OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, Disney’s recent rendering of the classic OZ stories, is in some ways predictable and in other ways, not. On June 11, this title was released on DVD and BluRay.
The film is a prequel to the story of THE WIZARD OF OZ with which baby boomers grew up. So much of the story—while not the same-- still will bring back memories. It follows the character of Oscar Diggs on his path from a penurious carnival magician to the powerful Wizard of Oz. In his native Kansas, Oscar, or Oz as he is called, is a trickster and womanizer. He is played by James Franco, whose expressive face and deep felt emotions make his character well-defined. One aspect that disappoints, however, is Franco’s looks. While he is fairly cute and charming, he doesn’t have the virility to appeal to all the women in the movie whose hearts he breaks. This version of the character of Oz is the consummate romantic con artist, and that is the sort of role that takes an exceptionally strong, manly appeal. Robert Preston had that quality as Harold Hill in THE MUSIC MAN. Errol Flynn brought that quality to the screen in CAPTAIN BLOOD, as did Michael Caine in ALFIE.
Disney may not have the most electric leading man, but the Wizard character is quirky, edgy. Actually, he may be best viewed towards the end of the film—a huge dislocated head in a large ball of flames. Impressive to look at, but don’t get too close—especially if you are a gullible Kansas gal or a witch of Oz!
The writer who thought up the OZ stories, L. Frank Baum, was born in 1856 in Chittenango, NY. He wrote THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ in 1900, and it was so successful that he followed it up with more than a dozen other books about Oz.
The first filmed version of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ was produced in 1908 by the Selig Polyscope Company, and Baum gave live lectures using these clips. Fortunately, much of this film survives and is available on a compilation set of DVDs called MORE TREASURES FROM AMERICAN FILM ARCHIVES . It offers strange and wonderful glimpses of the characters from the original books. There were several later silent films. In one, comedy star Oliver Hardy plays the Woodsman. Then MGM bought the rights and put forth the now-classic Technicolor fantasy in 1939.
The OZ stories often leave me with a freakish feeling, the zany characters of a wound-up imagination. So having Sam Raimi direct the new OZ film makes sense. Raimi is known for making the offbeat, somewhat humorous horror series THE EVIL DEAD. He also made DARKMAN and the SPIDER-MAN films. Raimi takes the OZ characters and makes them as edgy as they are in the original stories.
Indeed, OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is a version of Baum’s works for the current market. Its special effects are pure wizardry, indicating that the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz himself could have made a career in today’s Hollywood!
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She teaches film studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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