Saturday, March 16, 2013

Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

Consisting of over a dozen books, L. Frank Baum’s Oz books are still probably the most prominent example of pre-Lord of the Rings fantasy, due almost entirely to the continued fame of the 1939 adaptation of the most famous book in the series The Wizard of Oz. That said, due to wildly loose continuity (due primarily to Baum growing increasingly sick of writing them towards the end of his life) so they’ve always been ripe for reinvention and reimagining. The most famous of these is, of course, Gregory Macguire’s The Wicked Years series, which was later adapted into the blockbuster musical Wicked, both of which I’m a huge fan of. But now Sam Raimi has taken his own stab at a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, this time based almost entirely on the movie, and devoted to the Wizard himself.

The story is concerned with Oz, played by James Franco, who you’ll recall from the original movie, is revealed to be a conman using technology to make himself appear to be use magic. At the start of the movie, he is established as an arrogant, selfish, womanizing magician, working in Kansas, who gets transported to Oz via tornado (and yes in case you were wondering, the switch is accompanied by a switch to color, a higher aspect ratio and a ‘you were there’ style of casting) and is taken for a prophesied Wizard, who will destroy the Wicked Witch who has been terrorizing Oz. And since the person taking him for the Wizard is a hot witch (Mila Kunis), promising him a literal mountain of gold, he goes along with it.

The movie is gorgeous looking. The CGI is flawless (with one major exception, which we will discuss in a moment), the costumes and makeup spot on and Raimi’s direction is incredible. The thing is, as much as I love Sam Raimi, I’m not 100 percent convinced he’s a very good storyteller. He’s got some real issues with story and tone, and these problems, more the first than the second, show through on this movie.

The issue is mostly one of characterization. Franco’s Oz is established from the first moment to be a womanizer and, if not smart precisely than at least clever, but he spends the vast majority of the plot being led around by the nose by whatever woman is in the room with him. Sure he’s a fraud, but he doesn’t show any initiative until the end, which I feel is a little weak for his character, especially given how smart he’s shown to be in the 3rd act. Not precisely a dealbreaker, but annoying.

There are some other minor story hiccups; The script is on the weak side, Joey King’s China Girl hangs around the movie a lot without much purpose (aside from being the person we’re worried about getting hurt) and the movie can’t decide if it wants to telegraph a 2nd act twist that I saw coming from the first trailer, but that I’ll be a good sport and not spoil. There are also a few minor problems on the technical department, especially the eventual realization of the Wicked Witch, who looks consistently and noticeably off (to the point where I wonder why they didn’t use makeup, rather than CGI) but the movie still works.

The reason it works, aside from Raimi’s direction, is largely on the cast. Kunis is extremely game for her role and really throws herself into it in the third act. Rachel Weiz is a little flatter, but it fits her character and works opposite…another character’s scenery chewing in the third act. Michelle Williams is clearly doing a riff on Billie Burke’s interpretation of the same character, but she does it well. And Franco, whose personality is really well suited to his character, does a great job as the Wizard. And hey, Zach Braff is in this, I didn’t know that until I saw it. He’s doing a good job too. What happened to him after Scrubs?

I was initially planning on trying to check how accurate the movie is to the Oz mythos, but I checked out as soon as they started talking about King’s (the pre-Wizard ruler of Oz was the Ozma line). I will say though, that the interaction between the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch is quite amusing to me, based on their relationship in Wicked (the book more than the musical, but both…you know what I mean). Either way, accurate to the often fluid Oz mythos, the movie is a solidly put together fantasy movie. I doubt it’ll top anyone’s best of the year list, but it’s enjoyable and exciting enough for what it wants to be, so call it recommended. It’s probably better than most things in wide-release right now.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he kept hoping the talking crows would ask for corn.

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