Friday, March 22, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful: A Review


We're Off to Meet the Wizard...

The Wizard of Oz is one of the greatest films ever made, whose power still resonates in the American psyche.   It is a cultural touchstone for everyone who has seen it.  Yet for the legend The Wizard of Oz is, and as expansive as the Oz universe is (from both L. Frank Baum's original stories to those who have added to it), it has remained stubborn in its refusal to have any other adaptations or cinematic stories add or take from it.  With the exception of the musical Wicked (the Oz story from the Wicked Witch's viewpoint), no Oz-related film has ever truly worked, let alone been embraced as much as The Wizard of OzThe Wiz, another musical adaptation with an African-American cast that changed the setting from Kansas to Harlem, didn't fare well (although I think Ease on Down the Road is still fondly remembered).  I certainly remember Return to Oz, but for all the wrong reasons.  I was a child when I saw it, and remember vividly being quite frightened: Jack Pumpkinhead made me hide in terror, and he was one of the GOOD guys!

Now we have Oz the Great and Powerful, which is an unofficial prequel to the 1939 classic.  This time, we hear of how the Wizard of Oz came to be.  In many ways, Sam Raimi's film takes all its cues from the Victor Fleming film in that we pretty much have the same story structure, with a journey to defeat a great evil aided by those he meets along the way but with a little bit of suggestion of redemption for our lead thrown our way.  While it will not rank anywhere near the Garland vehicle, it is visually spectacular but not as strong as it could have been.

Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a magician/flim-flam man/con artists/ladies man in a travelling circus.  It is Kansas, 1905, appropriately black-and-white, and his show isn't going all that well.  The audience heckles him twice: first when they see the wires, second when he declines to heal a wheelchair-bound girl (Joey King).  He abuses his poor assistant Frank (Zach Graff) and finds that Annie (Michelle Williams), the only girl he appears to have genuinely cared about, is going to marry a certain John Gale.  One of his paramour's boyfriends, the circus strongman, then bursts through to take his revenge,  Diggs flees to a nearby balloon, where his loyal Frank throws the good Professor his suitcase and top hat.

However, Oscar is caught up in a twister (it's a twister, it's a TWISTER!), and crashes into a strange and beautiful land, appropriately in color.  Here, he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), who tells him he's in Oz.  As luck would have it, Oz is Oscar's nickname.  With that, Theodora believes our Oz is THE Oz, the wizard long prophesied to bring peace to the land and defeat the Wicked Witch.  Since such endeavours come with treasure, our Oz gleefully takes on the task.  While on the way to the Emerald City, they meet a flying monkey, Finley (Graff again), who pledges eternal loyalty after being rescued.  Oz tells Finley he ISN'T the Wizard, but no matter: Theodora, who is a good witch, instantly smitten with Oz, believes him so.

Not so her sister Evanora (Rachel Wiesz), another Witch who rules the Emerald City.  In order to win his throne and the gold, all Oz has to do is break the Wicked Witch's wand.  He, being Oz, decides it's worth it if it means treasure, so off he goes with a somewhat reluctant Finley.  On his way, he meets China Girl (King again), a little girl made out of actual china (not connected to David Bowie at all).  She has survived an attack by the Wicked Witch's flying baboons on her village, China Town (seriously), and with a little glue he is able to repair her legs and make her walk.

Eventually, we find the Wicked Witch, but it turns out to be Glinda (Williams again), the GOod Witch of the South.  Glinda truly believes Oz to be THE Oz, and soon gets him to agree to be her champion.  However, we find one of our witches, finding she's been spurned by Oz over Glinda, has embraced her dark side and turns into THE Wicked Witch (one guess).  Finally, we have a battle between the two Wicked Witches and Oz and his group for control of the land of Oz and the Emerald City.

