Monday, March 11, 2013
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL: A Worthy Return to Oz?
OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL Review:
- I grew up with OZ. There was the classic film, there was the 1980's Disney pseudo-sequel, Return to Oz. But most of all, there were the books. I've talked about this a lot recently, but I grew up with the Oz books because my grandparents actually had original prints of every book in the series - the originals by L. Frank Baum, as well as the later canonical entries in the series written after his passing. The Oz books were my grandmother's most treasured items - she (along with my mom) shared a love for all things Oz, and my grandmother knew the world and mythology of Oz inside and out. She often spoke of seeing the original movie in the theaters when it was released - about how the film's transition from black and white to color was, at the time, a jaw-dropping revelation. But while I liked the film, I loved the books. Part of it was how my grandmother read them to us - with her distinct, measured reading style and her never-wavering enthusiasm for the material, she transported us to the land of Oz. But I also just loved the books in and of themselves, and the weird and whimsical style that Baum (who claimed to be transcribing actual events, as related to him by Dorothy and others) wrote them in. To me, Oz was every bit as epic and as captivating a place as the other fantasy worlds I loved - Narnia, Prydain, and Middle Earth. Sure, the film had the witches and the flying monkeys - but it was, ultimately, a musical - not the epic adventure I pictured in my mind. Where was Ozma, the Nome King, Tik Tok, and Jack Pumpkinhead? Many of the Oz series' cooler elements made it into Return to Oz, but that film saw success only as a cult classic, not as a franchise-starter. But now, in an era where Lord of the Rings and Narnia had been turned into big-budget, multi-part adventure series, I wondered if the same could finally be true for OZ. Now, the pieces were in place - Sam Raimi was at the helm, the full weight of the Disney machine was there, and Oz finally seemed poised to go big on the big screen.
The new OZ has some of the elements I was looking for in a new Oz flick. First and foremost, it's visually stunning. Sam Raimi once again proves himself to be a true wizard when it comes to creating stylized worlds and roller-coaster-like sequences that are a thrill to just sit back and let yourself get immersed in. OZ is a 100% must-see in 3D, and even better in IMAX. It looks awesome. Hyper-realized fantasy worlds and landscapes and cities, massive battles, eye-melting landscapes, visceral set-piece sequences - Raimi makes OZ into a film that practically bleeds color from the screen. He also just plain has fun with the toys at his disposal. This being Raimi, he tries every trick in the book to wow you from a visual perspective. The opening of the film is in black and white, old-school 1930's aspect ratio - but then expands and colorizes as the Wizard makes his way to Oz. The 3D sees spears hurled at the audience, and all sorts of little instances of things popping off the screen. In terms of visuals, OZ is indeed a marvel.
In terms of story, OZ is less of a marvel, and a little more by-the-numbers. The film functions as a surprisingly reverent prequel - and homage to - the original 1939 classic. In fact, the movie almost seems designed to fit into the world of the original film nearly seamlessly. I have to admit, I was sort of surprised by this. In a way, it reminded me slightly of how Superman Returns felt like an overly reverent homage to the original Donner film. So this new Oz has many moments that are designed to be crowd-pleasing call backs to the 1939 film, and many plot points that are the "secret origins," of sorts, for some of the iconic aspects of that film. Given how the overall tone of the film is so different from the 1939 film (it's not a musical, for one thing), and given that that film is from, well, 1939, I wouldn't have minded if this new movie carved its own path, and/or stuck more to the tone of L. Frank Baum. There are, certainly, moments that seek to make things feel quasi-LOTR epic. Glimpses of the sprawling world-map of Oz, gleaned from the books. Large-scale battles and mammoth flying-monkey attacks. Witch-on-Wizard showdowns. All of that stuff is great fun, which makes the callbacks to the conceits of the 1939 film feel especially quaint and out of place. Did we really need, for example, the extended black-and-white intro in which we meet regular Kansas folks who will later manifest as denizens of Oz?
There are other visual cues that feel forced. The pains taken to make this film's wicked witch resemble Margaret Hamilton's iconic portrayal in the 1939 movie seem strained, and make this new witch look unnecessarily awkward. There are a couple of other examples in this vein.
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, for those not in the know, tells the story of how The Wizard first arrived in Oz, and how he became the great and powerful leader that Dorothy and friends eventually encounter. The Wizard (James Franco) begins the story as a huckster and a womanizer who works as a carnival illusionist. While being chased by some angry colleagues, he jumps into a hot air balloon to escape, but gets caught up in tornado that whisks him away from Kansas to Oz. In Oz, The Wizard finds a land besieged by a wicked witch, and finds that he is the long-expected and foretold-by-legend savior, destined to save the people from their oppressor (it can be debated to what extent there may or may not be an anti-feminist message here, but I didn't really find that). In conjunction with Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams), as well as a slew of other companions, The Wizard must contend with the evil witch Evanora (Rachel Weisz), her conflicted sister Theadora (Mila Kunis), and, of course, their army of evil flying monkeys. How to counter the witch's magic, when The Wizard is not really a wizard, but simply a trickster? Franco attempts to use modern tricks and tech to go Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court on the wicked witches.
