Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Oz: The Great and Powerful

Two questions came to mind as I watched Oz the Great and Powerful (2013): one, do we really need an origin story for the Wizard of Oz? Sure, the Wicked Witch of the West got an origin story in Wicked, which gave us a new perspective on the Land of Oz and its notorious villain, a look at the nature and perception of evil, and some socio-political satire. Going into Oz the Great and Powerful, I doubted whether learning the background of the Wizard would offer the same potential; he's a kindly charlatan who used magic tricks to maintain his power, and there's really not much else we need to know.

The second question I had is why is Sam Raimi directing this? Raimi is undoubtedly one of the most skilled and inventive directors working in Hollywood, but this is a rather pedestrian, CGI-dominated blockbuster that frankly offers him little opportunity to showcase his talent and personality. I used to look forward to a new Sam Raimi picture, but from Spider-Man 3 on, I can only question his choice of projects. This is the guy who gave us the Evil Dead movies, Darkman, and A Simple Plan, and it just feels like, instead of doing something really subversive and interesting, he's playing it safe and commercial, which is how I'd describe Oz the Great and Powerful. There have been so many epic fantasy movies in the last few years - The Hobbit, Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman, Maleficient - that have been big, action-packed, somewhat modernized and darker takes on older stories, and Oz the Great and Powerful doesn't do much to distinguish itself. Raimi is disappointingly following a trend instead of setting one. The soundtrack is by composer Danny Elfman, and that goes a long way to making this feel like a latter-day Tim Burton picture.

James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, a stage magician with a traveling circus in 1905 Kansas. After a show in which he is pelted with food, Oscar, or Oz, is threatened by the circus strong man because of his womanizing and escapes in a hot air balloon that soon gets caught in a twister. The twister transports Oz to the Land of Oz, where the fantastical inhabitants, including a lovely witch, Theodora (Mila Kunis), believe he is the prophesied wizard who will defeat the Wicked Witch who is terrorizing the kingdom, although Theodora's sister, another witch named Evanora (Rachel Weisz) suspects him to be a fraud. Oz goes on the journey to defeat the evil witch, but when he meets Glinda (Michelle Williams), he discovers nothing is what it seems.

Apart from borrowing a number of plot elements from Raimi's own Army of Darkness - a less-than-heroic loser who finds himself transported to a strange fantasy land, a trip to a cemetery half way through that results in an attacking army, witches, a prophecy, a (somewhat) modern man teaching gunpowder and other technology to the people he must lead - Oz the Great and Powerful offers a bland story of a con man who learns to believe in himself and inspire others for real this time. He's really a nice guy if you give him the chance, and I'm so touched I want to barf in my cheerios. Franco is convincing as the shyster, but as the hero, he looks uncomfortable (maybe if he had a chainsaw and boomstick).

In the classic 1939 version of the Wizard of Oz, Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West is the stuff of nightmares; seventy-five years later, she's still terrifying children. Evanora, heartbroken when she thinks Oz has betrayed her, decides to go bad and transforms into black hat-wearing, broomstick-riding, green-skinned wicked witch after being manipulated by her evil sister. I guess the makeup on her is supposed to be scary, but she looks like Jim Carrey's The Mask with a pointed noise, and Kunis's performance is awful and laughable in her attempts to be menacing. Weisz fairs a little better as the cunning, manipulative one, but she never seems to really get into it. Williams as the libeled Glinda is OK but bland. Among the rest of the cast, Zach Braff  demonstrates why I never got into Scrubs with an unfunny performance as Oz's flying monkey companion. 

The Land of Oz presented here is mostly created by computer imagery, and it's neat to look at, almost like Middle Earth meets Candyland, bright, colorful, and filled with weird-looking creatures, plants, and people, but it's not as memorable as the 1939 Oz, although I did like the China Doll village. I never felt swept away to a magical realm. Ironically, the scenes set in the Kansas, filmed in black and white with a reduced aspect ratio until we get to Oz, feel more unique and magical. The period details are stunning, and perhaps Raimi could have found a more interesting story in this world and ended with the balloon ride to Oz. Just a thought.

Oz the Great and Powerful does come life during its explosive climax, however. Oz, working with the oppressed denizens of the land, crafts a sort of steam punk carriage that projects a giant image of his head that he uses to bluff and threaten the witchy sisters, and their attempts to destroy it with spells and other magical blasts harmlessly through the illusion. There's something to be said about a crafty yet ordinary human using his wits and courage to defeat a pair of powerful witches, and Oz the Great and Powerful pulls it off well. It's a preferable ending than a massive clash of armies and swords as we are wont to get in the genre.

The movie moves at fairly good pace, the special effects are neat, and there are numerous references to other Oz stories and characters and a few laughs. I wasn't bored watching the movie, but it feels empty, a blatant attempt at crafting a franchise based on a commercial property than on telling an inspired story, and with Sam Raimi at the helm, that makes it disappointing. Even the requisite Bruce Campbell cameo feels lifeless.

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