Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Weak and Powerless Oz

It's not up to me to take the new CG-effects-laden "Oz the Great and Powerful" to task. I'm not the target audience for this visually glossy Oz update. It did take in an estimated $150 million in its opening weekend from March 8-10, making it at least marginally a hit for Disney Studios and the top movie of the weekend.

Mrs. Gulch harasses Dorothy and Auntie Em.
But Disney has to be watching the box office closely. With its luxury-class digital effects and encyclopedia-heavy marketing budget, the film is said to have cost more than $350 million to make. It has a long way to go to reach the $1 billion in sales stature of another fairy-tale update, "Alice in Wonderland." At least it's no "Jack the Giant Slayer," a dead-on-arrival action sprawl that has only reaped $43.5 million in box office after having cost about $200 million for Warner Bros. We'd call it "Jack the Studio Killer" if Warner didn't have such deep pockets.

But one side note on "Oz" mentioned by critics is its lack of story; it's all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Don't blame James Franco, who reportedly does a passionless walk-through. It's more the fault of having not much to work with outside of the splash-mountain pastiche of colorful set pieces.

It's important to remember that the original 1939 "Wizard of Oz" was more than a fairy tale romp. It came out during the heart of the Great Depression, and much of its imagery centered on the hard times endured by farm families in the dust bowl. The Kansas scenes are shot in harsh black and white and show Dorothy's family living at subsistence level. Mrs. Gulch, the snooty landowner and movie villain early on, is a heartless landowner whose main purpose seems to be to get Dorothy "and your little dog too."

Once Dorothy accidentally kills the evil witch and sets the Munchkins free, she is a kind of humble savior. The vivid technicolor scenes in the land of Oz are part of her journey away from her chores and hard living. But it is telling that all she wants to do is go home; her life may be hard, but her family is also her life.

While no Steinbeckian drama like "Grapes of Wrath," the original movie "Oz" was more rooted in a parable of escape and individual achievement than the modern "Oz." A studio does not generally spend north of $200 million to remind us of today's modern economic woes. Leave that to the cheaper indies. But do adult audiences really want to see pure fantasy without at least some underpinnings of reality? Just asking....

1 comment:

  1. Adults who've read the many many other Oz books (probably in their childhoods, usually at bedtime) are interested in how they get plundered for plotlines. We saw the original previews of Wicked in SF before it hit Broadway and thought Gregory Maguire did an admirable job of extrapolating a backstory for the witches. It didn't hurt that the witches were Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel at the time.

    We haven't seen the new Oz, but it sounds like the B/W start turning into color on arrival in Oz might ruffle a few legal feathers at Warner Brothers. I heard they had legal issues about what shades of green were allowable without a suit. That kind of IP paranoia doesn't bode well for a creative reboot a la JJ Abrams' Star Trek (and, fingers crossed, Star Wars).

    I sometimes wonder how many viewers of the original film even recognize the direct correlation between her friends in Oz and the farmhands in Kansas (I suspect most people made the "wizard" connection, and probably the Gulch Toto fixation, but when a group re-watched it recently, most of the group members hadn't ever connected the dots).

    Now, the real question - what happens when you start Dark Side of the Moon with the new film?