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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

I like the Wizard of Oz. That's not exactly a controversial statement, as it's one of the most beloved films of all time, but as I know a few who aren't fans of the Judy Garland starring adaptation, I thought I should go ahead and lay that ground-work. I love Sam Raimi generally, he of my beloved Evil Dead trilogy and a couple of quite fun Spider-man films. Most recently he helmed the severely under-appreciated Drag Me to Hell, which was a return to form for the director. When I heard he'd be heading up Disney's prequel to the Wizard of Oz (or at least as much as they could get away with, as MGM owns the rights to the content created in the film), it instilled a bit of trepidation in me as shades of the disaster that was Alice in Wonderland started to enter my head. The results are definitely better than that, but still aren't top-notch.

Oz the Great and Powerful opens in 1905; where Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco), a stage performing magician with a traveling carnival, who spends his days seducing his assistants and conning his best friend (Zach Braff) out of money, get entangled in a tornado as he tries to escape an angry strongman via hot air balloon. This tornado trip of course sends him to the land of Oz, where he meets Theodora the witch (Mila Kunis) who believes he is the the wizard of prophecy that will save them from the wicked witch who has taken hold of their kingdom. Along the way, he meets her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), a talking monkey (Braff again), a china doll girl (Joey King), and finally the not so wicked witch after all, Glenda (Michelle Williams). With whom, Oz teams up to hatch a scheme to retake Emerald City.

Much like the book and stage adaptation Wicked, this film strives to imbue greater depth to the characters of the Wizard of Oz and in some cases its successful. One of the elements that works in the entire proceeding's favor is surprisingly James Franco. His past couple of years have ranged from interesting experiments (guest stint on a soap opera) to the absurd (his laconic Academy Awards hosting duties, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) to the excellent (his work in Milk and 127 Hours), his lead work here falls somewhat in the first category. Franco has never been a flashy player at all, but its almost like he's taking his underplaying demeanor to new levels in the role. Lines that are supposed to carry this kind of big dramatic weight, but would probably be a bit eye-rolling given the subject matter, come across as really funny when Franco delivers them. Franco also exudes this smarmy, con-man charm that works perfectly. His is also the only character in the film that gets a logical and satisfying character arc. If there's a highlight, Franco has to be it, taking the script and running with it in unpredictable directions.

The problem unfortunately being, the rest of the cast doesn't fare as well, though there are some decently enjoyable moments here and there. Finley, the talking monkey for instance, is another nicely drawn together character that gets a few good scenes/lines and exudes cute monkeyness if that's your thing. The three witches are probably served the least by the script. There are a number of moments that simply ring untrue, and plot beats that are completely unearned (as my friend Chris said the moment we left the theater). Theodora and Glenda are victims of this the most, where their interactions with Oz (or their actions because of him specifically) are totally bizarre and don't make much rational sense. I found myself saying "wait..what?" at least twice due to two specific situations within the second act and the finale respectively. To not engender spoilers, I will say no more, but just know the problems are there. It also doesn't help that Mila Kunis, as lovely as she is, was not the right choice for her role. Her performance is, in contrast to Franco, really hits some low notes when she should have been quite malevolent when the time came. Too bad Anne Hathaway was busy.

The script does a nice job of setting the pieces in place for Dorothy Gale's eventual arrival. All the big elements show up, the hot air balloon, the cowardly lion, scarecrows, the poppies, the horse of a different color, etc... but the film suffers from a common problem that I think the studios still just cannot wrap their heads around: prequels lack any dramatic tension because we already know what the end result will be. Was it nice that we got a chance to actually see The Wicked Witch of the East? Sure, but the house is still going to fall on her. In a strange way, the film reminded of Revenge of the Sith in that rather than telling a fully compelling story in of itself, it spent alot of time putting pieces in place for its much more famous sequel. The existence of films like this become an exercise in "why should I ever watch it when its so beholden to a superior film?" It's not an unenjoyable experience and there are definitely no moments that make you want to sink into your chair ala Johnny Depp's breakdance in Alice in Wonderland, but on the whole it feels like an inessential experience that doesn't add enough of a wrinkle to the Oz legend beyond some good character work around the central protagonist.

The biggest let-down for me personally was the lack of Raimi signature style showing up. Even in the Spider-man films, we were able to get a few moments that crept in where you knew this was still the Raimi that we film aficionados grew to love. The Raimi that pops up here feels somewhat homogenized for a wide audience, which is understandable given who is in charge, but you can't help but wonder why even get Raimi to direct when any journeyman could have knocked out this end product? There are two nice bits that at least served to remind viewers of who was behind the camera: a final action scene scare that was reminiscent of the sort of "floating monster-person" effects that Raimi has utilized in his career, and of course the always welcome Bruce Campbell cameo, sadly all too short this time. A little more of this kind of thing would have gone a long way to set this one apart giving it some value where the script was lacking.

The visuals are also so-so, with some shoddy cgi work where you definitely can "feel" the green-screen and the awkward performances of live actors looking at characters that aren't really there. Oz the Great and Powerful probably plays better in 3D, as there were specific shots that looked as though they were intended to take advantage of the format. For our part, we saw it in 2D, and I didn't think we lost anything essential but I take it the 3D just adds a little more fun particularly for the "boo" factor.

In all, it's not a bad film, but not a good one either. I would say its solidly mediocre, but this time of the year, you could do alot worse and the little ones will definitely eat it up. It'll keep you entertained if you can just shut your brain off and pretend like logic isn't a thing.

I give it a C.
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1 comment:

  1. Good review Kyle. No one will be talking about it 74 years from now like the classic that spawned it but we kind of already knew that, didn't we?


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