Somewhere along the line I wonder whether either Raimi or screenwriters David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner didn't stop and say, "we're simply throwing in too much into Oz the Great and Powerful".   The film may be just a little over two hours, but if feels so much longer.  Worse, it feels excessively bloated with far too much going on and roads not fully explored (no pun intended).   We get a strange mix from the original and introduction of new elements.  It's not something I like doing when reviewing films: comparing one movie with another, but Oz the Great and Powerful simply demands that I compare it with The Wizard of Oz.  On the one hand, like the 1939 film it has characters in Oz have counterparts (Finley with the pre-Oz sequence Diggs calls his ever-faithful assistant a trained monkey, the wheelchair-bound girl with China Doll...Diggs now able to make her walk), but then it throws the two sisters who don't have a Kansas doppelganger.  It makes for a perplexing mix because you're never sure whether you should expect to find similarities between Wizard and Oz or not.

The conflict over control of Oz seems almost secondary when we get the big climatic battle and a very extended Emerald City in peril scene.  Again and again The Great and Powerful wants to be something close to The Lord of the Rings (even to the visuals, where Oz reminded me of a suburb of Middle-Earth), but while it is certainly breathtakingly beautiful, neither the story or the characters appear to be either great menace or a great salvation.

Another issue with The Great and Powerful is that the actual threat Oz the man faces comes from the thinnest of reasons.  All this chaos, all this evil, because a certain witch basically got dumped?  I keep thinking it would have been far better to have simply started out with an evil witch rather than have us go through so much, having us attempt to care about certain people, only to find they change merely because they didn't get what the heart wanted.  It certainly doesn't speak well of women to find that in a nutshell, one of the most evil creations in film history turned out that way just because one guy favored another.  I've heard of being green with envy, but this is too much.

Since I rarely venture into 3-D (thinking it the Work of the Devil), I can see that Oz's arrival in Oz (what I dubbed Mr. Wizard's Wild Ride) was clearly created to give those who plunked down extra cash their money's worth.  It was impressive without the added dimension I'll grant that, but I think a 3-D experience would have left me regurgitating into my popcorn bag.  Sometimes less is more.

In terms of performances I think everyone did as well as they could with the material.  I didn't mind too much that Franco looked as high as he was not when he co-hosted the Oscars, though I think both he and Raimi might have mistaken excessive smirking for excessive confidence.  His Oz was suppose to undergo a transformation from con artist to hero, and while I didn't completely buy the transformation I think Franco did his best.

Kunis was much better as the conflicted Theodora, making me believe her transformation (while a bit of a stretch) was genuine.  Weisz was all slinky and sexy as the more menacing Evanora, borrowing more from the original idea for The Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch as a glamorous figure like the Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.   In her dual roles, while I think Glinda might have been better I think Williams was frankly better than the material she worked hard to make good.  Glinda I felt could have been more sweet/naive/knowing, but on the whole I enjoyed Williams' performance.

There are moments of wit (everyone got a chuckle at China Town, and I laughed when Oz tells the Munchkins they put the "merry" in the Merry Old Land of Oz) but some that might have been better-played (as when Oz stops the Munchkins from completing their big musical moment or worse, when Oz presents 'gifts' to those who have helped him defeat the about milking the source).  One thing I did enjoy were the visuals (although I was never sure whether the obvious green-screen work was MEANT to be obvious).  One thing I didn't care for was Danny Elfman's score: he certainly enjoys his vocalizing music, doesn't he.  That was driving me bonkers, and again, less is more.

I would advise parents to be wary of taking their kids to see Oz the Great and Powerful: some sequences might be too intense for them (at the screening I attended, a few young kids hid constantly at the climatic battle sequence).  On the whole Oz the Great and Powerful is a bit overblown and too long, but not a terrible film.  Certainly beautiful-looking, it could have done with trying something different rather than attempting to copy too much from The Wizard of Oz itself.

What can I say: it really was no miracle....     

I see...I see...I see me not as beloved
as my Professor predecessor....


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