Oz the Great and Powerful

And now in our journey through the films of Sam Raimi we have arrived at a difficult spot. We have come to the film that was at the time “the new Sam Raimi” but for a few years became “the last Sam Raimi?” I enjoyed OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL well enough when it came out in 2013 (here’s my review), even though a big commercial Disney movie that’s an unsolicited prequel to a famous story wasn’t high on the list of what I wanted to see from him. And it definitely wasn’t what I wanted to see him go out on.

Luckily he has now actually filmed his next movie, so a comeback is on deck. But isn’t it crazy that it’s been 9 years since the last Sam Raimi movie? To remind you of how long ago this was, it’s when FURIOUS 6 and MAN OF STEEL came out. It’s when they were on the first film of MCU Phase Two, IRON MAN THREE. We’re talking seven David Gordon Green movies ago (he was on PRINCE AVALANCHE, starring Paul Rudd, who was not yet Ant-Man). It’s when Franck Khalfoun’s remake of MANIAC came out, and Spike Lee’s remake of OLDBOY, and Ryuhei Kitamura’s WWE Films joint NO ONE LIVES. Remember those? No? You weren’t born yet? That’s what I’m saying – it’s been a while.

Although OZ was #9 at the box office that year, above THE HOBBIT: DESOLATION OF SMAUG, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS and THOR: THE DARK WORLD, I’d say its cultural mark was even less than those, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most of you haven’t seen it. So, without insisting anybody watch it, I will tell you that it has plenty that’s good about it, and bigger chunks of Sam Raimi than you might assume would make it through the Walt Disney Corporation filters. It’s beautiful to look at, it has some funny parts, and some visuals and strangeness that could only really happen in this odd circumstance of Sam Raimi directing a $200 million Disney family movie. He brought along EVIL DEAD II cinematographer Peter Deming, DARKMAN editor Bob Murawski, SPIDER-MAN trilogy co-star James Franco and longtime makeup FX collaborators KNB, he got EVIL DEAD stars Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker and Theresa Tilly and EVIL DEAD II’s Dan Hicks all into the movie in bit parts, he even somehow convinced Danny Elfman to work with him again after their falling out on SPIDER-MAN 2. And, filming on soundstages in his home state of Michigan, they made a lush, candy-colored, 3D special effects fantasy based on the works of L. Frank Baum.

In the intellectual property dominated entertainment of the 21st century Oz is an odd one – all 14 of Baum’s books are in the public domain, but the popular conception of them is from the MGM movie, which Raimi wanted to pay tribute to. So the production had to have a copyright expert on hand to help triangulate the amount of similarity they could get away with, down to the shade of green on the wicked witch and not allowing her to have a mole.

The idea of a Wizard of Oz origin story came from Mitchell Kapner (ROMEO MUST DIE), whose script was later rewritten by David Lindsay-Abaire (RABBIT HOLE, RISE OF THE GUARDIANS). The latter had worked on the script for Raimi’s aborted SPIDER-MAN 4 and would later write Ghost House’s POLTERGEIST remake.

Everyone had to start somewhere, and according to this movie the title character of THE WIZARD OF OZ started in early 20th century rural Kansas. A womanizing magician of low moral turpitude, Oscar “Oz” Diggs (Green Goblin Jr. himself, James Franco) also seems to be the ex-boyfriend of Dorothy’s future mother? Whuh?

In tribute to the MGM film, the prologue is shot in 4:3 black and white (which looks gorgeous), but it’s not about wholesome farm life. Oz is a two bit carnival performer primarily interested in getting laid – when his assistant/live score provider Frank (Zach Braff, CHICKEN LITTLE) comes into the trailer when he’s with his new audience plant May (Abigail Spencer, THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT 2: GHOSTS OF GEORGIA) he whines, “The sock is on the door! We’re rehearsing!”

We see his act performed for a half-empty house, and May is so flighty she forgets to volunteer. But there’s one very clever part in it. He pretends to levitate her, but people in the crowd notice wires and get agitated. Oz seems kind of panicked before he says, “Wires? What need have I of wires?” and slices them with a machete, and she still levitates. Good touch.

Unfortunately, that part so amazes a little girl in a wheelchair (Joey King, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES) that she thinks he’s really magic and begs him to make her walk again. “Uh… not now kid,” he says, but the crowd gets riled up at him, all apparently now believing he can do anything and is a total asshole not to cure this kid. (I would like to pretend this is Raimi’s depiction of the audience turning on him for SPIDER-MAN 3, but he definitely isn’t defensive like that. He always seems to accept the blame when his movies don’t go over well – remember, at one point he was convinced he’d been wrong to make THE QUICK AND THE DEAD so stylish!)

There’s an even bigger storm brewing outside the tent. Well, two. The literal one, and the figurative one where the strongman (Tim Holmes, S.W.A.T.: FIREFIGHT, STREET KINGS 2: MOTOR CITY, REAL STEEL, HOSTEL: PART III, ALEX CROSS) is coming for Oz for giving his wife (Toni Wynne, “Congratulatory Woman at Daily Bugle,” SPIDER-MAN 3) the same chintzy music box he gives to all the women he’s trying to get with. Oz ends up fleeing in a hot air balloon that gets sucked into a tornado, which transports him to Oz.

That sequence is definitely very Raimi, with its dynamic shots of shards of wood flying at Oz as he Bruce-Campbells around trying not to get stabbed by them.

And then everything turns calm, quiet and weightless for a bit, just as with Ash being transported through time at the beginning of ARMY OF DARKNESS.

