Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Musing Pictures: Oz The Great and Powerful

There must be a small army of attorneys out there, building their dream homes with the overtime checks from Disney. "Oz The Great and Powerful" must have been no small feat to accomplish, from a legal standpoint.  Put simply, Disney had the rights to the Oz books by L. Frank Baum, but not to the ubiquitous 1939 film, "The Wizard of Oz". The earlier film, produced by MGM, featured a whole slew of memorable features, from "Over the Rainbow" to the ruby slippers, which did not derive from the books. The Lion (as MGM is known in the industry) was careful to trademark and copyright many of these innovations, so Disney's adaptation could not use them.  The execs at Disney even had to fret over the particular shade of green of the Wicked Witch's skin tone in order to avoid confrontation with MGM.

The details of this legal balancing act have been documented in quite a few places (I recall at least two articles in "Variety" from this past year), but few have addressed the narrative implications of these restrictions.

When any good filmmaker adapts literary material to the screen, it's inevitable that certain strategic changes will be made that reflect the difference in the way narrative is delivered.  Certain story elements might not work on-screen because they're verbal or internal to the characters, rather than visual.  Other elements might simply be less effective on-screen.  The silver slippers of Baum's book thus became ruby slippers in the MGM movie.  Red is much more vibrant and exciting on screen, after all!  Many of the changes made in the '39 adaptation are meant to make the most of the cinematic medium.  They are visual, like the slippers, or aural, like all the songs.

Coming in to this 2013 adaptation, director Sam Raimi had his hands tied.  Some of the best cinematic tools at his disposal were already used by MGM, and therefore, out of his reach.  Sure, he could have tried for new songs, but once you're locked out of the elements that define a classic, if you do anything too similar, you're bound to be compared (unfavorably) to the original.  Raimi had to deviate, and deviate he did.  Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, the result is very wordy, and not nearly as visually-driven as you'd expect of an Oz story or of a Raimi film.  I lost count of how many scenes involved characters talking to each other, telling each other what's happening, rather than scenes that demonstrated the story's progress. It's as if, in the fretful avoidance of MGM's innovations, the film forgets the very purpose of those innovations, and neglects to replace them.