The Wicked Witch, now and then (Photo: Entertainment Weekly/Everett Collection)
What, no ruby slippers? They may be in the Smithsonian, but they are not in the Disney prequel to "The Wizard of Oz" because Warner Bros. has the copyright to those sparkly shoes that popped so vividly in Technicolor. In fact, Dorothy wore silver slippers in the Frank L. Baum novels and, since she doesn't even get a mention in "Oz The Great and Powerful," no ruby kicks. Warner Bros. were such legal sticklers that you won't even see a wart on the chin of the Wicked Witch of the West (her identity in this movie is supposed to be a secret, but squint at the Entertainment Weekly cover and you'll probably figure it out) -- and while she does turn green, it's a different shade from that immortalized by Margaret Hamilton in the original, directed by Victor Fleming.
No ruby slipper in this "Oz" (Everett Collection)There are plenty of similarities between the new film and the 1939 classic. The scenes in Kansas are in black-and-white, while the scenes in the Kingdom of Oz are candy colored. Like the original, it's the story of an outsider who travels to Oz, learns a valuable lesson, and saves the locals. In this case, a twister scoops up womanizing Kansas carny magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) and dumps the con man in Oz amid three comely witches: Glinda (Michelle Williams), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Theodora (Mila Kunis). Oscar, nicknamed Oz, ultimately joins Glinda the Good Witch to overturn the spell-casting sisters Evanora and Theodora, aka the Wicked Witch of the West. Along the way, he makes new friends, plumbs his inner goodness, and frees the citizens of Oz well before Dorothy blows into town.
The Wizard is a whiz of a wiz and, now, a womanizer
No one could have accused Frank Morgan's magician turned Wizard of being a ladies' man back in 1939. And there was no hint of any affair linking him and Glinda (Billie Burke) and no backstory between him and that warty Wicked Witch.
The prequel's strangest twist is that the younger Oscar Diggs is basically run out of town on a balloon, chased by a jealous circus strongman and his angry clown sidekick. He has this caddish habit of seducing women with music boxes and waltzes. Oscar works his way through farm girls in Kansas and the witches of Oz, stirring a twister of jealousy wherever he missteps. It's a lot more boy-meets-girl-meets-girl-meets-girl B plot than we're used to in the fantasy. OK, maybe Judy Garland's Dorothy had a thing for Ray Bolger's Scarecrow, but that was, according to legend, trimmed in the final version (she does tell him, "I think I'll miss you most of all").
The Lion, the Scarecrow, and Whatshisname?
While the new movie gives a nod to the Cowardly Lion (a character immortalized by Bert Lahr), the Lion version in this film is hardly cowardly. In fact, the beast looks nothing like a fussy guy in a furry suit but more like Aslan from "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
Scarecrows make an appearance en masse, created by jolly village seamstresses as part of an army of straw men that will lead the vanguard in the Wizard's attack against the Emerald City, aided by Glinda. Because the scarecrows have no sense of smell (and are pulled on wagons by the villagers), they can cross the poppy fields without succumbing to the sleeping sickness that stalled Dorothy and her posse on the way to the castle in the original.
But where is the Tin Man? Completely MIA. There's not a squeak, or an oil can, in the whole movie.
One of the marvels of the original was Glinda's grand, gliding entrance in a soap bubble. Raimi expands this sequence, so that Oz and Glinda escape from Evanora's flying baboons afloat in glistening soap bubbles. They travel over a luminous mountainous landscape that recalls the old Paramount Pictures logo.
This time the flying monkey is nice, but watch out for those airborne baboons
Early on in his Oz adventure, Oscar rescues Finley the flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) from that not-so-cowardly lion -- and gets a friend forever, whether he wants one or not. In an attempt to arrange bigger, badder simian foes, this time around the wicked witches dispatch fanged airborne baboons that are much more "Planet of the Apes" than funky monkeys.
China Girl in 'Oz The Great and Powerful' (Photo: Walt Disney Pictures)
Best new character: China Girl
Because of the thorny copyright issues, the prequel could dive back into the original Baum novels for new source material that wasn't used in the 1939 film. And that's where they got one of the best new additions to the tale. The Wizard, while headed to the Dark Forest for a witch hunt, detours in magic-ravaged China Town (dropped from the original movie but found in the book). There he meets a crippled China Girl (voice of Joey King), glues her broken porcelain legs and feet, and bonds. Her childlike behavior -- from tantrums to exuberant affection -- gives children someone to identify with in the vacuum left by the missing Dorothy.
Can we let good enough alone?
An oft-repeated theme of the prequel is the tension between goodness and greatness. It's not quite the unforgettable tagline "There's no place like home," but it works well enough. Back in Kansas, Oscar Diggs, sideshow magician, proclaims, "Kansas is full of good men. I don't want to be a good man. I want to be a great one. I want to be Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison all rolled into one."
By the conclusion, after repeatedly being shown both his limitations and his need to believe in himself, Oz comes to realize that simple goodness is underrated. This idea may be anticipating the criticism that the original can never be bested, or even approached. In fact, "Oz The Great and Powerful" is a good-enough prequel, not great, and not nearly as powerful as the original. While no one will be singing, "We're off to see the Wizard, the good-enough Wizard of Oz," we might want to recall that back in 1939, "The Wizard of Oz" was considered a box-office disappointment and only earned out extravagantly in the seven decades that followed.
See a clip from 'Oz The Great and Powerful':