Saturday, July 13, 2013

Oz: The Great and Powerful

Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox, Abigail Spencer
Running Time: 130 min.
Rating: PG

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

When it's firing on all cylinders, Sam Raimi's The Wizard of Oz prequel, Oz: The Great and Powerful really works. And when it isn't, it doesn't. The film's a success whenever it's attempting to find inspiration from the classic 1939 MGM film and a failure when looking to the Star Wars prequels for it. While this isn't quite as flawed as that, it still earns that comparison through some clunky dialogue stretches and an overkill of unnatural looking CGI effects that frequently overwhelm the integrity of the production. It helps there's at least some narrative riches from which to draw, even if the filmmakers and Disney were legally and creatively hamstrung by having to adhere strictly to L. Frank Baum's Oz novels instead of the classic film, which Warner Bros. owns. But whatever issues exist shouldn't be pinned on James Franco, whose entire persona seems perfectly matched to the title character and his story arc, which is surprisingly well executed. And he doesn't even give the best performance in the film. Looking down the credits, it's easy to guess who does, but even that wasn't a given in this situation. Despite feeling almost achingly mainstream to a fault, nothing seems completely "safe" when you're messing with cinematic mythology. The movie definitely has problems, but still has enough virtues not to dismiss entirely.

In a clever visual callback to The Wizard of Oz, the movie opens in black and white in Kansas in 1905. Oscar "Oz" Diggs (Franco) is a struggling, small-time magician in a traveling circus known under his stage name, "Oz: the Great and Powerful." But he's hardly either, earning a reputation as a lying, egotistical charlatan who not only weasels and cheats his way through performances, but verbally berates his loyal assistant Frank (Zach Braff). He's also a serial womanizer, seducing a local girl (Abigail Spencer) helping with his show and rebuking his former flame Annie (Michelle Williams), who's now engaged to another man. But when Oscar escapes a precarious situation in a hot air balloon, a tornado transports him to the Land of Oz, where he's mistaken by a smitten Theodora (Mila Kunis) as the "Wizard" who's arrived to overthrow the Wicked Witch. As the opportunistic Oscar plays along with the ruse, Theodora's sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) is more skeptical and has her sights set on destroying Glinda The Good Witch (also Williams).

Many would claim that the the movie's strongest section is the black-and-white Kansas prologue and when Oscar arrives in Oz and the picture fades into color, things just aren't as interesting as it flirts with being just another overstuffed spectacle. While it's tough to completely disagree with that, I'll at least give credit where it's due to Raimi for wisely cribbing that famous color transition from the 1939 classic, even if it can't possibly carry the same impact. As a setting, his version of Oz is problematic in exactly the same way most of these imagined movie universes now are with no one looking like they're actually a part of their environment. The effects resemble a video game and it's plainly obvious the actors are working against a green screen to the point that it almost took me right out of the story. Then after a while I got used to it, despite this being a classic case of more being less and material basically begging for simpler, more practical effects. If the intention was for Oz to look and feel like a real place, then it's fair to say that's the film's biggest failing. The one effect that undeniably does work is the China Doll character voiced by Joey King, which realistically resembles a porcelain doll and displays a whole range of childlike mannerisms and facial expressions that never look and feel anything less than human. Finley the monkey isn't as digitally well rendered but Zach Braff turns in some inspired vocal work.

Between the effects and some of the exchanges that initially take place between Oscar and Theodora, it's hard not to think of the Star Wars prequels with Mila Kunis acclimating herself about as well (or as poorly) as Natalie Portman did in that franchise, tripping over some clunky dialogue. Franco, however, has the right idea and plays Oscar in his classic James Franco laid back style in which he seems almost amused by the lines he's delivering. The result is almost comparable to his stint hosting the Oscars, except this time while awake. In this particular setting, that works and he certainly doesn't shy away from playing him as a slimy jerk with only a few redeeming qualities. It's kind of a great performance, and unlikely we we'd have the movie we do without it since he does get you to at least care about the character, regardless of his likability level.

The marketing team went to almost extraordinary lengths to conceal the identity of the Wicked Witch in what turned out to be the worst kept secret since the twist in The Crying Game. To be safe, I won't reveal anything other than that the actress is thanklessly asked to do a full-on imitation of Margaret Hamilton's iconic performance in the 1939 film and fares better than expected considering what she's up against. It's easy to argue that when that somewhat complicated transformation takes place and Glinda arrives on the scene the movie really starts to find its footing. But more accurately, it's the unmatched Michelle Williams, who's made her career starring in smaller, artsier projects that probably don't cost half as much as the catering on this one, coming to the rescue in a capacity we've rarely ever seen her in. It almost takes a bit just to wrap your head around it, but her crossover into "movie star" territory is as awesome as you'd expect it to be. Alleviating any potential concerns her skills would be wasted trying to elevate fluffier, more mainstream material, Williams speaks every line and delivers each gesture as Glinda as if she not only understands exactly what she's saying and doing, but actually believes it deep within her soul. Her warm embodiment of pure goodness and optimistic charm provides the perfect contrast to Franco's character, acting as his guide on the journey and bringing the story full circle. It's largely because of their scenes together everything eventually comes together in a semi-satisfying way.

Considering the legal restrictions, it's a miracle this film was made at all and a credit to the source material that it still very much feels like an Oz story, even with the absence of key elements we tend to directly associate with it. And yet it still kind of doesn't. I mostly blame that on the technology, which somehow looks worse than it did in 1939 because it looks better. If that makes any sense. With a relatively strong script and two great performances it's hard not to wonder how good this could have been if it wasn't Disneyfied within an inch of its life and the not so special effects didn't look so awful. But we already have that movie. It's called The Wizard of Oz. Williams and Franco are the primary reasons to see this but considering you can pretty much see any other project of theirs at random and extract greater value, that's just not enough. Of course, I'm not in the target audience for this anyway so it hardly matters. For all the little details Raimi got right, he got the big thing wrong. The sense of magic and wonder we all associate with Oz is at least partially missing because it feels like it was made by a committee more concerned that everything look and feel expensively fake. And that's just too big a big hurdle to clear when attempting to resuscitate a property with a history as substantial as this.         

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