He lands in Oz, a land of colorful and magical plants and cute little fuckers called River Fairies that try to eat him. And he immediately meets a nice witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis, SANTA WITH MUSCLES, AMERICAN PSYCHO 2, THE BOOK OF ELI), who believes he’s the wizard prophesied to become the King of Oz by killing the Wicked Witch who killed the last king. He knows that can’t be true but she’s hot and this king thing sounds like a good scam so he goes with her to the Emerald City.

Along the way he pathetically uses basic magic tricks to protect them from dangers, for example using a puff of smoke to scare of a not-so-cowardly CG lion. This saves the life of an animated flying monkey bellhop named Finley (voice of Braff), who swears a life debt right before Oz admits to him that he’s a phony. But there are no takebacks on life debts.

In the palace in the Emerald City they meet Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz, DEATH MACHINE, CONSTANTINE), who shows him the Smaug-sized treasure room he would get if he was King of Oz. For a second he seems circumspect about it, then he drops into the treasure, swims around in it, holds up a chalice, asks what it’s called and says “I’ve always wanted a chalice!” So Evanora sends him to the Dark Forest to kill the Wicked Witch by destroying her wand.

On that journey, as tends to happen on these Land of Oz journeys, Oz and Finley make a new friend. There’s a village called “China Town” which is like a giant tea set inhabited by living china dolls. But it’s all been smashed by the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys, and the only survivor they find is a little girl doll whose legs have been broken off. She has the same voice as the little girl in the wheelchair, Joey King, but this time Oz actually does have the ability to help, because he has a tube of glue in his bag. So he heals her! Good for him, for once.

I really like that it goes from that first genuinely sentimental scene in the movie to the very Ash-circa-ARMY-OF-DARKNESS scene where he tries to send this now-orphaned girl off on her own with directions to the Emerald City. He only takes her along after she cries and won’t let go of his leg. It’s a funny scene and is also the first sign that the China Girl character is actually gonna get some laughs.

Raimi treats her as 90% saccharine and 10% the doll at somebody’s grandma’s house that made them scared to go into that room. I like that she’s a little unhinged and that Finley seems kind of afraid of her.

They find the hooded, silhouetted witch on the edge of a spooky cemetery, but of course they’ve been lied to – this is actually the good witch Glinda (Michelle Williams, SPECIES, HALLOWEEN: H20). Oz immediately hits it off with her (though he keeps calling her Wanda) and though he doesn’t fall for Evanora’s trick and kill her, she’s able to show them to Theodora through the crystal ball, turning her against him.

I don’t remember if that was a surprise or if I knew it going in – yes, Evanora is obviously a Wicked Witch, but it’s Theodora who becomes the Wicked Witch, after Evanora gives her a magic apple she says will cure her broken heart. Instead she becomes the green Mac Tonight faced monster, and she ends up doing wicked shit, cackling, flying around on a broom (which is her taunting Oz because he thought witches flew around on brooms, something she’d never heard of before). The cool part of the transformation, I think, is when her tears cause burn marks on her skin.

Now there really is a Wicked Witch that the kingdom needs to be protected from. The flying monkey army of course can’t look much like the MGM one. Those guys creeped me out when I was a kid, and now I just like their outfits. Raimi’s are baboons, which I think was a good idea, because those are some scary looking animals. Of course, they’re animated characters and the designs are a little stylized, so they’re not totally terrifying. But I’m sure they kindered a few traumas or whatever.

Glinda/Wanda knows Oz is not really a wizard, but thinks he’s the only chance to save the kingdom anyway. Raimi has fun playing with the notion that he’s too much of a coward to do it. I laughed at a joke where Glinda is telling some people, “Don’t be frightened. Now that the wizard is with us…” and turns to see Oz’s top hat abandoned on the yellow brick road. (I bet there was a puff of smoke and sound effect when he darted away.) And even after Oz makes a big plan to fight off the witch and sets it in motion he tries to load up a hot air balloon with treasure and slip off. (SPOILER: It turns out to be a trick – but I like that part of his plan is based on the knowledge that everyone believes he’s a total piece of shit who would try to cut and run.)

It’s fun to see the Sam Raimi elements in this very different setting. For example, here’s the famous ending of EVIL DEAD II, where Ash is taken for the chosen one who will fall from the sky to deliver us from the Deadites:

And here’s Oz deciding to accept a similar fate in the Land of Oz:

Pretty different look, huh?

Because of the sorts of storytelling traditions they’re both building off of, this really has a ton of parallels to ARMY OF DARKNESS. We have this arrogant buffoon who gets sucked into another word and falls from the sky. He’s assumed to be a sort of chosen one who was prophesied to lead them to victory against evil. He doesn’t believe he is, but plays along to take advantage of the castle and attractive women and stuff. Eventually he’s revealed as a fake and a coward but he realizes he does have some ideas of how to use tools and technological differences from his own world to protect the castle from the invading armies (in this case by creating illusions). He even uses a book he brought with him with designs for machines he can use (much like Ash’s chemistry textbook). He finds his inner hero, makes an inspirational speech, and there’s a montage of him teaching them and leading them in preparing weaponry, including fireworks made with “black powder.”

Theodora largely serves as the Sheila character – the one who starts to believe in him, helps him, then turns evil. In this case it’s from heartbreak, not possession, and is not reversible, but they serve the plot similarly.

And I think it’s pretty clear that Oz is an Ash type, at least as portrayed starting with ARMY OF DARKNESS. They are scoundrels and losers who don’t care about other people’s feelings (especially women’s) and only attend to their own base desires, but become heroes through a combination of accident (or fate) and finally managing to pull together a couple good ideas, a shred of decency and a reserve of courage. But both are pathetic liars managing to scrape by better than they deserve using only charm and audacity. Of course, they also are very different because Oz may be a little smarter and more aware that he’s full of shit, because Ash wins us over through the universal language of turning into a badass action hero, and because he was already more in our pocket anyway just because Campbell’s charisma is so different from Franco’s.

