Friday, March 15, 2013

Worth Mentioning - A Fanfare for Zoso

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Sam Raimi takes Cody back to Oz and helps name another dog.


The Wizard of Oz, Victor Fleming's 1939 musical adaptation of L. Frank Baum's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was one of my favorite and most watched films when I was a child. Fuelled by my repeat viewings of that movie, I was fascinated with the Oz world for several years. I watched any other Oz movie or cartoon I came across, gladly went on a school field trip to see a stage production of the musical, collected some of the novels, joined a fan club that regularly sent out newsletters, and wrote my own Oz fan fiction. My interest waned eventually, so much that I haven't even watched the Fleming film this century (and I really need to fix that), but I'll always have a special place in my heart for the land of Oz.

Many potential Oz projects have come and gone over the years, some enticing and some not so much, but the news that Sam Raimi had signed on to direct a prequel of sorts to the '39 classic really caught my attention. One of my favorite filmmakers presenting the return to something that had meant so much to me as a kid? I was totally on board with that. And so when the movie reached theatres, I was there for the first 3D screening on opening day.

The story follows a man named Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs, who goes by his first two initials when performing in his magic show, part of the travelling Baum Bros. circus, as OZ the Great and Powerful. Oz is pretty talented as far as a low-level magician goes, but he claims to be something more, someone with actual mystical powers (which leads to some uncomfortable interactions with audience members) and he strives for greatness. He wants to be as great as Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison combined. Unfortunately, while on his quest for fame and fortune he doesn't think twice about taking advantage of others to advance himself. He doesn't treat people very well.

Oz's life takes an unexpected turn one day when an ill-advised dalliance with the strongman's lady comes to light and he uses the circus's hot air balloon to escape from the raging bodybuilder... then gets caught in a tornado. After pleading to the sky that his life be spared because he hasn't accomplished anything yet, that he can change, can do great things if given a chance, he suddenly finds that he's not in Kansas anymore. He's been transported to the land of Oz.

Once in this unusual, magical, colorful world, Oz finds himself caught in a power struggle playing out between three witches - Emerald City-dwelling sisters Theodora and Evanora and the outcast Glinda - in the aftermath of the death of the land's king. Before dying, the king had made a prophecy that a great wizard bearing the name of Oz would descend from the skies to claim the throne and the riches that come with it, and would then fix the land's problems, saving it from the tyranny of the wicked witch who killed the king. Some believe that Oz may be the answer to that prophecy. Seeing an opportunity to fill his pockets with gold, Oz plays along. He hasn't yet made the change he promised to while being thrown around inside the twister. He has lessons to learn over the course of the adventure that ensues...

And so this is the tale of how The Wizard of Oz came to be the Wizard of Oz, but I called it a prequel "of sorts" to the '39 film because legally it can't claim to be one. This movie was made at Disney, while the '39 one was made at MGM and is now the property of Warner Bros. So it has to distance itself slightly, and there are differences in there like Glinda being from the South in this one, as she was in the novels, instead of from the North, as she was in the classic musical. Still, Great and Powerful is clearly tied to Victor Fleming's film as much as possible, there are winks and nods throughout. There's the fact that the hot air balloon gets caught in a tornado instead of just drifting off into the sky, and that some characters Oz meets in Oz are versions of people he knew in his regular life. While today's CGI allows grander landscapes to be shown, the design of Oz still at times resembles the old school sets and matte paintings. The biggest stylistic callback is in the transition from Oz's circus life to his arrival in Oz. The '39 film famously switched from a sepia tone in the scenes of Dorothy's Kansas home life to three-strip Technicolor in Oz. Here, Raimi presents Oz's regular life in black & white and the 1.37:1 aspect ratio that was the standard in 1939. So it's quite a spectacular moment when Oz finds that his balloon is carrying him over the land of Oz and, after twenty minutes of black & white 1.37:1, the film switches to full, bright color and the image gradually widens out to 2:35.1.

There are some uniquely Raimi camera moves in there, as well as a scene with a witch that's reminiscent of his earlier genre works. As usual, he's also found cameo roles for friends, family, and regular collaborators - his brother Ted is in there, as are Tim Quill and Danny Hicks, the late John Paxton, the three actresses from the original Evil Dead, and his children.

Bruce Campbell is in there of course, given a small cameo as a gate guard who takes some abuse. In my ideal world, he would've been in the role of Oz. Although, that would cause some deja vu in the third act, as Oz becoming the man he could be and leading the citizens on a showy, non-lethal assault against their oppressors did remind me of Ash preparing the villagers for the Deadite attack at the end of Army of Darkness.

My dream casting aside, James Franco does do fine work as Oz. Rachel Weisz does well in the role of Evanora, Mila Kunis has some shaky moments as Theodora, and my favorite of the witches was Michelle Williams, who was very sweet and likeable as Glinda. Tony Cox has some entertaining moments as a character named Knuck and it was great to have Bill Cobbs helping out our heroes.

Like Dorothy gathered the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion as companions on her journey, Oz himself meets and befriends a living doll called China Girl, whose first scene with Oz is a rather poignant one, and a flying monkey named Finley (it's the wicked witch's flying baboons that you have to watch out for.) After Oz saves Finley from danger, the little monkey dedicates his life to the man. All he hopes to receive in exchange is friendship.

I liked the characters quite a bit, and I really enjoyed this movie. It's a nice, fun family film, and Raimi's style and sensibilities were a good match for the spirit of Oz. I can't think of any other director I would've rather taken the journey with.

Its opening weekend came at an interesting time. As I wrote in an Appreciation article, the release of Raimi's first Spider-Man movie coincided with the day I got my dachshund Zeppelin. Coincidentally, I was scheduled to get my second dachshund on the Sunday after Raimi's Oz came out. Thanks to how awesome Zeppelin has been, I've become very fond of the dachshund breed, and with him getting up there in age and having some thankfully false alarm health scares recently (which I've written about a couple times), it seemed like it might be a good time to get him a little buddy and hopefully he'll have several years to help raise this kid right and show him the ropes. And since Zeppelin was named after the band Led Zeppelin, it seemed to me that the perfect name to give the new dog would be Zoso. Each member of Led Zeppelin chose a symbol to represent themselves, and the symbol chosen by guitarist Jimmy Page appears to form the word Zoso. The band's fourth album (which contains my favorite song, "Stairway to Heaven") is sometimes referred to as Zoso. Zoso is the name of a popular Led Zeppelin tribute band.

It just seemed right to follow Zeppelin with Zoso.

I got Zeppelin the day I went to the theatre to see Raimi's Spider-Man for the second time, and that's how he ended up being named Zeppelin Maguire. I got Zoso two days after I saw Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful, and that's why he's named Zoso Finley.


  1. I have some wonderful memories of the original film as well. I saw it every year when it came on TV. I love everything about it...the music, the story, the humor, the terror, the adventure. Haven't seen this one yet but it's on my must-see list! Great review.

    1. The '39 film is definitely one of the all-time greats. I'm going to have to get the Blu-ray that's coming out later this year and revisit the Oz of my childhood.

      Thanks for commenting.

      - Cody

  2. Anyone seeing the Led Zeppelin guys in Raleigh? They're playing Lincoln Theater: