OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL-- 2 STARS
My personal build-up to the blockbuster Oz the Great and Powerful has been long gestating and evolving on this website. I'm going to warn you right now. I'm going to be hard on it. Just about a year ago, I wrote an editorial on the most desired and long-awaited sequels in Hollywood. While discussing with Casablanca how some perfect movie classics should never be remade, rebooted, or get a sequel, I named-dropped The Wizard of Oz in that same conversation. Like Casablanca, I felt that The Wizard of Oz is a time capsule classic that can't be matched. Sure, it's incredibly dated and today's computerized special effects would likely do wonders to the Land of Oz, but it's relevance can't be topped.
Along the same lines, I wrote a dedicated "New Year's Resolution for Hollywood" (one of 20) in my opening 2013 editorial centered on Oz the Great and Powerful. In that section of the article, written right after the film's first trailer debuted, I shamed director Sam Raimi and Walt Disney Pictures for not being creative enough to hide their warped desire to reboot The Wizard of Oz, with a thinly-veiled prequel. I stated there wasn't "enough sepia and song to match Judy Garland and company." I felt they were tarnishing an "untouchable" classic.
Lastly, while reviewing Jack and the Giant Slayer last week (my full review), I waxed and ranted poetically at my overall disdain on this whole Hollywood trend of beefing up fairy tales into stories and big movies that they are not meant to be. I did so while equally sharing my surprising enjoyment with watching Jack the Giant Slayer. I ended that review hoping for lightning to strike twice in two consecutive weeks with the Oz the Great and Powerful and strong early review buoyed that hope. Sadly, my optimism wasn't rewarded and I learned a new thing about fairy tale movies that I missed (more on that in just a bit).
Not to turn into Bill Maher, but I've got a "new rule," one I pretty much echo every year in those mocking New Year's resolutions I write. When it comes to modernizing the world of a beloved old classic, just because you can, doesn't mean you should. Sure, with highly creative 3D photography and dynamic computer-generated imagery Hollywood can do and create just about anything. They can package and sell it to the masses and make boatloads of revenue and merchandising. However, that doesn't mean they should.
Maybe I'm being harsh and as picky as the Comic Book Salesman on The Simpsons (or a good friend of mine nicknamed Schmoo who is the real-life incarnate of that character), but I found that Oz the Great and Powerful to be a beautiful mess of a movie. It spared no expense to throw so many dumb things together than I learned one new thing that most of these modern fairy tale movies lack that I didn't realize or discuss last week with Jack the Giant Slayer. That element is CHARM. There is little or no amount of tangible charm in Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful.
Charm, the one unifying element that I missed last week and learned this week, is what makes us love and suspend disbelief for a fairy tale. It's what seduces us the first time to believing the unbelievable and fantastical. Charm is what also brings us back, time and time again and any age or repeat viewing, for continued enjoyment of the greatest of written or cinematic fairy tales. When Judy Garland began to sing in The Wizard of Oz or when that door opened from sepia Kansas to colorful Oz, we were hooked by charm. When E.T. bonded with Elliot and shared adventures, we were hooked again. I could go all day giving out further examples of charm from the many classics of Disney and Pixar. The best and greatest fairy tales have charm that the pretenders don't.
The $200 million budgeted blockbuster-in-waiting gives us the origin story of the man who will become the "Wizard of Oz." Culling from a few stories by L. Frank Baum without stepping on Wizard of Oz copyright with Warner Brothers, James Franco (re-teaming with Raimi after their Spider-Man trilogy) plays small-time con artist turned small-time magician Oscar Diggs. Opening in the black-and-white and small-screen ratio homage that is 1905 Kansas, Diggs plays the character of "Oz, the Great and Powerful" for a traveling circus, where he greedily bags coins and unsuspecting women wherever he goes. His only friend is his belittled assistant Frank (Scrubs's Zach Braff). Losing his one decent old flame, Annie (played briefly by Michelle Williams), to engagement and flirting with the circus strongman's wife, Oscar makes a speedy getaway via hot air balloon, only to get caught in an enormous tornado on the prairie.
That tornado and Diggs's plea to clean up his act takes him to land of Oz, revealed to us in a widescreen switch of brilliant colorization. Crashing in this foreign realm, he is discovered by the curious and affectionate witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) who believes Oscar to be the answer to a long-held prophecy of a wizard that will come and rid the kingdom of the evil Wicked Witch and become king. Upon demonstrating a trick to two and saving a kind flying monkey named Finley (voiced by Braff), she falls in love with his grifter smile and leads him to the riches of the Emerald City. There, Oscar meets Theodora's skeptical sister Evanora (Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz) who doesn't quite see his potential within the prophecy. Spoiled by the chance to become filthy rich and wanting to fade his scent of deceit with the two sisters, Oscar talks his way into pledging to defeat the wicked witch and become king.
This quests sends Oscar and Finley on their merry way down the Yellow Brick Road to the Dark Forest to seek out and destroy the Wicked Witch's wand, the source of her power. Along the way, Oscar picks up another companion in the form of a China Girl (Ramona and Beezus's Joey King, who we met in a wheelchair back in Kansas), a living porcelain doll that Oscar repairs from injury after her town (yes, "Chinatown") is attacked by the Wicked Witch's army of "Winkies" and flying baboons. Clearly in over his head, Oscar and his gang are soon rescued by Glinda the Good Witch (Williams again), who takes them to her neck of the woods full of munchkins, tinkers, and "quadlings" to coach Oscar up.
Jealousy among the sisters Evanora and Theodora with Glinda in the picture and Oscar's wavering dishonest affection bring about the full emergence of the true Wicked Witch. One way or another and without being a real wizard, Oscar has to learn to put aside his greed and selfishness and live up to his promises and potential. Only he can make the people believe they can be saved.
If that sounds like a wandering mess, know that Oz the Great and Powerful is exactly that, and I didn't even scratch the surface of the full story scope. Still, I called it a beautiful mess and that much is true. A great deal of money went into the look of this movie. The visual effects, cinematography, makeup, costumes, and production design are off the charts and pop in 3D. Disney got their money's worth in production value. From a technical standpoint, this some of the best 3D imagery this side of Ang Lee's Life of Pi (my full review) and Martin Scorsese's Hugo (my full review) The movie looks amazing and that will get you in the door, but that's where my compliments end.
The hugely awesome visuals are also a crutch for the movie. The final product is bloated and overblown with disconnected set pieces. It is as if the filmmakers are showing off saying "hey, look what we can make" and then saying over and over for the next hour and a half. The movie's need to blow the doors off visually drain the energy from any semblance of a charming story. We get to the point where we are over-distracted by the bells and whistles and forget to care about engaging in the story.
The casting sure doesn't help. James Franco, to me, is completely unconvincing as a either a con man or a redemptive man of smarts meant to save the day. Just like Franco's bad medieval display in Your Highness (my full review), Keanu Reeves 25 years ago in Dangerous Liasons, or seeing Mac-schilling hipster Justin Long in a period piece like Robert Redford's The Conspirator two years ago, no matter how much turn-of-the-century dressing of dialogue or costuming you put on Franco, his sleepy California slacker delivery and Pineapple Express tone emerges every time. Some modern or current actors just can't and shouldn't do period pieces. Franco is one of them. He just doesn't fit the charming (there's that word again) magician type, even playing a fake one. I would have rather seen professional smooth operator and Sam Raimi's favorite muse Bruce Campbell (who, in fact, has a cameo to spot deep in the movie) play this part twenty years ago. Even him now in his 50's, stealing scenes on Burn Notice every summer, is better than anything James Franco pretends to be.
Mila Kunis is no better. On the heels of likeable and perfectly-cast performances of her talent and appeal in Friends with Benefits (my full review), Black Swan (my full review), and even Ted (my full review), I thought her That 70's Show curse (one she shares with Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher's bad casting choices) was gone and behind her. I thought she was done ruining every movie she's in (Book of Eli, Extract, and more) with that Jackie and Meg Griffin voice, ditziness, and blathering. I was mistaken. Like Franco, she can't look or play a period piece and can't take her role where it needs to go. Together, the two of them are a fraction of the fun they were in extended cameos together back in Date Night.
