Monday, March 18, 2013

Movie Review: Oz: The Great and Powerful

Oz: The Great and Powerful
Directed by: Sam Raimi.
Written by: Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire based on the books by L. Frank Baum.
Starring: James Franco (Oz), Mila Kunis (Theodora), Rachel Weisz (Evanora), Michelle Williams (Annie / Glinda), Zach Braff (Frank / Finley), Bill Cobbs (Master Tinker), Joey King (Girl in Wheelchair / China Girl), Tony Cox (Knuck), Stephen R. Hart (Winkie General), Abigail Spencer (May), Bruce Campbell (Winkie Gate Keeper).

When I watched Oz: The Great and Powerful a few days ago, I did so in 2-D. I don’t really have anything against 3-D per se – although normally, I don’t really think it adds much to the experience – but the time of the 2-D show was just much more convenient to me, so that’s what I saw. While I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder if director Sam Raimi – or any director who works in 3-D these days – considers how the film is going to look in 2-D. Afterall, many audiences will still their work on the big screen in 2-D, and many more will do so over the years on televisions in their own home. The reason why I ask this is that are moments in Oz: The Great and Powerful which were cringe worthy in 2-D – blatant moments where things fly at the screen with absolutely no reason to, other than to give the audience their money’s worth on the 3-D surcharge. There were other bad moments – although maybe they were just as bad in 3-D – where the visual effects seemed off – a moment where Oz and Theodora are running over a hill for example, that simple seemed clumsy.

I wondered these things for a few reasons – for one, they stood out like a sore thumb. For another, the film is directed by Sam Raimi, who is a gifted director, and whose earlier films all had his signature style – a style that shows up in only one shot of Oz: The Great and Powerful (the plants with the eyes, and how they see Oz and company in case you’re curious), but for the most part, Oz: The Great and Powerful has none of Raimi’s fingerprints on it. It could have been made by just about anyone, because more and more of these special effects epics are starting to have a homogenous look to them. The other reason I noticed was much simpler – I was bored. Oz: The Great and Powerful utterly lacks in imagination in its storytelling, and along with the flaws in the visual effects, this made it impossible for me to be swept up in the movie’s “magical world”. The world of Oz in this film is so clearly fake, that it took me out of the movie. An even bigger problem is that the characters seem as fake as their surroundings.

Compare this to the original The Wizard of Oz from 1939. Visual effects have obviously grown by leaps and bounds over the past 74 years – but that’s not necessarily a good thing in every respect. The Oz in the 1939 classic was still a “real” place – everything in it looked as though it could touched and felt, because, of course, it could. Everything in the new movie looks like a computer game. And on another level, although the effects in the 1939 version show their age in many ways, the story is so compelling, the characters so relatable, real and either lovable or hateable, that kids still get drawn into the movie’s spell all these decades later. I doubt anyone will be watching Oz: The Great and Powerful decades from now.

The movie stars James Franco as a carnival magician/con man/womanizer, who while running away from an angry husband, jumps into a hot air balloon and ends up in Oz when a twister hits. The first person he meets is Theodora (Mila Kunis), a witch, but a seemingly good one. She tells Oz of a prophecy of a wizard descending from the sky who bares the land’s name bringing peace to all. And of course said king who be showered with riches. So first Oz seduces her, then they head off to the castle where they meet Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who informs Oz of something Theodora forgot to mention. In order to rein, he needs to kill the “Wicked Witch” Glinda (Michelle Williams), who lives in the Dark Forest. So, with the help of his new flying monkey Finley (Zach Braff), Oz heads into the Dark Forest to kill the Wicked Witch.

If the movie was hoping to surprise us with a role reversal, I doubt too many will be shocked to discover that Glinda isn’t really the Wicked Witch – Evanora is. And because Oz broke her heart, Theodora turns wicked as well. You’re not fooling anyone by having the brunettes be evil, and the blonde being as pure as driven snow.

The bigger problem with the trio of witches though is simple – they are all extremely boring characters. This is doubly disappointing when you think of how the original Wizard of Oz (and all the Oz books) was one of the few children fantasy series to have strong, female protagonists. In this one, they have been replaced by a womanizing huckster, who treats the women poorly – and the women behave as one dimensional stereotypes. I love Michelle Williams – she’s one of the best actresses working today – but she’s not really right for a goody-two-shoes role like Glinda (how they hell they DID NOT cast Amy Adams in this role is a mystery to me).Instead of being sweet, innocent and lovable, Williams is just kind of bland. Weisz is even worse, as she’s one dimensionally evil and obviously so from her first scene. The film never really gives her much to do. I think they tried to make Theodora a more complicated character, but her transformation from wide eyed innocent to cackling super witch is so abrupt that it feels unnatural – not to mention the fact that Kunis doesn’t look natural in green paint – she’s just one more phony looking special effect. James Franco is fine, I guess, as the charlatan wizard, but there isn’t much he can do with the role. At least Zach Braff is an entertaining annoying flying monkey.

In the past few years, I have read more than one piece about how all big budget movies look the same – that they no longer have any style of their own, but all have the same “blockbuster” aesthetic. I still don’t know if I quite believe that – no matter what you think of Nolan’s Batman movies, they are all undeniably his in every way – including visually, and the same goes for Michael Bay. But these type of fantasy movies are starting to run together, and have little to differentiate themselves from each other, and suck all the style from the director. Is there anything in Oz that marks it as a Sam Raimi film? He is a gifted visual director, but here it’s layered under so much candy colored crap it’s hard to tell. Tim Burton had a similar problem with Planet of the Apes (truly, the least Tim Burton-esque of all Tim Burton films) and Alice in Wonderful. It seems to bigger your budget it, they more your film has to look like everything else.

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