Of course the casting of Franco brings along more baggage now than it did then. With our current understanding of allegations of sexual misconduct against him, it may hit too close to home that he’s playing this sleazy womanizer trying to smile and handsome his way through life. It actually seems more in judgment of Oz’s behavior than of Ash’s “give me some sugar, baby” attitude, but it definitely made me wonder where the “oh, that horny rascal” humor of characters like this overlaps with the things Franco got sued for and now awkwardly addresses in interviews.

Setting all that aside, it was a weird casting at the time. Though he had been Oscar nominated for 127 HOURS, and though RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES had surprised us all, it seemed like it had been clear for years that Hollywood’s conception of him as mainstream leading man had been misguided. He was a weirdo and a goof, and was usually so much better as a comedic supporting player, like in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS or SPRING BREAKERS. But Raimi must’ve liked him from SPIDER-MAN, and Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr. both turned it down, so here’s Franco trying to play his type of character while holding the whole movie on his shoulders. I think there’s something that feels kind of off there, but also I kind of like that about it. It’s just weird to see this particular actor surrounded by hundreds of millions of dollars of special effects and kneeling down to talk to two very short animated companions. (I read that the voice actors were on set and he had puppets to look at but it’s still funny to imagine him playing pretend in so many scenes.)

One small thing that bothered me (and my original review reminds me that it bugged me the first time too) is the animation of Finley’s facial expressions. There are multiple scenes where he looks very sad and it reminds me of the lesser computer animated features where they try to force in an unearned Very Serious Emotional Part Like Pixar Would Have.

My theory is that they’re exaggerating the expression like they would with a cartoon, but because he looks very realistic, it comes off as bad acting. Anyway, I’m not sure we needed any sad faced Finley scenes, but there are three or more, and none of them work for me. I’m glad China Girl is there to weird it up.

There are also some live action Emerald City characters who help with the plan. Tony Cox (CAPTAIN EO) plays the herald, Knuck, who throws insults back and forth with Oz, something I bet they had him do because he’s so good at it in BAD SANTA. Master Tinker (Bill Cobbs, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS) gets along with Oz a little better and seems to recognize that he has some good ideas. Which is obviously charitable of him.

Disney had wanted Raimi to direct PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 5, but he chose OZ instead. I’m not sure of his reasoning, but I would guess he knew he would have more to play with by re-imagining Oz than walking in Gore Verbinski’s footsteps. Especially in the context of this retrospective it’s fun to watch for all the little Raimi-esque images within this rainbow-colored children’s fantasy. Like when some scary carnivorous flowers snap at Oz and friends, and we see their terrified reactions in distorted evil-flower-POV::

Or the various animated shadow gags. Or the way Glinda gets tossed around and slammed against walls in a magic duel. Or the Wicked Witch’s hand clawing the table, which I remember being a very effective ending to the trailer:

There are a couple instances of one of my favorite Raimi-isms: collage-like superimpositions of different shots in the preparation montage. 

There are some straight forwardly spooky looking scenes. A couple examples:

But I particularly like when those sorts of scares happen in daylight. One of the more inspired scenes involves the baboon army swooping down to attack Oz’s army. It turns out to be a trick – they couldn’t see in the fog that the army are actually mechanical (non-sentient) scarecrows being used as bait to lure them into a poppy field and make them sleepy. But what I love about it is the pretty colors, the simulated sunlight and the cotton-candy like fog juxtaposed with the scary imagery of these monstrous monkeys savagely ripping out what they expect to be guts.

By the way, this is the only time Raimi had to haggle with the MPAA and cut his movie to get a PG rating. I like that scary business, but also it’s fun just to see him revel in the fantastical beauty of Oz. Some of the best looking stuff here doesn’t really have precedent in his other movies. Production designer Robert Stromberg (AVATAR, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, later directed MALEFICENT) brought his team to the Walt Disney archives to study art from animated classics for inspiration. One thing they don’t mention as inspiration, but that it kept reminding me of visually, is the “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” scene from SONG OF THE SOUTH. There’s no uncomfortable racial shit, but the brightness of the backgrounds and the way they light and composite the actors in front of digital effects really reminds me of those live action/animation combo scenes. I’ve read that they used large sets with digital enhancements, not straight up green screen, which makes it even cooler that they went for this aggressively artificial look.

I don’t think the movie makes a slam dunk case for needing an Oz prequel, but I liked it much better than Tim Burton’s similar ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Part of that comes down to the premise. The whole idea of that one bothers me because the joy of Lewis Carroll is in being nonsensical, and the screenplay crams all of that nonsense into the cliched box of a chosen-one-saving-the-kingdom plot. The point of combining one thing with another thing is to come up with something more cool, or at least differently cool. But in that case the combination was just immediately, on its face, way less cool than the original thing. I don’t think OZ has that same problem, because it follows the lost-person-on-a-quest-in-a-strange-world format of THE WIZARD OF OZ but with the twist that the lost person is a selfish doofus. In my original review I think I had a good point about what makes him different from many chosen one narratives and hero origin stories: he’s “a protagonist who’s not pure of heart and is not destined for greatness, exactly. The bigger thing he’s working toward is to be a total phony who ends up cracking under the pressure of a lost farm girl.” That last part is built into the character and thankfully they didn’t run from it.

