Let’s exit Earth for a while and travel to colorful lands distant from our own. Our contestants in this Smack are a pair of big-budget fantasy epics adapted from popular books. Hailing from storm-wracked Kansas is our challenger, Oz the Great and Powerful, a reimagining of one of the most beloved family films of all time. In this new version, our focus has shifted to the title character, a two-bit carnival magician with a grand stage name. He’s transported to the vibrant land bearing his name and gets thrown into a civil war among several bickering witches.
Flying in from Germany on a giant talking dog is The NeverEnding Story, in which a lonely young boy borrows and reads a book described by its seller as “unsafe.” And we all know what happens when a little boy reads an unsafe book, right? Of course — he gets dragged into the proceedings himself, which in this case means a fight between a fantasy kingdom and a scary black void that threatens to engulf that happy society.
Two enduring worlds inhabited by magical creatures, and not a Hobbit among them. They may survive the onslaught of supernatural foes, but which will outlast the other? We’re off to see the winner…
Unless you’re a different species or you’ve been restricted to a narrow diet of indie films since birth, you’ve seen the 1939 mega-classic, The Wizard of Oz. This new adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s many Oz stories roughly follows the pattern of Wizard: Person from non-descript place has a weather-related accident, ends up in a dreamlike world, befriends talking animals/robots/dolls, and becomes the leading resistance figure against evil forces that utilize black magic.
The Dorothy character in this entry is Oscar Diggs (James Franco) — yes, he calls himself “Oz” — a hammy magician working the carnival circuit in the Midwest of the early twentieth century. As in the original film, these establishing scenes are shown in black and white. They transition into glossy candy color after the expected storm hits and Oz greatly and powerfully gets vaulted into classic moviedom’s beloved fantasy world.
This is convenient for the Ozites, because they’ve prophesied the arrival of a wizard. Which is necessary, since someone is attempting to wrest power from from its current triumvirate of ruling witches (Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz). Oscar has to figure out a way to utilize his fake magic to defeat the very real sorcery used by the enchantress and her minions to conquer the land. But the identity of this wicked interloper is at first unclear: Does the threat come from outside or will one of those three pretty witches reveal herself to be a cackling, green-faced lunatic bent on complete destruction?
The Defending Champion
Bastian (Barret Oliver) is a lonely, sensitive kid. Lonely and sensitive enough to become, through a plot contrivance early in the film, completely absorbed in a book called The Neverending Story (the plot of which is adapted from the book-within-the-book of German author Michael Ende’s popular 1970s novel of the same name. (Confused yet?) The book unspools a magical plot set in a land called Fantasia, presided over by a nice girl empress (Tami Stronach), whose reign is in dire jeopardy. True to our story’s roots in German existentialism, this threat comes from a cannibalistic void called The Nothing that’s busy gorging on the kingdom. (Yeah, the names in this story are not exactly grabbers for audiences of American children.)
Anyway, the empress summons a boy warrior, Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), from the distant reaches of the kingdom. As we’ve learned from the Oz books and movies, heroic quests by young protagonists frequently benefit from the help of talking animals, so Atreyu eventually stumbles across a giant conversational dog named Falkor who, in addition to his vocal talents, can also fly. With this invaluable ally, Atreyu proceeds in his quest to defeat The Nothing.
They’re going to need more help, though. Perhaps in the form of a lonely young boy who likes to read, and through the magic of his chosen book gets pulled into the story…
The clumsily generic names of The NeverEnding Story aside, both movies weave tales thick with imagination and color. You can’t go wrong in the Land of Oz, with its yellow-brick freeway, Emerald City, munchkins and monkeys. Oz the Great and Powerful starts off with a big advantage in the setting department, as its source material is some of the best American children’s fantasy writing ever produced. The filmmakers are reverent enough without slavishly copying from the original, and they add sufficient new material to extend the Oz brand. The NeverEnding Story’s world betrays a lot of creativity too, but it’s comparatively more limited. We see relatively less of Fantasia, whereas the eye candy of Oz keeps coming at us on the screen. And its bright, Technicolor-tribute hues are great to look at and add to the fun of the story, while the universe NeverEnding presents is flatter and more somber.
It also drags quite a bit. There is a lot of plot to this adaptation, helmed by Das Boot director Wolfgang Petersen (in fact, this is his first English-language movie). But it’s not dispatched efficiently; the script by Petersen and Herman Weigel (with additional dialogue by Robert Easton) gets bogged down in detail and exposition, giving it a sluggish pace more suitable for a dramatic adult story. Oz the Great and Powerful keeps the tone and timing sprightly, thanks to the crisp direction of old Hollywood pro Sam Raimi, working from a script by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire.
Franco’s well-pitched performance as Oscar helps too; he’s a cheesy would-be rogue who manages to be likeable in spite of himself. That’s a potentially tricky mix of quirks, but the actor pulls it off, and we root for him to win. The child actors and the adults voicing NeverEnding’s characters do a competent job, but it’s the story that matters most here – so much so that it feels as if the people and creatures going through this world have all been shoved into subordinate roles. Outside of the very cool Falkor, you’ll probably forget most of them soon after watching the movie.
Both of these films effectively flesh out the otherworldly locales described in their literary source material. They also tend to play it safe, sticking to the story and details of the books they’re based on. But of the two, Oz is the site of the more richly detailed imaginary land, and it also has a more engaging story and characters. So the scary monkeys, hack magicians and witches are more than a match for NeverEnding’s pretty empress and her flying dog too. Oz the Great and Powerful is the victor in this fantasy Smackdown.