A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 181 – The Wiz

The Wiz – August 28th, 2010

After watching the Muppet version of The Wizard of Oz this week we decided we really should own this version. We both enjoy it and it’s been ages since I saw it last. I think it was my mother who first introduced me to it, telling me she couldn’t hear the iconic Ease on Down the Road without singing along. And who can? I’m thrilled that the DVD we bought has a CD with it with that and a few of my other favorites, so I can get them nice and stuck in my head whenever I want. It’s the sort of movie I’d dance to if I had any dancing ability at all, but I don’t, so I just enjoy the people who do.

This is a fascinating movie to watch, having seen both another version of The Wizard of Oz and another stage-to-screen musical recently. It’s an entirely different creature from both, which I find really pretty cool. It’s far more expansive than The Producers was, making good use of huge sets and some impressive filming locations (like the World Trade Center plaza and the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island). There’s a real feeling of scale, which suits the alternate New York version of Oz really well, but also makes it clear that no, we’re not on a theater stage here. But then contrast it to the Muppet version of the story and the differences in the tone come out in full force. For one, the settings are vastly different, and for another that links to a huge difference in the character of Dorothy. Where Ashanti’s Dorothy was dying to get away from home, there’s nothing Diana Ross’s Dorothy wants more than to stay home where she’s comfortable. It leads to a very different journey.

One thing I noticed watching this now, there were definitely a lot of callbacks to the book. The Munchkins might be graffiti-themed in this version, but the dominant color of the set for the number, the lighting of it and the costumes, is blue. The Winkies, once they’re out of their red sweatshop costumes, wear yellow. The slippers are silver. They’re little things I suppose, but given how big a shift in setting this adaptation does, the details like the colors of the costumes really do make me smile. And they make the urban setting more Oz-like. I like this skewed version of New York City, adapted into Oz like an alternate universe, and I think I’ve mentioned my thing for alternate universes. The changes to the Oz portions are fun too. The Scarecrow is made of garbage, the Tin Man is a carnival barker, and the Cowardly Lion is hiding out in front of the New York Public Library. Instead of the Kalidahs, the group faces a subway where even the walls turn against them (in a scene that haunted me for years). Instead of a horrible castle the Wicked Witch has a sweat shop. It’s a great blending of two worlds that results in a fantastic setting for a quest.

Now, the story itself is pretty similar to any given adaptation of the book. Dorothy, transported to Oz, finds herself needing to get to the Wizard in the Emerald City. She gets a pair of magic shoes, follows the yellow brick road, meets up with three companions and eventually gets to her goal only to be given the task of dealing with a wicked witch. After defeating the witch she finds out the Wizard’s a fraud, then clicks her heels and heads back home. Oh, and everyone had what they needed all along! It’s the specifics that change. For the most part, the story is told well. Certainly they hit all the necessary plot points, and they created a great world to set it all in. Add that to the fantastic musical numbers and you’d think it would be flawless, right?

Sigh.

I do love the vast majority of this movie, but this evening I found myself noting a few flaws and then realized that what bothered me most ended up being part of a single problem. I’ve got a minor issue with the characterization of Dorothy, but it’s not that she’s twenty-four in the movie. And it’s not that she’s timid and nervous and introverted. I get that characterization. It’s her first song. There’s this whole thing about how she can’t share in the emotions of the people there at her aunt’s home for the holidays. The song doesn’t make her out as shy, it makes her out to be emotionally stunted. She’s set up to be thoroughly glued to home, while singing about how she can’t form emotional connections. That’s bizarre to me, and the song itself doesn’t feel like it fits the rest of the movie. And then I started paying attention to that. There are a few songs that don’t quite fit. And at the end? When I looked them up? Wouldn’t you know, they’re almost all additional numbers added to the movie. They’re the meandering schmaltzy numbers that seem to be trying to add character development to Dorothy but ended up boring me and making me tune out. And they take up what feels like an enormous amount of time that I think could have been better used in other ways.

Another issue connected to the pile’o’schmaltz and the time it all takes is that there are moments that seem to lack the impact they should have. For example, while I love A Brand New Day, the lead-up to it seems so truncated. Dorothy and company leave the Emerald City, get chased around a parking garage, and then they’re in Evillene’s sweat shop. It’s a great set and she’s got a great number to introduce herself prior to the garage scene, but once Dorothy gets there? Her friends get threatened, she breaks down and says she’ll give up the shoes, she pulls a fire alarm and hurrah! Dancing time! There’s no real tension there. It takes about five minutes to go from oppressive threats to jubilant dance number. It’s great that the Winkies (eventually wearing yellow bikinis) get freed and dance around, and it’s a great number, but the ratio of tension to celebration is oddly tipped to the celebration side. I think that’s true of a lot of the movie and I blame the meandering added numbers.

It’s really a pity that the movie gets bogged down in places. It takes away from everything the movie does well and gets right. I think it’s telling that when we put this in, I was super excited to see the meetings between Dorothy and her friends, and hear Ease on Down the Road and A Brand New Day and see the bizarre nightclub-like Emerald City sequence, and I’d totally forgotten the slower bits. Did I fast forward through them as a kid? The melting sewing machines in the sweat shop stayed with me, but not Dorothy singing about feeling. I’ll probably do the same now. I’ll remember the awesome singing and dancing and let the rest go.

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August 28, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , ,

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