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL was released a week after the sort-of-similarly-themed JACK THE GIANT SLAYER, which it ended up making almost 2 1/2 times as much as. It was #1 at the box office for two weeks, but then THE CROODS and OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN came out. Long time Raimi fan Roger Ebert was still writing until shortly after this, but he doesn’t seem to have reviewed it. Overall the reviews were pretty middling, which is fair.

Mila Kunis won an MTV Movie Award for “Best Villain,” beating out Benedict Cumberbatch in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, Donald Sutherland in THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE, Barkhad Abdi in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and (I swear I’m not making this up) Michael Fassbender in 12 YEARS A SLAVE.

A sequel was planned and written, but Raimi said he wasn’t interested in directing it. And I’m sure we’d all agree that was a good choice if this opening in his schedule had been filled with directing another movie – any other movie. But that’s it for Sam Raimi’s feature films until (barring new Covid waves or something) May 6th. Nevertheless, tune in tomorrow for the thrilling epilogue to this series – Sam Raimi, the TV Years.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 2nd, 2022 at 11:01 am and is filed under Family, Fantasy/Swords, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

46 Responses to “Oz the Great and Powerful”

  1. I haven’t seen this since it came out on homevideo (which actually makes it my least watched Raimi movie. Even FOR LOVE OF THE GAME got at least a 2nd viewing!), but I remember how obvious it felt to me that Disney tried to make it their AVATAR. By 2013, studios were still pressuring everybody into buying 3D tickets and there were many scenes, that were so focused on wowing everybody with long camera moves through the fantasy landscapes. Only of course that they looked more like a 90s Peter Gabriel video than the photorealistic world of Pandora.

    That said: I am 100% okay with the fake look of this one. The Judy Garland movie takes place in front of very easily recognizable painted backrdops, so it’s not like that one still holds up in that regard either. The 80s one with Fairuza Balk was shot “on location” and in that one the actors walked too many times through generic looking forests, so “real” isn’t often better.

    Honestly, I never got on the James Franco hypetrain. Even in the Spidey trilogy he seemed to be the weakest point. I can’t remember a role where he wasn’t a charisma vacuum. His brother Dave has at least a spot on comedic timing and knows how to use his douchebag aura to full effect, but James? That he kept talking about “being an artist” who directed unreleasable films* or appeared as guest star in a daily soap as “artistic experiments”, didn’t make me like him better.

    *In all fairness, his Tommy Wiseau movie was pretty watchable, but it also benefitted from the fact that Wiseau is a living SNL celebrity impression, so Franco’s performance wasn’t exactly a showcase for how acting can make an actor disappear in his role.

  2. Super weird re-make of Army of Darkness (which is a remake of Road Warrior, I guess). Anyway, when the credits came up, I said to my date “well, I guess Sam Raimi is now in the Sam Raimi business” (especially since the Evil Dead remake came out two weeks later)

    Little did I know that even though this film was well received and profitable (as was the remake) the “Sam Raimi Business” would end as quickly as it began. I guess he wasn’t really interested in becoming a brand after all.

  3. I should give this one another shot. It just seemed nondescript for Raimi, but Vern makes a pretty good argument as to how it fits with his other movies. I also remember Franco and the others feeling miscast. Tony Cox comes in and does his thing, which he’s good at, but it seems like it belongs in a completely different movie.

    There’s no question it’s better than Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Even though that movie made a billion dollars, I think the general consensus these days is that it’s terrible. This is true. But we don’t really talk enough about how at the end of the movie Alice decides to show everyone what an iconoclast she is by colonizing China. It’s the weirdest part of that awful film.

    I really hope that Vern somehow managed to watch Fifty States of Fright, which I also haven’t seen because it was a Quibi exclusive. But it was the only thing on Quibi that looked interesting, and it was naturally mocked by the internet.

  4. I didn’t address the 3D business since I don’t have a way of seeing it in 3D again, but I remember it being one of the well done ones. I don’t remember if this carried over into the movie or not, but the trailer here shows an example of 3D cleverness – note the puff of smoke coming off of the Academy ratio frame and into the black bars on the sides.

  5. I only got round to seeing this over a year ago, and as a lower-tier OZ-head (I’m no Bronson Pinchot!) and a mid-tier Raimi-buff I liked it more than I expected; OZ THE PRETTY GOOD AND SURPRISINGLY IDIOSYNCRATIC sez I.

  6. See, a PG Disney fairy tale IP was exactly the sort of thing I wanted to see Sam Raimi apply his style to. And Oz totally satisfied me.

    One thing I also remember I liked was that Oz’s big plan at the end involved teaching forgiveness. Sort of like Peter and Sandman in Spider-Man 3. I hope more kids got the message than all the petulant nerds who hated Spider-man 3.

    I would’ve seen a sequel to Oz and I didn’t know he could’ve done Pirates. I could see his style working there too and now we’ll see how much Raimi he’s allowed to get in someone else’s franchise.

  7. Thanks for the third last paragraph which clarified a point that was puzzling me since I saw this review drop. I was convinced Oz was directed by Bryan Singer when he actually did the Jack & The Beanstalk one. 2 movies from directors who made their mark in edgy R Rated fare, before finding mainstream success in comic book adaptations who both decided to try their hands directing Children’s Fables in the same year. So I’m not feeling too bad at my confusion, since I watched them both and can’t remember a single thing about them.

    But second everything about Franco’s limitation as an actor and leading man. Easily the weakest link in the Raimi Spidey-Verse, an actor with a modicum of talent at comedy, but embarrassingly one-note when it comes to dramatic scenes.

  8. I remember being disappointed with this one, though I am fascinated by it being a sort of Disney-fied stealth remake of Army of Darkness. The cutting-the-wires bit reminds of of how they CGI’d the wires out of the Evil Dead Blu-Rays. The screenshots you provide here intrigue me with their deliberately over-the-top fakery, like a CGI version of the charmingly low-budget projection stuff in Army of Darkness. I’d probably dislike that from any other director, but I trust Sam, and I know where he’s coming from.

