Saturday, March 16, 2013

Review: "Oz, the Great and Powerful"

Mila Kunis, James Franco, Michelle Williams & Rachel Weisz
I almost titled this post "All of Them Witches," but I didn't want to associate Disney's Oz, the Great and Powerful with Roman Polanski's masterpiece, in any way. And make no mistake, OGP (as I will from now on refer to it) is certainly no masterpiece. But it isn't completely terrible, either. Well, almost...

You've read the reviews and know the plot and spoilers by now, so let's get down to the meat of the matter, shall we? Yes, yes, yes... oh man, yes... It is BEAUTIFUL! Director Sam Raimi (Spider-Man; Drag Me to Hell) spends his entire budget on the 3D CGI and every penny spent is apparent on the screen. His Oz is super-saturated color and texture and homage, both visually and in tone. The Oz we know and love is clearly visible (or at least it's roots). There are plenty of in-jokes about (Oz is a carnival magician in the Baum Brothers circus; after scaring off a lion with a chemical trick, Oz shouts "You coward!" as it runs off) and even lines lifted right from the original (more on the script in a moment). I read all of the Oz books as a kid, and was glad to see China Town and the Quadlings & Tinkers included with the Munchkins and the Winkies. And of course, there was lots and lots and lots of cinephilic eye-candy. Unfortunately, That's almost all there is to recommend about OGP. I say almost, because there are a few performances worth praising.

Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz seem to be among the few who know they're in an Oz movie and come off like they are in the same movie as one another. Williams' Glinda has a determination we might not have expected from Billie Burke's version (though Glinda is 20 years younger in this story) and Weisz' has the chops to play a wicked witch without an ounce of cynicism. The amazing Bruce Campbell turns in another hilarious Raimi cameo as a Winkie gatekeeper and even Zach Braff has his moments as Finley, a nice flying monkey (the witches use flying baboons to reign terror down on Oz), though Q was distracted by Finley's resemblance to old-time comedian Red Buttons. Sadly, the worst performances are from the actors in the crucial roles: James Franco and Mila Kunis seem to be in a completely different movie from everyone else. Franco's contemporary style doesn't fair well in a turn-of-the-century tale of a ne'er-do-well making good and has none of the bombast required for the character. Yes, a good actor should bring his own take to any iconic character he or she is lucky enough to play... but there's something to be said for honoring what's come before. Franco's cowardly huckster doesn't ever seem quite resourceful enough  to come up with the Big Plan (another cool homage to the original), let alone trick an entire country into thinking he was a wizard. But worst of all... What the hell is Mila Kunis even doing in this movie? I like Mila. She's pretty and funny and was so good in Black Swan. But I never once believed that she believed she was in Oz. During her transformation scene, Kunis is off screen while we see her CGI shadow on the wall as she speaks. All I could think was: 'Meg?' Even worse is 'evil' Theodora, looking something like a cross between an X-Men villainess; a dominatrix and a character out of Mad Max, Kunis fails miserably and more often than not, spends most of the movie looking silly and sticking out like a sore thumb.

As for the script by Mitchell Kapner (Romeo Must Die) and David Lindsey-Abaire (Rabbit Hole; the upcoming Poltergeist re-boot) has a few clever moments, especially when paying homage to Victor Fleming's classic (Oz's ride through the tornado is particularly fun and I loved that Theodora's tears left her with scars). But a few clever moments are hardly enough to carry an entire film and the story these two have concocted is hardly compelling. We already know he is going  to be crowned Wizard of Oz, so there's nothing really at stake. Of course Glinda isn't going to be killed. How could she help Dorothy, 20 years later? Why should we be concerned about the outcome?

Raimi, a master of visuals since he burst onto the indie scene with the original The Evil Dead in 1981, does the best he can with what he's been given, though I must say that every film he's ever made before is better. Danny Elfman's score is reminiscent of the work he recently did for Cirque du Soleil but isn't anything special. 

Gregory Maguire's novel (and its subsequent musical adaptation) 'Wicked' is certainly a more interesting and well-thought out prequel to the first story, though neither it nor its sequels address how the Wizard came into power. And of course, this isn't Disney's first trip to Oz. 1985's Return to Oz introduced the world to indie darling Fairuza Balk as Dorothy in a movie featuring electroshock therapy; a talking chicken; living rocks with egg allergies; a witch who can change heads; a key-wound army; a flying sofa with a stuffed moose-head and every person in Oz turned to stone. Dark, dark, dark. And a much better and much more interesting film than OGP. *1/2 (One and a Half Out of Four Stars).

And here's a fan-made trailer for Return to Oz:

I was hoping for so much more from Raimi. I can only hope the upcoming Evil Dead* remake (which he produced) is everything its trailers promise it will be. You know I won't be waiting a week to see that.

More, anon.

*I showed this trailer to T and he said, "You actually want to see this movie?" Oh, dear. I guess he's in for an education.

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