Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Cinema File #134: "The Witches Of Oz (Aka, Dorothy And The Wizard Of Oz)" Review

If you haven't been reading the blog for the last couple of days, I've been on a bit of an Oz kick recently ever since I reviewed the latest twist on L. Frank Baum's universe, Oz The Great And Powerful. I've already talked about two other classic Oz films I feel are often under appreciated, the unofficial sequel Return To Oz and the blaxploitation remake The Wiz, and I thought I'd round things out by talking about a more recent effort, aired in 2011 and released on DVD just last year called The Witches of Oz (or Dorothy and the Witches of Oz depending on the version you're watching). Its directed by the same guy who did Transmorphers, who is evidently so proud of that fact that he managed to include a poster for that movie in the background of this one, on a billboard in Times Square no less. So, how does it turn out?

Well, I'm a little conflicted about that to be honest. I've already mentioned how I would personally make a more modern adaptation of Oz tropes into an original story, so I can't say this is anything like what I would have done, but at the same time, I imagine this might be close to what I would have done after the people footing the bill looked at my crazy-ass concept and told me they couldn't justify funding a movie where Dorothy becomes a prostitute and the Scarecrow builds frankenmunchkins. The Witches of Oz follows a similar path to the recent Syfy Channel miniseries Tin Man, with an older Dorothy interacting with a dark Steampunky Oz, only this time much of the action takes place in our world, with the magical elements seeping through gradually from the other dimension.

The story follows Dorothy as a young woman writing a series of children's novels about her adventures in Oz, based on dreams pulling from her repressed memories that also literally hold the key to the Wicked Witch's plan for revenge and the conquest of Earth. As I mentioned in the intro, there are multiple versions of this movie. The one I'm reviewing is the two part miniseries, though from what I understand there is also a theatrical version that I assume must have been cut down considerably, and not having seen that cut, I can't speak to its quality. As for this longer version, while there are many glaring flaws mostly in terms of forgivable budgetary things like special effects, I thought that overall it came together quite nicely.

I was attracted to this movie mostly due to the pedigree of the cast, in particular Christopher Lloyd, Jeffrey Combs, and Lance Henrickson. As much as I love them both, Combs and Henrickson are wasted in roles that add very little to the plot and that I have to assume were the first things cut from the shorter release. Lloyd on the other hand needed to be in the movie a lot more, showing up as The Wizard for easily less than ten minutes of total screen time, and yet even in that short amount of time he imbues the character with a mercurial mysteriousness that instantly puts James Franco to shame. With the exception of Sean Astin and Ethan Embry as useless comic relief elves, the rest of the cast is made up of largely unknowns, who all do a pretty good job, even if many of them turn in very broad and in some cases over the top performances.

Paulie Rojas is good as Dorothy, presenting her as confident and strong willed while still maintaining the character's essential innocence and innate goodness. Eliza Swenzon's Wicked Witch is both evil and sympathetic, evidently a pre-requisite for the character post Wicked and Elphaba, but unlike Mila Kunis' take in the recent Raimi film, neither aspect of the witch's personality comes off as forced or contrived here. The relationship between the two of them is a significant part of the story and often vacillates wildly between extremes, sometimes presenting them as enemies, then other times as friends or misunderstood equals, and then back again. Still, though it gets a bit muddled leading up to it, their final confrontation is a surprisingly poignant one as they find an ultimately tragic peace.

The story takes the idea of people in our world showing up in Oz, something seen in all three of the mainstream films, and turns it on its head, presenting the classic trio of Ozean companions sent to Earth in human form, their memories of who they really are erased. This was a really interesting concept, but I don't know if it was executed as well as it could have been. I wanted a lot more of these characters, as the build up to their final realization of who they once were seems both laboriously telegraphed and at the same time completely out of left field. Then they try to throw in a twist concerning one character's identity that seems completely unnecessary, and requires us to accept an extremely minor character who had one line up to that point as a major player for no real reason.

I should also highlight Mia Sara as the Wicked Witch's chief henchlady Princess Langwidere. This character is actually a more faithful literary adaptation of the head swapping witch that inspired the villain Mombi from Return To Oz, and in addition to the clearly deliberate nod to that film and its fan base, here the character makes up for her diminished status with an impish charisma that makes the movie a lot better than it would have otherwise been. Of course, Mia Sara is only one of several actresses playing this role, and they're all fun, especially Sasha Jackson as the somewhat ditzy blond head. I wish I could say I enjoyed the Nome King as much, but unfortunately here this great character is reduced to an incidental henchman with almost no personality, so devoid of any interesting qualities that I don't understand why they bothered to give him that name and not just make him a random monster.

Still, the Nome King's introduction leads to a battle with an axe wielding robot Tin Man, one of many fights encompassing an all out war with Oz in the middle of New York City, so I can't really complain all that much. The special effects really suffer here, but by this point I was engaged enough where it didn't really take me out of the movie or reduce my enjoyment at all. Where I did scoff a bit was towards the end as Dorothy and the Witch square off, and all of a sudden Dorothy has a level of magical abilities heretofore unknown to us, and its implied that all this time we were just supposed to assume she had these powers. There are a few moments like that, where rules are introduced arbitrarily and broken just as quickly, but again, I was able to shrug it off and just go along for the ride.

All in all The Witches Of Oz is a solid low budget alternative to the newest and lackluster theatrical film that I would easily recommend for any fan of the Oz series. In tone and style, it often reminded me of the NBC miniseries The 10th Kingdom, another very good take on established fantasy stories I'd suggest taking a look at (which last time I checked was on Netflix instant). Though faithful to the literary source out of necessity, it being the source that's public domain, it also very clearly goes out of its way to serve as a loving tribute to the gamut of cinematic incarnations of Baum's world. The depiction of magic and morality is as wholesome as the original, but the atmosphere is dark and gritty like Return To Oz (and features many of its characters in cameos including Tik Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead). And I'm even inclined to believe that the urban setting of the piece might just be a subtle nod to The Wiz. Okay, maybe not, but even without the affability of Nipsy Russell, this is one modern day Oz adaptation I can get behind.

You call that a Nome King? THIS is a Nome King!

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