    I like that this movie was shot in Michigan, before every movie was made in Atlanta.

    RBatty: If you’re in the States, 50 States of Fright, including Raimi’s Golden Arm, is free to stream on the “Roku Channel,” which no longer requires a Roku to access.

  9. Re: Franco, I was surprised at how bland and dull he was in Spidey 1 and 2, but I think when he goes Full Franco for Spider-Man 3 he’s incredible. His performance in 127 Hours is one of the few I’d actually call “next-level”; he absolutely deserved that Oscar nomination and probably should have won.

    But yeah, I don’t recall him being particularly memorable in this movie. In fact I don’t remember much about this movie except I liked the twist of who the witch was and found her first appearance horrifying. I might have to find a cheap used copy of the 3D Blu Ray and watch it again now.

  10. Wasn’t the general consensus among us non-FREAKS AND GEEKS-heads that Franco was a bland and wooden blank slate of a performer, and consequently it was a bit of a “where did this come from?” moment for us when PINEAPPLE EXPRESS and 127 HOURS came out, and then the even odder realisations that he directed oblique arthouse films no one sees and writes weird poetry books and stuff. I realise I’m skirting close to romanticising him, but I think it’s fair to say that those of us who hadn’t seen FREAKS AND GEEKS did not forsee the SPRING BREAKERS performance from the star of WHATEVER IT TAKES and ANAPOLIS.

  11. Franco is not a believable or interesting dramatic actor, full stop, but he’s hilarious in comedies. I thought he was the absolute worst part of these Spider-Mans too, until the Mary Jane gaslighting scene. The dude simply cannot act like a normal human being, but give him some over-the-top facial expressions to make and he’s comedy gold.

    He is also a scumbag and a dilettante, and his breakup with Seth Rogen almost guarantees that I’ll never see another one of his movies. But when deployed properly, the guy can really let it rip. Unfortunately, he also the absolute worst judge of how and when to deploy himself.

    In conclusion, THE INTERVIEW is pretty underrated, you guys.

  12. Oh yeah, THE INTERVIEW. Weird, how a movie that was for a week or two the center of a political conflict and a resulting free spech debate is already forgotten, but since most Rogen/Franco comedies don’t really have a long shelflife, it’s not surprising.

  13. Franco’s great in This is the End, Pineapple Express, and The Interview, which really didn’t get its due. I got the sense that critics, like North Korea, thought the movie was in bad taste, but it’s a great comedy. Randall Park is also so damn good in that movie. He won my wife over by briefly appearing in General Hospital, which she has been watching since high school. And then it turns out he’s a creep.

    With all these Oz prequels and retellings, I’m always surprised we don’t get a straight up sequel. Return to Oz is one of the more successful films that take place in Baum’s sandbox. Why not continue down that road? It seems so obvious. And it’s in the public domain!

  14. I think it might be because OZ’s lack of modern audience appeal. Everybody knows it (even if it’s mostly from the 30s movie), but the only retelling that actually had some kind of cultural impact, was that musical about the witches. And even that one seems to be unknown to people who aren’t interested in broadway shows. I mean, everybody knows a song or two from CATS or PHANTOM OF THE OPERA or has at least seen clips from that LION KING show and knows that RAPPIN’ HAMILTON is a thing, but I haven’t heard anybody talk about WICKED in years.

    Also the whole OZ series might not be as big internationally, as it is in the US. At least here in Germany we only seem to have caught up on it being a thing in recent years. Not sure how it is in other parts of Europe.

    From what I’ve heard, the books are great and much better than any of the movies so far, but I guess studios expect all of their OZ remakes, sequels and reboots to become instant popculture sensations like the Judy Garland movie and then just move on when it’s “just” a respectable box office hit.

  15. I think it’s the same problem the Dark Universe had. Just because a property or whatever has near total cultural ubiquity, it doesn’t mean anybody actually gives enough of a shit about it to go out and spend money on it. Like, everybody has heard of Kleenex, but I don’t think KLEENEX: THE MOTION PICTURE would be a hit, necessarily. (You’d need the right director and star combination, obviously.)

  16. The Dark Universe probably would’ve caught on, if they hadn’t tried to turn the classic monsters into the heroes of tentpole fantasy action movies. I’m not sure if Dracula and Frankenstein as Avengers ever had a chance of catching on. But a Blumhouse-/James Wan-esque PG-13 jumpscare horror? That would’ve worked!

    Of course we will never know if I was right.

  17. The Dark Universe would’ve worked if they included Darkman.

  18. Still have no idea what a ‘successful’ Dark Universe would’ve looked like. Big team-up movie like the Avengers? Frankenstein and Dracula fight over who gets to be the leader before winning each others’ respect? The Wolfman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon strike up an unexpected friendship? The Mummy’s entire personality gets retconned so he can play the fat guy comic relief?

  19. Maybe like the classic Universal monster movies, that pretty much were already a shared universe, only with what counts as scary today.

  20. Lord and Miller could make a Kleenex movie work. Maybe a shared universe with Xerox.

  21. I guess THE CONJURINGverse is an example of something that has landed roughly where the Dark Universe wanted to play, and has been a success by playing by the modern rules of economies of scale and such. I was going to be hilariously witty by saying the two franchises have produced the same number of entertaining movies as far as I’m concerned (ANNABELLE CREATION is my CONJUREverse joint of choice) but I guess CONJURING 2 was acceptably diverting too.

