unofficial sequel” to the “Wizard of Oz” story where young Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk–who sounded a lot like Garland) had come back to Kansas, but a bleak and awful world where nobody believed her tall tales of OZ, talking Scarecrows, Witches, etc. Her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry (not sweet and understanding here) send to a hospital (more like a mental institution) where a doctor wants to apply her with electro-shock therapy!
In a violent thunderstorm, Dorothy escapes and falls in a river, only to wake up in…you guessed it… OZ!
But OZ has gone to pot (and NOT the good kind!). An evil witch named Mombi has all but destroyed OZ and the Yellow Brick Road and it’s up to Dorothy and Bullima (her talking chicken) to save it! With the help of a wind-up guard (Tik-Tok), a strange scarecrow-ish talking stick-man with a pumpkin for a head (Jack Pumpkinhead), and a flying couch with the head a moose (Gump), the three are beset by the Nome King (Nicol Williamsom), who is transformed from stop-motion clay animation (Will Vinton’s excellent work) to human form. Their rescue and capture by Mombi (and her interchangeable heads) is bizarre and surreal…even for adults! This is the movie Disney wish they never made! It scared kids more than it should have!
UNDER THE RAINBOW (1981)
Someone at Orion Pictures (and FIVE writers!!) got together and actually thought it would be funny to make a movie about the “little people” that were hired to be Munchkins in the movie, “The Wizard of Oz”! Yes, they actually thought this!
“And”, they further thought, “We’ll get Chevy Chase and Carrie Fisher to star in it!! We can’t lose!” WRONG!!
This is what happens when you TRY and make a comedy that isn’t funny. The plot was ridiculous and, for our times, rather racist: little person Rollo Sweet (Cork Hubert) wants to be a movie star SO badly he mails himself to Tinseltown, but not before he overhears Otto, a German little person (Billy Barty) conspiring WW2 secrets over the phone to a Japanese spy in a Hollywood hotel – the same hotel playing guest to the Singer Midgets (and more) who’ll be the Munchkins.
Carrie Fisher is Annie Clark, who works at the hotel and must contend with the mayhem that is 150+ little people running amuck, creating a nuisance, and for some inexplicable reason, want to tear apart the hotel. Chevy Chase is Bruce Thorpe, a U.S. Secret Service agent assigned to protect a visiting Duke & Duchess who are staying at the hotel and are also the target of an assassin.
So, you have crazed Munchkins, Japanese spies, German spies, eccentric visiting diplomats, hired assassins, and our hero Rollo, who’ll somehow be in the middle of it and come out a hero. Oh, and Chase and Fisher fall in love with other even though they have no chemistry together whatsoever. This is an awful movie. Rent it.
THE WIZ (1978)
In the long line of the inevitable “musicals-turned-into-movies” like “Chicago”, “Annie”, and the recent “Les Miserables”, this one ranks right up there with “what the hell were they thinking??”
I’ve seen the musical on stage and it’s very good, handled by the right director and with a solid cast and orchestra. Translating it for the screen should only be done by an equally talented director who, like the Knight in “Indy 3” said, “must choose wisely”, when it comes to casting. In the pivotal role of Dorothy Gale, Oscar winner director Sidney Lumet hiccuped badly and cast 33-year-old Diana Ross in the lead. A truly WTF moment in Hollywood.
The rest of the casting was just as nuts: Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man, Ted Ross as the Cowardly Lion, and Richard Pryor as the Wizard. Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow and Lena Horne as Glinda were perfect roles for them as was Mabel King as Eveline, The Wicked Witch. Lumet’s “OZ” land was comprised of dismal dilapidated NYC buildings and rundown tenements. Ross looked uncomfortable on screen as we felt sitting in the audience and, as a result, this $24 million movie was a major flop.