Fantasy, 130 Minutes, 2013
The Oz-stories have charmed people for over a century and, in fact, were first put to film by Frank L. Baum himself in 1914. The 1939 “Wizard of Oz” [IMDB] is a well-deserved and universally known classic. The unofficial sequel in 1985,”Return to Oz”, [IMDB] was brilliantly dark but is often misunderstood or just plain forgotten. This time director Sam Raimi [IMDB] dives into the pool with a lovingly crafted prequel.
The story pays respectful homage to both the 1939 film and the original books but is canon to the books. Like the original film the opening sequence is presented in black-and-white and a 3/4 aspect ratio. The transition to the full-color, panoramic Oz is just as impactful as in the original. Sometimes the old tricks are the best tricks.
If nothing else can be said, the movie is truly gorgeous. Oz is realized as a vibrant, multi-faceted, infectiously alive landscape. Rich and colorful with a layering of sensible digital effects over lush practical designs it’s every bit as impactful as a $200 million dollar budget could make it. Not so fortunate are some of the character effects. The introduction of the munchkins, for example, just plain looks wrong. Scenes with the evil flying monkeys and Glinda’s bubble effects are weak. Finley, the good flying monkey, also has some unfortunate scenes.
While the plot is pretty thin it stays well-focused. Character growth is essentially non-existent with the exception of Theodora. Her story, which is decently complex and even clever at times, is unfortunately the weakest aspect of the film due solely to the frustrating reactions of the other characters to it. In many ways her sad story reminds one of a suicidal break and yet the other characters remain vapid and unmoved by her plight.
It may seem odd to hear but there are more than a few distinctive elements in this shared by Raimi’s classic “Army of Darkness” [IMDB]. Both films feature a magical visitor from another world going on a quest for an artifact. Both feature montages of that visitor teaching the locals how to produce gunpowder and technologically-advanced weapons. Both feature wholly unsatisfying female characters used and then abandoned. I won’t belabor the point but I would think that Sheila and Theodora could share some stories about fickle heroes, forced change and unforgiving former friends.
Overall the movie strikes all the right chords. We saw it with a six-pack of 10-year old girls and they all loved it. Adults may chafe a bit at the shallowness of the plot but should be easily distracted by the sumptuousness of the visuals. Even with the warts this is a fine addition to the cinematic mythology of Oz.