Tuesday, March 12, 2013

“Oz: The Great and Powerful” Provides Good Family Entertainment

The production designers and special effects coordinators brought their
A game to Oz: The Great and Powerful.
I went in to Sam Raimi's Oz: The Great and Powerful expecting something awful. Despite the talent involved, the trailers made the movie look annoyingly frenetic, and the flying monkey sidekick appeared to continue the Jar Jar Binks tradition of adding a terrible CGI character to a beloved classic.

Fortunately, the movie is nowhere near the trainwreck I had envisioned. On the contrary, it’s actually a majestically beautiful, involving and even heart-felt film that pays homage to the 1939 classic while still offering a fun standalone adventure.
Although the original L. Frank Baum stories are now in the public domain, MGM owns the rights to many of the iconic aspects most associated with this franchise, and so Disney was unable to include references to ruby slippers or any of the classic musical arrangements and songs. However, Raimi and his crew pay tribute to the original version whenever possible.

Most obviously, the film starts in a black-and-white Kansas and concludes with a presentation of gifts. In addition, our hero goes on a journey to kill a wicked witch to get what he desires, during which he encounters several characters reminiscent of people from his life back in Kansas. There are even nods to the melting effect of water, flight via bubbles, and the Gale family, as well as the cowardly lion and scarecrow (but no tin man as far as I could tell).

The narrative basically presents origin stories for both the Wizard and the Wicked Witch of the West, and while it succeeds with the former, the film’s handling of the Wicked Witch is half-baked at best.
Somehow, both CGI sidekicks prove to be positive elements of the film.
As the titular character, Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) gets the bulk of the screen time, and the film effectively portrays his evolution from selfish scoundrel to sacrificing savior. Although he is an egotistical manipulator and two-bit magician, he also looks up to Thomas Edison and aspires to his level of accomplishment. “I don’t want to be a good man,” he says. “I want to be a great man!”
Once in Oz, Oscar meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), a witch whose father once ruled the land before being betrayed and killed. Theodora falls in love with Oscar instantly and takes him to the Emerald City, proclaiming him to be the wizard prophesized to restore peace in Oz and become king. Once there, Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) tells Oscar that he must find and kill her “evil” sister Glinda (Michelle Williams) to claim the throne. However, when he finally finds Glinda, Oscar realizes things are not as they first appeared.
The acting is mostly strong. Weisz and Williams fair best, which is hardly surprising given their impressive credentials and the fact that they basically each have one note to play. Franco, who was only cast after Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp both turned down the role, proves a good fit for the character. The actor has received a lot of attention for his avant-garde career choices and incessant desire to be a Renaissance man with some praising him for his ambition and others criticizing his actions as phony and self-aggrandizing. That dichotomy is perfect for the role of Oscar, and Franco proves a solid anchor for the film.
The miscast Kunis doesn’t fair as well. I’m a fan, but the actress doesn’t excel at portraying menacing evil. That being said, she’s been saddled with an impossible character, whose motivations and mood swings are laughably presented.

Despite that developmental misstep, the rest of the project is a fine-tuned engine. The opening scenes in Kansas are filled with foreshadowing, and the film earns many of its best payoff moments due to the pipe work laid in those early scenes. The production design, score and 3D effects are uniformly excellent. Even the CGI sidekicks – a winged monkey (Zach Braff) and an amazingly rendered china girl (Joey King) – effectively avoid all the possible pitfalls and prove to be integral reasons for why the movie works. B-