Was “Oz the Great and Powerful” really a rip-off of “Army of Darkness”? I don’t think so, Tim.
6 years ago, “Oz the Great and Powerful” was released. Considered to be a “spiritual prequel” to the original Wizard of Oz movie, the story focused on how the famous wizard (played by James Franco) came to rule over Oz, as well as depicting the Wicked Witch of the West’s (played by Mila Kunis) transition from a naive but kind witch to one of the most notorious villains in cinematic history. The movie of course took some liberties with the character’s backstory, but the basic principle remained the same: The wizard was a con-man from the heartland of America who ended up in Oz and used illusion and magic tricks to fool everyone into thinking he was an all-powerful wizard. The trailer had me intrigued. I wanted to see this, it looked good.
At the time, I was an avid follower of the legendary Maddox, creator of “The Best Page in the Universe”. Keep in mind, this was in 2013, way before Maddox had his falling-out with Dick Masterson, which led to him attempting to sue Dick, comedian Asterios Kokkinos, Patreon, and a bunch of other people for millions of dollars. Maddox was still entertaining, and hadn’t really become known as a cuck. So when Maddox put out his article titled “I liked it better when it was called Army of Darkness”, I ended up not seeing it, because anything that would rip off Army of Darkness could fuck right off in my eyes.
Fast-forward 6 years, Maddox has now been branded a “cuck” by most of the internet, and his content has arguably done a huge nosedive. Since I don’t want to make this article about Maddox himself, I’ll refrain from saying anything further about him or the lawsuit, and instead focus on his video. For those of you playing along at home, this is said video:
It was this video that swayed me to avoid Oz the Great and Powerful. After all, Maddox was right about a lot of stuff, so listening to his opinion should have been a safe bet, right? WRONG. The highest point of this video was the editing, which was actually very good and did a great job of putting forth Maddox’s argument in a believable way. When I finally got around to watching the movie in May of 2019, I discovered just how wrong Maddox had been. While the movie itself wasn’t a cinematic masterpiece, it certainly wasn’t a “dense Category 5 shitstorm of sadness and cinematic diarrhea”. I’d call it mostly harmless, and a fun way to kill a couple of hours if you’re bored and have Netflix.
The bulk of Maddox’s criticism seems to revolve around the idea that the two movies share similar plot points, which he shows us by putting the scenes side by side. And for the most part, Maddox is correct in this assertion. However, what Maddox fails to realize (or most likely ignores so not to take away from his argument) is that most of these are in fact very common tropes in story-telling.
The idea of a time traveler suddenly appearing in a more primitive time and attempting to modernize the natives of that time has been around for over a century. In fact, Army of Darkness drew heavily from “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”, a novel published by the legendary Mark Twain in 1889. (An interesting side-note, in Connecticut Yankee, Hank gives himself the title of “The Boss”, while in the Ash vs Evil Dead TV series Pablo gives Ash the title of “Jefe”, which is Spanish for “the boss”. I’m pretty sure this was intentional). I’d even go as far as to call Army of Darkness a heavily-satirical retelling of A Connecticut Yankee. In A Connecticut Yankee, the main character Hank uses his “modern” knowledge to, among other things, create weapons that impress and scare the “primitive screwheads” of the Middle Ages. In one part, Hank stands off a horde of knights using a revolver. Later in the book, he trains younger peasants to assist him in updating the infrastructure, and eventually fighting off a large army of knights with Gatling guns and electrified fences. Army of Darkness didn’t come up with these themes at all, they just made them look cool and fun. Meanwhile I’m still over here waiting for a good movie version of A Connecticut Yankee.
If you want to go even further, the tornado that swept Ash away in Army of Darkness was a reference to the original Wizard of Oz. Many films and TV shows have used the “Tornado to Oz” trope since its introduction to the mainstream in 1939. And if that’s not enough, consider that Maddox is essentially complaining that a movie based on the Wizard of Oz used a tornado to transport its main character to Oz. Think about that for a moment.
The “beautiful woman turns evil and ugly” trope is also very common and not unique to Army of Darkness. One of the earliest examples I could find of this theme dates back to Ancient Greece, in the form of the story of Medusa. The idea of the Wicked Witch of the West originally being good was also explored in the book (and later musical) “Wicked“, so it’s not like this is a new concept. Mitchell Kapner, the guy who wrote the screenplay for Oz the Great and Powerful, was very obviously drawing from Wicked in this case.
Travelling through a spooky setting to retrieve a magical item that causes an army to attack the person who found it? Yup, another common trope not unique to Army of Darkness. So many different movies and books have done this one, do I really need to rattle them off? Also, the Dark Forest is an established part of Wizard of Oz lore. Come on Maddox, that one was just a cheap shot.
Maddox tries to compare the scene from Army of Darkness where Ash rallies the peasantry with the scene where the people of Oz come together to show their support for Oscar. Seriously? They’re two completely different scenes. In Army of Darkness the peasantry is shown to actually be somewhat battle-worthy and ready to fight. In Oz, the scene is meant to portray the citizens as naive and practically useless in a combat situation. Complaining that the main character rallied his troops? Does this mean every movie that has someone giving a motivational speech to his soldiers has ripped off people like General Patton, or virtually any great leader from history? Motivational pep talks are another time-tested trope.
Could you argue that Oz the Great and Powerful was generic for its over-reliance on cliche tropes? Yes. Did that make it a terrible movie? No. Did it rip off Army of Darkness? No. If anything, Army of Darkness ripped off Wizard of Oz and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. We can overlook that though, because Army of Darkness is an awesome movie and intended to be a parody of sorts.
Maddox’s criticisms are silly and inane, and the idea that Sam Raimi ripped himself off here is a fantastic stretch at best. I give Maddox points for the decent mental gymnastics and manipulative editing he performed with this video, but upon actual scrutiny none of it holds up. Maddox of 2005 would have done a way better job at making a decent argument about why this movie might be terrible (see his review on “Signs” for an example of how good Maddox can be at tearing apart a movie). I give Maddox’s review an F.
As for the movie itself, I give it a 5/10. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad, it was mediocre. I felt that Mila Kunis oversold her role as the Wicked Witch of the West. Tony Cox’s character “Knuck” just didn’t fit in with the rest of the characters, mostly due to his over-sarcastic behavior. I was also a bit unsure of having Oscar hook up with Galinda at the end, this didn’t seem like it did any justice to the original Wizard of Oz. All in all though, I was able to overlook this stuff and enjoy this mostly-harmless origin story of one of the greatest classics of all time.