When I started writing my review of “Oz the Great and Powerful” for Spokane Public Radio, I didn't plan to write about my dad. Sometimes, though, that's just the way things go. Especially when you're writing about a rather ordinary prequel to one of the greatest films ever made:
Like many men of the so-called Greatest Generation, my father wasn’t comfortable being around his children. A career naval aviator, my father spent a lot of time away from the family. And when he would come home he tended to bring a no-nonsense service-inspired attitude with him. Weekend inspections, duty rosters, spit-shined shoes and beds made so tautly that quarters would bounce off them: This was my father’s notion of what it meant to be a parent. Until late in his life, the idea of just being, just playing, with his children simply never occurred to him.
My brothers and I benefitted from our father’s parental dysfunction in a couple of ways: One, he would take us to movies, and we would all sit in the dark, together but not forced to interact. Or two, he would take us to the base library where we would spend hours browsing the stacks, filling our heads with whatever we wanted to read.
And among the books that all three of us did read were the works of L. Frank Baum. We knew Baum, of course, from the 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz.” So we read the inspiration for that movie, Baum’s 1900 novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” But, too, we read “Ozma of Oz,” “The Patchwork Girl of Oz,” “The Scarecrow of Oz” and several other of Baum’s “Oz” novels.
So I was ready for “Oz the Great and Powerful,” Sam Raimi’s contribution to Baum’s world. Starring James Franco as a young conman/magician working the backroads of Kansas, “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a prequel to Baum’s first “Oz” novel – and Victor Fleming’s 1939 movie. What I wasn’t ready for was how ordinary Raimi’s movie would be.
Silly me for being surprised by this. During its glory years, Metro-Golden-Mayer made some of the most magical movies in history. And “The Wizard of Oz,” thanks to its being broadcast on television every year between 1959 and 1991, ultimately became the most seen movie ever. Everyone knows about birds flying over the rainbow and “lions, tigers and bears, oh my.” I’m not sure, though, anyone will remember lines such as “How hard can it be to kill a Wicked Witch?” or “You don’t know much about witches, do you?”
As with most other blockbuster movies made today, “Oz the Great and Powerful” is an impressive exercise in computer graphics. So much so that fully visual creations such as a talking monkey and a ceramic girl make as much an impact as do live actors such as Franco or the three witches he encounters played by Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams. My suggestion would be to see it in IMAX 3D, despite the elevated price (I paid $27 for two matinee tickets), because that format best renders the film’s best features: its visuals.
And, now, you may be thinking, “Oh, Webster’s just stuck in the past.” Please. I don’t automatically think the past is better. In the case of the “Oz” tales, though, the past isn’t just better. It’s magically better. I think even my father would have agreed – if – unlike the great wizard he impersonated – he’d ever have stepped from behind the curtain and let his true self be seen.