Monday, March 11, 2013

the good and pretty o.k. oz

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." But beware, some spoilers may abound.

Oz the Great and Powerful is not a classic like its predecessor and inspiration, 1939's The Wizard of Oz, but it was, for the most part, entertaining. Director Sam Raimi can hold his head high as Oz joins the list of other "inspired by" films and television miniseries, like The Wiz, Tin Man, and Return to Oz. It's actually unclear after viewing the film if Raimi and his team were ever shooting for anything more than just making another good film. All of the CGI stops were certainly pulled out, but with Disney footing the bill, that was to be expected. It's certainly not as much of a mess as Tim Burton's ghastly Alice in Wonderland, but there are many moments when it is also unclear whether Raimi was deliberately trying to out-Burton Burton. He uses his favorite soundtrack musician and longtime collaborator, Danny Elfman. And some of the over-the-top initial shots of the land of Oz temporarily bring back memories of the oversaturated Alice.

Kunis makes a stunning entrance in her red velvet and leather ensemble.

Contrary to what some reviewers have been claiming, what makes Oz worth a trip to the theater is its star, James Franco. Franco brings all of his trademark smirky sarcasm, which may put off some audience members, but which is an absolutely perfect fit for Oscar "Oz" Diggs, a two-bit, small-time magician and con man who dreams of being a great man. He feels stuck in dusty Kansas. When he isn't busy abusing his faithful sidekick Frank (Zach Braff), or trying to romance every woman he comes across with the same tired seduction routine (which involves multiple copies of his grandmother's music box), he is dreaming big — too big to stay put and marry a sweet local girl like Annie (Michelle Williams). This guy is going places, thanks to having to flee an angry husband, and a wild tornado, which whisks "Oz" in a balloon to the conveniently named land of ... Oz.

James Franco is clearly enjoying his role as an oily womanizing con man who discovers that he may have a heart after all (tin man, cough, cough). And Raimi pays homage quite often to the beloved film classic to keep things fun for grown-ups and kiddies alike. All the sequences that reference the 1939 film are winners. The film's entire opening sequence, which introduces "Oz" in glorious black and white, is a lot of fun, complete with an impressive ballon ride in a cyclone. Other nods to Dorothy's movie included a clever use of the poppy field, scarecrows, the frightening of a lion on the yellow brick road, and a very clever explanation to how the man found himself behind a curtain.

"Oz" may lack a tin man or a scarecrow, but the China Girl and flying monkey Finley make for faithful companions on the yellow brick road.
The CGI, was for me, a bit much. Flowers that look like gems or ring like bells might do it for some, but scenes featuring such wonders took on the look of an expensive video game. I wasn't that impressed with Avatar either, so sue me. But what I did love was the completely computer-created character of the China Girl, who was brilliantly rendered and realized. China Girl was consistently beautiful and enchanting to look at on screen.

Where I found myself being pulled a little bit out of the movie was, surprisingly, not with all of the CGI, but the costumes, which I found very disappointing. What may have looked playful in 1939, here re-imagined, in 2013, on a larger cast, looked more live-action Dr. Seuss than Oz. The one exception was Theodora's (Mila Kunis) first outfit, a red velvet cloak and hat and leather pants. It was so sexy and unexpected, that it was befuddling why her sister witch, Evanora (Rachel Weisz, who didn't get nearly enough screen time), and Glinda (Michelle Williams) both seemed dressed in old Disney princess cast-offs during the rest of the movie.

They really could have served Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz better than these costumes. Yawn.
I also have to admit that I hated the Wicked Witch of the West's look. It was too computer-enhanced or something. Her close-ups made me yearn for Margaret Hamilton's obvious green make-up. In fact, once the Wicked Witch of the West surrendered to her evil ways she became a lot less interesting a character, and unfortunately, so did the movie.

The filmmakers made a huge miscalculation in trying to keep the identity of the Wicked Witch of the West a secret. Which witch is which? Well it didn't take much to guess who it would be. If they had made it clear from the start, made her inevitable surrender to evil more of a struggle, more compelling, this Oz may have been transported into a great, instead of just a good, movie. The rivalry between the three women (witches) of Oz was never adequately explained. Why were they at war? Why would they attack China Town, its residents, or any part of Oz? Why did anyone think Oz needed a king when the three witches seemed to already be in control?

But these are script quibbles, and it seems that the real emphasis of the film was on the visuals. It must have been hard for the actors, who were mostly working with a green screen 90% of the time. My nine year-old daughter loved it, but I felt that it all ended too abruptly. There were hints all along that "Oz's" trip might just be a fevered dream a la Dorothy, but that plot thread seemed to fade away with no pay-off. Oz the Great and Powerful was a huge box office hit over the weekend, so maybe Disney will decide that some of these questions will be answered in the sequel (which is already in the works). L. Frank Baum did write 14 Oz books, after all.


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