In a slight improvement, Michelle Williams looks the part, but is just so distressingly plain as Glinda the Good Witch. I'm not saying that a 2013 Glinda the Good Witch has to be the queen spunk and cheer to a Amy Adams/Giselle level from Enchanted, but she needs to display a pulse and a personality. She needs be better than a slightly cleaned-up version of the depressing beauty Williams has been playing repeatedly for the last 5-8 years in Brokeback Mountain, Shutter Island, Blue Valentine (my full review), My Week with Marilyn (my full review), and Take This Waltz (my full review). It's like she has to be coached to smile, when she's supposed to be the queen of generating smiles in others.
The only performers fit for their parts are Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff, and a few of the connecting pieces. Weisz is absolutely perfect as the slithering witch with an agenda for jealousy and revenge. She nails what she has to do, but even she can't elevate Kunis. Braff plays affable to perfection and deserved a bigger role than he got (and, by extension, deserves more leading man roles in Hollywood movies since departing television). I'm guessing Game of Thrones Emmy winner Peter Dinklage scoffed at the script (I would to), which meant the casting director went to the next go-to Hollywood "angry elf" Bad Santa's Tony Cox. The same goes for longtime family movie sage Bill Cobbs (Night at the Museum). Dick Van Dyke or Bob Newhart must have been busy.
The final flawed aspect of Oz the Great and Powerful that kills its chance to develop memorable charm is its tone. I'm not saying a 2013 jaunt to the land of Oz has to have endless song-and-dance numbers reminiscent of the 1939 classic or merry midgets coming from all directions. In fact, in one moment where the characters do spring into song, Oscar quickly shoots them down. What I mean is that, for all the big budget style employed to make everything look beautiful, the overall film is too heavy with its roller coaster desire. Too many big set pieces and too high a sound mix, combining every effect in the book while Danny Elfman's wild rumpus score gives chase, bog everything down from letting any gentle moment of charm and wonder manifest and breathe.
While it's not overtly creepy or quirky and shrewd enough to stay PG (something Jack the Giant Slayer missed doing last week), Sam Raimi might as well be Tim Burton Lite, borrowing much of the Alice and Wonderland Disney template. He does what he's told by hitting the familiar spots, glossing up little nostalgic nods, but then blows the doors off of everything else. The big box office opening for Oz the Great and Powerful has netted it a sequel and the next logical target, within a movie or two, is Dorothy and the storyline for The Wizard of Oz we all know and love. I'm grimacing already.
LESSON #1: LIES ARE THE STEPPING STONES TO GREATNESS-- Normally fairy tale movies outline fairly simplistic, common, repetitive, and easy-to-follow life lessons. This first one actually stabbed a little deeper than I was expecting. Oscar's livelihood is based on deceitful lying and trickery. The movie spins a little play on those lies to develop the character of Oscar before the end of the show. We see that if you either tell a lie enough times or believe the lie more and more over time that it just might come true. Oscar just might talk himself into, instead of out of, being the king and wizard everyone thinks he is.
LESSON #2: WHEN PRETENDING EVOLVES INTO CONFIDENCE-- This lesson is another way of looking at Lesson #1 in terms of actions instead of words. Like many shady and reluctant cinematic scoundrels and heroes before him, Oscar pretends to be something he is not and adamantly refuses the monikers, labels, and potential that everyone else sees. However, over time, all that pretending and success rubs off on him and leads to growing confidence, conscience, and character building. While Oscar's rise to glory isn't quite as cool and dramatic as Han Solo, for example, we see that shift and change.
LESSON #3: HOW FAR ONE GOES TO MAKE PEOPLE BELIEVE-- The prophecy of both incoming greatness and pre-existing fear is sunk in heavily in the land of Oz. People are impressionable enough to believe the smallest thing. So, whether it's Oscar's traveling circus theatricality, his shenanigans on a bigger stage in Oz, or, contrastly, the influence and control of the various witches, we see the short and long lengths influential people will go to make the masses believe. You can either call it faith or you can call it gullibility. It just depends on what side of the fence you are on.