Oz The Great and Powerful

By Jared Young

Mailed on March 08, 2013

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Dear Michael Saunders
Second Second Assistant Director

Dear Michael,

Just like the psychedelic social stratification in the World of Oz, with tinkers and quadlings and winkies, there's something enchanting about the lowest levels of the film-set hierarchy: the title Second Second Assistant Director, with its alliterative rhyme scheme, sounds like a mid-level management position in the Lollipop Guild.

I'm not entirely sure what you did on the set of the quasi-prequel Oz the Great and Powerful (assisted the assistant to the Assistant Director?), but whatever contributions you made, they were towards a worthy cause--it's a film that takes such care in cinematic world building that even the phoniest beats are saved from cracking by the sugary glaze of sincerity with which everything is painted.

To be honest, I'm unfamiliar with the Frank L. Baum books, and my relationship with the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz - which I'm pretty sure I've seen one or two or ten times - has been complicated by the ensuing few decades of pop culture references and parodies. There are munchkins, I know. And a house lands on a witch. Flying monkeys too, right? Director Sam Raimi, despite the careful taxonomical ground he has to tread because of MGM's continuing copyright on the original film and it's most recognizable elements, displays a great deal of respect for the foundational texts--if not in the details, then certainly in the mood, which mixes its vividness and wonder with a touch of melancholy.

In the long prologue, we meet the great and powerful illusionist Oz (James Franco) as he charms his new lady assistant, berates his hype-man, gets booed offstage by angry Kansans, and is chased through the travelling carnival by a cuckolded strongman. When his balloon escape is interrupted by a tornado, he is sucked into the World of Oz. In a neat cinematic trick that echoes the 1939 film's transition from black and white to color, the claustrophobic 4:3 frame here expands to fill the entire width of the widescreen. Mistaken for a prophetic savior (the only other option when getting sucked into a magical alternate dimension is, of course, to unknowingly be a prophetic savior), Oz assembles a team of misfits, learns some lessons about self-abnegation, and joins forces with the locals to battle a pair of wicked witches.

This is a Movie. A studio picture. A true old-fashioned Hollywood spectacle (what other type of production could afford a Second Second Assistant Director?) But Raimi's guerilla mentality, carried over from his days in the Necronomicon-haunted forests of the Evil Dead trilogy, occasionally shows through. To Oz's benefit, and sometimes to its detriment: his manic, swooping camera sometimes ruins the 3D effect, which is only really striking when the camera is still.

There's a suggestion of anarchy in the casting, too: the idea of James Franco carrying a colorful, kid-friendly fantasy epic from start to finish feels counterintuitive, doesn't it? But it's the sort of up-is-down, black-is-white backwards thinking that you find in magical realms like Oz. Turns out he's rather perfect in the role. The cocksure young performer seeking fame at any cost, extending himself beyond his capabilities, making artistic promises he can't keep, who reveals beneath the squinting fa├žade an integrity and rectitude that helps him to eventually learn that goodness sometimes supersedes greatness. Surely the dick-nosed short-film auteur, fish-out-of-water Oscar host, and inauguration day poet laureate found nothing personal to draw upon.

So, Second Second Assistant Director (guiding the film from can to projector!), your membership in the merry band of craftsman who worked on this film is something to be proud of. In this era of ironical, mean-spirited children's entertainment (I'm looking at you with an arched eyebrow, Dreamworks), the earnestness of Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful is refreshing. Like plunging from the boxed-in black-and-white world into a more tender, vivid place.



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