  22. I remember finding THE INTERVIEW a bit hacky and tired; there were too many comedies at that time that thought there was something intrinsically amusing about Katy Perry songs, it might have only been like 2 or 3 films but that is too many. The whole “honeypoting” thing was a bit…well I don’t want to use any statement words so I’ll just say crass. But I was never really on the whole Apatow/Rogan/Goldberg train so maybe it would never really be my film to defend. Oddly the only film from that cycle I’d have much interest in revisiting at this point is THIS IS THE END, even though you’d think if there where one film from a group you don’t particularly care for (for the most part) would be insufferable would be the one that’s an extended riff on their own personas. But it works and has gags I still remember fondly now (as well as a few low points, granted).

  23. @Holden: But they weren’t trying to be scary. Every ‘monster’ they introduced was, at worst, an antihero. It really seems like they were going for a thing where Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp and whoever else was onboard were all superheroes doing… something. I guess fighting hordes of CGI whatever. It strikes me as so absurd that, like a Lovecraft character, I’m driven mad trying to imagine something that was clearly meant to exist, yet equally clearly *cannot.*

  24. Yeah, like I said earlier: The whole action hero monster thing was destined to fail. We love our monsters, but they should be at least a little bit scary, not doing superhero shit. But a series of actual scary movies with modern interpretations of the classic monsters? I’m all there for that!

  25. I don’t know. I’d be more into that than a series of blah PG-13 jump scare fests from the director of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 6 starring a bunch of GAME OF THRONES actors I can’t tell apart. Sure, they would be more profitable because of their cheap budgets (though not THAT cheap in terms of horror—I don’t hate Jason Blumhouse but fuck him for for appropriating the term “micro-budget” for anything under $20 mill) but why should that matter to me?

    Also I was born about 40 years too late to find any of these cuddly old cereal mascots the slightest bit scary so they might as well lean into the familiarity of it all and make them the good guys. The world needs another Dracula movie like I need a kick in the dick but if you absolutely HAVE to do it, at least do it in a completely different context.

  26. I’ve often wondered how much of a fan of THE WIZARD OF OZ film Raimi was – I suspect a pretty big one. The original film seems to have shrunk in its importance to ‘film’ discourse in recent decades – but even into the 1990s it was a hugely important film – it’s still ranked on They Shoot Pictures Don’t They at#107 (highest at 57 overall in 2006.) I can see Raimi loving it – its of course a masterclass in film technique/effects etc., all the craft/filmmaking stuff that Raimi is also extremely skillful at. It’s no surprise James Cameron lists it as his favourite film. Vern points out many tonal resemblances between it and OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL.

    I enjoyed this Raimi joint just fine – its exciting to see directors trying new things. Is it his best, no, but it’s certainly an entertaining and ‘unique’ take.

    A couple of last things – I’ve never quite seen the thing with Franco – he’s just fine as the nutter/sleaze bag and he was certainly excellent in 127 HOURS – but none of that was hardly a stretch for an actor, and probably pretty close to him? I did like his performance in TRUE STORY – as a nut bar child/wife killer. But I come from the what the hell is the deal with Freaks and Geeks side of things.

    And it’s pretty amazing to me that a filmmaker of Raimi’s distinct, unique character/leanings has managed to turn himself into a pretty successful TV mogul and currently sits #26 in the world on the list of highest grossing film directors (according to The Numbers) – that’s one place behind Clint and 4 behind George Lucas – yeah there’s a lot of corporate product makers on the list, but he seems to have been pretty successful fighting the good fight, it just sucks that there was nearly a decade between films.

  27. See, I’d rather have some talented young filmmaker surprising everybody by making Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula scary again with a clever, modern twist (or just well staged scares), than some former VFX supervisor giving his directorial debut with some half-assed superhero movie with protagonists who are named like classic monsters, but don’t do any monster things and most likely don’t even look like monsters, because some studio suit thought that hiding the faces of their superstar actors would limit its box office potential, although they invested a shit ton of money in that reshot finale, where the whole “monster” gang tries to stop a blue beam from shooting into the sky.

  28. I mean, sure, but what are the odds of that happening? We’d most likely get a bunch of modestly atmospheric nothings we’d forget later that night, same as 90% of all theatrical horror releases. At least the Dark Universe promised some hilarious overblown trainwrecks.

  29. Yeah – why can’t we have both? I really don’t understand the negativity toward the Dark Universe. If they had been as good or better than THE MUMMY they would’ve been better than a large percentage of the movies that come out that do not rile the same sense of anger. If they had been totally ridiculous like everyone assumes then that might’ve been even better. Like, how can we support the xXx series but not the monster super hero team ups you’re all describing? I’m not funding the thing, I’m just gonna watch it.

    It still seems to me like the harsh reactions are 100% about rejecting a pre-announced “shared universe” and nothing to do with the actual MUMMY movie or that Javier Bardem was gonna play Dr. Frankenstein or whatever.

  30. Hey, if a bad idea works, I don’t mind it not being what I was asking for, but even if didn’t hate the new MUMMY, there was nothing that made me think that their update of the Universal Monster Universe would’ve been anything special.

  31. Aren’t the Underworld movies (and that Frankenstein spin-off thing) basically already what Dark Universe was I guess going for? There are like six of those things and they’ve never really made vampires fighting werewolves cool, so I don’t see how an MCU tone is going to make Dracula(tm) fighting The Wolfman(tm) cool.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I thought Dracula Untold and The Nu-mmy were both pretty embarrassing, while the new, no-shared-universe Invisible Man was a fun, if slightly pretentious, spookshow. So I just want more Invisible Man kinda stuff, not Wolfman Untold.

