Saturday, March 16, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful

Grade: 59/B-

Six years ago, Sam Raimi and Sony Pictures were roundly criticized for Spider-Man 3, a messy, bloated spectacle that enraged hyperbolic internet-dwellers despite being more disappointing than bad. Looks like Raimi is about to get beaten up again, this time with Disney by his side. His The Wizard of Oz prequel Oz the Great and Powerful comes with a lot of baggage: the weight of the reverence for the original 1939 classic, the frustration with many of Disney’s live-action tentpole productions, and it’s apparent similarity to Tim Burton’s successful but garish Alice in Wonderland update. Most of the charges against the film are fair, but the film also has a fair amount of charm and inventiveness to it that comes with a Raimi film.

Oscar “Oz” Driggs (James Franco) is a con artist and stage magician in Kansas with a desire to be a truly great man. When he’s whisked away by a tornado to the land of Oz, he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), a good witch who falls for him and believes him to be the Wizard foretold of in a prophecy, one who will defeat the wicked witch. Oz is reluctant to help, but the promises of gold and kingship over the Emerald City is too much for him to turn down. He’s joined by the good flying monkey Finley (voiced by Zach Braff) and China Girl (voiced by Joey Young), a living china doll, on his quest to defeat Glinda (Michelle Williams), but soon finds that the real wicked witch is Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who has manipulated Theodora into believing Glinda to be evil and will soon do something much more sinister to her.

Oz is a highly problematic film, to say the least. The performances are of highly variable quality: Young and Braff are fun in their supporting roles, Franco’s devilish charm suits Oz rather well, and Weisz is particularly good as the film’s true villain. Williams and Kunis are less assured. The former is defeated by the script, which gives her little to do other than act blandly kind and play an unconvincing love interest to Franco. Miscasting defeats the latter. Kunis has an Old Hollywood charm that mostly works in the early-going, but her romance with Oz isn’t any better than Williams’, and she’s utterly at sea in the late going when she’s caked in make-up with a too-sleek CGI sheen and forced to act like a pale imitation of Margaret Hamilton’s classic character. She’s far too girlish for the part, and her wickedness mostly comes off as shrill. It’s a literal case of someone playing dress up.

More problematic: the script jams in far too many references to the original Oz, playing far too much like fan service, and while Oz’s arc is involving, it can’t match the magic of the film it constantly tries to emulate. Worse still is the film’s over-reliance on CGI. The film doesn’t hit the same ugly lows as Alice in Wonderland, but there’s a disconnect between the actors and the lack of texture to their environment. There’s a lot of care to the design of the film, but too often the effects work against the magic of the story and against Raimi’s strengths as a filmmaker.

They’re not nearly enough to negate Raimi’s talents, however. What separates Oz the Great and Powerful with many of the other recent Disney debacles is a sense of playfulness that always comes with Raimi’s films. Raimi is a consummate showman, and he’s clearly having a lot of fun whenever dealing with Oz’s illusions (using glue to fix China Girl, the camera that allows him to project his face on smoke as in the original film). There’s also a clear amount of craft and care in some of the better effects, most notably in an entertaining opening credits sequence, a prologue that mimics the black-and-white and the aspect ratio of the original, and especially China Girl, who has the tactility and warmth that many of the other effects don’t have. And while this doesn’t feel like one of Raimi’s most personal films, there’s a clear identification with Oz as a showman, an illusionist, an outsider, and a bit of a scoundrel. This film will no doubt be met with the inflated rage that often comes with adding on to a beloved film. It doesn’t deserve it.

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