If any of this sounds familiar, it might be because Raimi once made a film very much in this same spirit - Army of Darkness. Of course, that film involved a time-lost, chainsaw-wielding antihero named Ash fighting off an army of the undead in medieval times ... but hey, it's all pretty similar in a lot of ways. And that's why many are calling OZ Sam Raimi's Disneyfied Army of Darkness. And you can't deny a lot of the structural similarities. What's interesting though is that Raimi, for better or for worse, infuses OZ with a lot of the same madcap, living-cartoon vibe as AoD. Even the Wizard's wise-cracking, smart-alecky dialogue seems almost lifted from the classic Raimi playbook, and from iconic cult-hero Ash. Now, it's sort of cool to see that anarchic sort of subversiveness make its way into this film. But it also never 100% works, because Raimi is clearly being pulled in multiple directions here. On one level, you sense him wanting to do a really subversive, madcap take on Oz. His version of The Wizard is even very much in the Ash mold - a blue-collar hero who thinks on his feet and makes all of the women around him (even the goddess-like Glinda) swoon helplessly (and man, it would have been fun to see Raimi partner-in-crime Bruce Campbell - who has a small cameo here - take a crack at playing The Wizard). And yet, this is also a Disney movie and a major family-friendly franchise-starter, and so Raimi can't really go full throttle. You can tell that Raimi is perhaps less interested, for example, in really building up the cute sidekick characters all that much. And so the silly good-flying-monkey voiced by Zach Braff, or the uber-cute china-doll girl voiced by Joey King, or the jive-talkin' munchkin played by Tony Cox ... they all feel sort of one-dimensional and tacked on (though I will say, China Girl is one of the most amazingly-rendered digital characters I've yet seen in a film). And some, like that aforementioned jive-talkin' munchkin, are just plain out of place in this world (you wouldn't see that in Lord of the Rings, that's for sure).
In any case, OZ is tonally a bit all-over-the-place. There's a little LOTR-style epicness, a little Raimi madcap action and insanity, a little Disney fairy-tale magic and cutesiness, a little broad humor, a little darkness. a little Tim Burton-esque weirdness and hyper-stylization (and a super Burton-esque / Nightmare Before Christmas-esque score courtesy of Danny Elfman) ... somehow it holds together and basically works, but it also feels like a movie with a lot of cooks in the kitchen - like no one was sure what, exactly, this movie was supposed to be. That also means that a lot of the movie's most interesting concepts - Chinatown, for example (a town where all of the denizens are made of breakable china) - don't feel as fleshed-out as they could be.
That unevenness also extends to the casting. Some of the casting choices here are just effortless and fit like a glove. Rachel Weisz as Evanora - basically perfect, pretty much iconic. Michelle Williams as Glinda - also completely works and feels exceedingly right. Both actresses disappear into the roles, which is what you want in a movie like this. But James Franco ... he's still pretty much James Franco. I just am not sure that Franco has it in him to play a fantasy character like this convincingly - to lose all of his Franco-ness and be someone else entirely, to be The Wizard. Franco does a pretty good job here, overall. He elicits some big laughs and, mostly, sells the sweeter parts of the film. But he just seems ill-suited to this type of role. Same goes for Mila Kunis. Kunis gives it her all as Theadora, but throughout the film, she still seems like Mila Kunis. There wasn't that timeless sort of quality that a Rachel Weisz brings to the table. Even worse, I kept hearing Meg Griffin whenever Kunis voiced her character post-CGI transformation. Kunis is great in that she has such a girl-next-door, blue-collar quality to her that many actresses don't. But that's not what you need for OZ - you need larger-than-life. And neither Franco or Kunis brings that to the production, and the movie suffers for it.
Despite these complaints, there's still a likability to this new OZ movie that's hard to deny. The visuals are so overwhelmingly awesome that it tends to drown out everything else. And when the movie hits its big, go-for-broke beats in its third act ... man, it really nails 'em. Raimi knows more than most how to hit a home run with those big, crowd-pleasing moments. But as much as OZ was a fun, theme-park ride-esque theatrical experience, I have to wonder what legs it will have as time goes on. Perhaps future entries in the revitalized Oz franchise will ultimately cement this film's place in the larger Oz cannon. And perhaps its legacy will prove to be less about this movie's lasting impression, and more about serving as a gateway to the world of Oz that L. Frank Baum created. The original 1939 film is famous for overcoming a fraught production filled with mishaps, re-starts, and dozens of creative challenges to somehow emerge as a classic. This new OZ may not end up with such a notorious backstory, but it does, more so than The Wizard of Oz and Return to Oz, feel more like the product of the Disney machine rather than a Peter Jackson-style labor of love. Raimi's visual inventiveness and subversive streak shines through, but it isn't quite enough to propel Oz to greatness. Funny, because the entire lesson of the film is that The Wizard must learn to strive less for greatness, and more for goodness. The movie seems to have had it slightly backwards in that regard. Still, there is enough goodness here to make the film worth checking out, and kids in particular will likely get caught up in Raimi's eye-popping adventure.
My Grade: B