  32. Yeah, INVISIBLE MAN proved that CJ’s idea could work, provided all the elements fall into place.

  33. Yes, INVISIBLE MAN is the proof, and my understanding is that Universal recognized that and handed the keys over to Blumhouse. Which, as CJ says, is what they very obviously should have done from the beginning.

    Vern’s review making this sound like a PG version of Army of Darkness has made me interested to see this. Maybe I’ll triple feature it with WIZARD OF OZ and RETURN TO OZ.

    If I had to guess why Raimi chose this over a PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN sequel (which he would have been a great match for — he could have been that franchise’s Justin Lin, amping up all the best aspects of what had come before), I would guess it’s because he probably loves the shit out of THE WIZARD OF OZ because it’s one of the greatest achievements in Hollywood cinema. The chance to play with those technicolor toys but in a way where he got to make it his own must have been an irresistible opportunity.

  34. The problem with the Dark Universe is mostly the idea that Universal was shitting on it’s most valuable, longest lasting properties to cash in on their own half-assed Marvel universe, but they put no work into it. Like how DC wanted it but unlike Marvel didn’t have any patience so their big team up happened before the heroes even had solo movies. And then they just made a typical forgettable action movie like the Mummy.

    Blumhouse is getting it right…they’re not trying to make a billion dollars with each movie. They’re not making The League of Gentlemen with werewolf, they’re making genuine horror movies which is what I want from a redo of Universal monsters. Cause if we want an action mummy we just had a bunch with Brenden Frasier. Kaplan is right, Underworld is basically what a vampire/werewolf series probably would have been. FEH.

  35. I did not sleep well yesterday, and that will soon become evident.

    I’m not sure what to think about this issue of the Dark Omniverse … I liked Brendan Fraser MUMMY. Sorry, guys/gals/theys. I’m not a member of the Bren-hive or anything, but I’m a sucker for Rachel Weisz, the drunk Scottish guy, and the low-rent INDIANA JONES-ish -ness. PART CARTOON-THE-ROCK was execrable. I’m not sure I’ve seen part 3, and I know I never saw X-MEN: ORIGINS: YOUNG MAN VAN HELSING. Still have not bothered w/ the Cruise version. I will still watch Cruise in the next MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE, but I’ve kind of soured on him since he did the great JACK REACHER followed by the depressingly cheap 2 JACK 2 CARE.

    Honestly, while I think you could make a good “hard horror” / real “modern” horror version of the various Universal Classic Monsters … I’m not sure I want that. Like, in a world where you’re going to make an awesome watery creature film, I’m not sure what is gained by calling it CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (I mean, other than the brand sentiment bump) vs. something altogether different. I think I’d sooner just see a new hard-R vampire or wereworlf or re-animator-y deal that is mostly free to be its own deal.

    In conclusion, no one needed a MonsterVerse, but they had a great cast lined up and could’ve been fun, and I don’t need PLATINUM DUNES PRESENTS MICHAEL BAY’S MARCUS NISPEL’S CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. But I’m happy to watch competent sea monster film called something else, and I’m not mad at a PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN esque take on Universal Monsters (fun, some suspense, more action spectacle tha horror; horror lite).

  36. Also, have not seen new INIVSIBLE MAN (need to do that), and nothing against it, but I’m not sure anything stands or falls on whether it is viewed as having some pro forma IP connection to Claude Rains film. Does the Blumhouse one bear any greater connection to the Universal classic one than, say, HOLLOW MAN? Whether it’s better than HOLLOW MAN is beside the point, because the title should not be a major driver of film quality/enjoyment (right?)

  37. Judging by The Mummy I’m not so sure it would have been all that fun.

  38. The latest INVISIBLE MAN has no more to do with the original than HOLLOW MAN, and in this particular case it doesn’t matter because the movie is pretty good (not perfect, but it has a point of view, a good lead, and some cool moments). More importantly it fulfilled its primary duty, which was to be an enjoyable piece of entertainment for a mass audience. If the Dark Universe Mummy had succeeded in achieving that objective it could have shown the Dark Universe would work, but they didn’t, so fuck them.

  39. Yeah, I’ll agree if you’re going for some tonal consistency, then as Kaplan mentioned, you’ve already got a bunch of movies which you can program as part of your own Monster Verse. There’s CRUISE MUMMY, and then toss DRACULA UNTOLD and I, FRANKENSTEIN into the mix and even add a dash of the UNDERWORLD movies for a spot of werewolf action. Voila! Monster Mash!

    The rest are playing in vastly different sandboxes.

    Both Kenneth Branagh’s FRANKENSTEIN and the James McAvoy/Daniel Radcliffe starring VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN hew more closely to Shelley’s original Gothic tones.

    Even Joe Johnston’s THE WOLFMAN (which I really enjoyed by the way) plays out like a tragic melodrama. A kind of “sins of the father” thing that Ang Lee explored with his HULK.

    Not to mention the Badham and Coppola directed DRACULAs along with the 150 other versions.

    When it comes to the Leigh Whannell directed THE INVISIBLE MAN, this one’s not just in another sandbox, it’s in one located in a park 3 states over. I fucking loved this adaptation, a deeply unsettling version whose horror stemmed from the fact that it’s protagonist is the one rendered “invisible”, when all her plaintive cries that her invisible abusive jerk boyfriend is stalking and harassing her is met with “Whaaaaat? Bitch be crazy” type incredulity. A telling commentary on the plight of abuse victims who’ve been coming out for, I don’t know, centuries? It’s made all the more effective thanks to Elisabeth Moss’ amazingly haunting performance. An absolute must-see for anyone who likes their horror to sink in and fuck with your mind for days afterwards.

    This version, along with Paul Verhoeven’s flawed but unfairly pissed on HOLLOW MAN, actually get the gist of the original HG Welles novel: That when gifted with the power of invisibility, all men really want to use it for is to perv on women or sexually assault them.

    So, I can’t really get behind cuddly versions like the Chevy Chase one in MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN or Tony Curran’s cockney sounding thief in the dreadful LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMAN.

    I think of all super powers, invisibility truly fucks with you. And Invisible men aren’t Team Players, something Alan Moore’s brilliant but complex LEAGUE graphic novels aptly demonstrated.

  40. I didn’t mention JEKYLL/HYDE.

    Another reason this mooted Monster Verse was on shaky ground to begin with, was the fact this Team Up was to have been headed by a schizophrenic whose alter ego is a violent psychopath?

    Tony Stark: Not a great plan.

  41. Had Universal decided to do a big redo of their past flicks and gave them to awesome directors to do what they wanted, and the resuplts were like Coppola’s Dracula or even The Wolfman which works well enough…or Branaugh’s Frankenstein which is interesting at least…and had one come out a year, it would have been laudable even if not all of those are as successful. But they went for the most generic, lame thing they could which is why it’s dead like like the DCEU is…sure they still make movies with the characters but as a connected universe anyone gives two fucks about, it’s dead.

    Could you imagine if they were doing a new version and were like yo Sam Raimi want to do Jekyll and Hyde, or whichever Coen is still directing does Dracula? What might Bong Joon-ho do with invisible man? Ari Aster would totally make one. Make em that Universal world, where you can’t even tell what time period it’s in so differentiate them.

  42. You thought I was all over the place before, but it’s an even bigger place than you thought…

    I guess I would rather see them tell new stories on the screen than try to do another period remake or “modern re-imagining.” It’s not that I’m completely shut off to the idea of remaking things, but with some of that stuff like FRANKENSTEIN, it’s been done to death, and I’m not really sure that’s a story that needs to be 2-5x every generation. Original is still the OG.

    I make exceptions for certain things, like more sequels to films that have proven themsevles to be very amenable to endless sequels. Like the new HALLOWEENS are good becuase they have great cast and production values, don’t have a lot of uncanny valley or period affectations, and it’s best Michael ever. Similar with CREEDS: the story is secondary, but the cast and production values are top-notch, and the film gets the formulae right. I should probably feel the same about new SCREAM, but I’ve always been iffy on those and Ghostface doesn’t do much for me as a villain. JASON would be another one, if they can ever get that out of purgatory. That is not a blanket allowance, though: I think I’m done with NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET unless they can do some kind of Disney CGI / Brandom Lee THE CROWE shit to make Robert Englund work.

    Point being that I think a lot of the good horror has been rung out of these Universal films, the oldies are still the best, etc. I’m not really interested in someone’s fresh new take on FRANKENSTEIN or on the umpteenth period rehash of FRANKENSTEIN, I’m more interested in someone’s fresh new take on something new. I can’t imagine I’ll ever watch Benicio WOLFMAN, I,FRANKENSTIN, HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FRANKENSTEIN, or any of that.

    I don’t honestly really give a shit about the Dark Universe either (clearly, it’s been however many years, and I haven’t even seen JACK REACHER: PORT OF CALL MUMMY), but if the world is nothing but universe franchises and IP vampirism (ahh-ahh-ahh in Count voice), it would be nice if some of them weren’t MCU and STAR WARS. Of course, this from the guy who enjoyed every one of those four GODZILLA MonsterVerse films and ENCINO MUMMY. I’d just like to see un-ending franchise dystopia have some other dystopian options.

    In conclusion: More HALLOWEEN 2018 style horror, more IT FOLLOWS type shit, more MALIGNANT type shit, more DRAG ME TO HELL and RAISING CAIN type shit, more Jordan Peele does some weird-ass thing every couple years type shit. And MonsterVerse 4eva. As for Universal, if they want to bless us with another never-ending universe, fine, at least it’s counter-programming to Disney. Feast on the carcass of Universal Classic monsters, but at least make it an event and do them well. Otherwise, just give me something new.

  43. I mean, does the world even need another Frankenstein movie when FRANKENHOOKER is, like, right there?

  44. Lol, true love was right in front of us all along.

  45. Thank you again for the series, Vern! Top notch film writing, as usual. It was fun to go back and read some of your earlier, wilder reviews linked in these pages. I used to like you for your outsized personality and ludicrous (but intelligent) opinions. Over the years, you’ve transformed into one of the best film critics working, for my money (which I do actually pay on patreon). These days I won’t even consider watching a DTV action movie if you didn’t give it your blessing. Wish there was a modern, streaming, Vern equivalent of the “***: Roger Ebert” on a video box.

  46. If only Johnny Depp had taken this role, and taken it seriously instead of just mugging at the camera like he does for every single Tim Burton movie he has been in lately. Stick Franco in that ALICE IN WONDERLAND movie instead, who cares, it is stupid and annoying and he couldn’t ruin it. I think Franco would probably do a better job there anyway, he never seems to take his roles seriously and always seems to be goofing off, which might add a little levity and charm to the Mad Hatter character. Depp plays him like we are supposed to see some hidden depths under the goofiness and it is just depressing.

    Unfortunately I fear that Depp would have just dragged down this production in a similar way that he does everything since the original PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN. He seems hopelessly stuck in one mode of acting. Maybe Raimi could have snapped him out of it. Raimi does seem like a really good actor’s director. He gets some goofy stuff out of his actors, like women running at the camera screaming, but it is obviously on purpose to fit the scene. I doubt he would tolerate Depp’s Willy Wonka bullshit.

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