Thursday, March 14, 2013

Movie Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

The Oz books by  L. Frank Baum have been a major force of 20th Century pop-culture. Originally published in 1900 the first book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, is part of a fourteen book series that spanned 20 years. To many, the iconic 1939 musical film The Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland, (despite it's inaccuracies to the books) has been the definitive adaptation of the Oz series for over 70 years. Although this was not the first attempt to bring Baum's Land of Oz to life on the big screen. The first was a 1925 silent version of The Wizard of Oz directed by . While there have been a number of popular plays based on Baum's works including The Wiz in the 1970's and the 2003 musical Wicked, as well as several animated features and movies such as the 1985 Disney sequel Return to Oz, this is the first time audiences have been presented with a kind of prequel to the Oz story with the latest release of Oz the Great and Powerful.
Directed by  (The Original Evil Dead Trilogy and the Spider-Man Trilogy) and starring James Franco (Spider-Man Trilogy, 127 Hours) as Oz, Oz the Great and Powerful tells the story of how he came to the Land of Oz and how he would come to be known as "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz". Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs (James Franco) or just 'Oz' for short, is a struggling magician/con-man, working at a small, country carnival, when one day he is swept up in a violent tornado while riding a hot-air balloon. He soon finds himself in the magical Land of Oz where people believe he is the "Wizard" that has been prophesied would save them from the Wicked Witch. When he first arrives, he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), one of the witches of Oz and she takes him to The Emerald City and meets her other sister/witch Evanora (Rachel Weisz). Oz finds out that in order to prove himself as The Wizard, he must defeat the "Wicked Witch" and destroy her wand (although it becomes painfully obvious which witch is which!). As he and his loyal flying-monkey bellhop Finley (voiced by Zack Braff) set out down the "Yellow-Brick Road" they find China Town, a little village where the houses and people are actually made entirely of Porcelain. They find one tiny, injured survivor known only as China Girl (voiced by Joey King) and bring her along as well. Upon entering the Dark Forest they encounter Glinda (Michelle Williams) and realize who the true enemy is, and with the help of the people of Oz, including the Munchkins, they plot to stop The Wicked Witch's reign of terror forever!
Although this film is supposedly based on the "Oz" books and not the 1939 musical (for legal reasons as the Oz stories are in the public domain and the 1939 film including the Ruby Slippers are owned by Warner Bros.), the movie is clearly inspired by many of the images and iconic elements from The Wizard of Oz for obvious reasons. Much like the 1939 film, Oz the Great and Powerful opens up in a sepia tone and even a shorter aspect ratio, but then, upon Oz's arrival to Oz, the film changes to color and wide-screen. Other similarities to the 1939 version include the fact that The Wicked Witch of the West is in fact stereotypically green, and wears all black and a pointy black hat, uses fire and even rides on a broom. Other similarities to the film are scenes where Glinda travels by bubble; we see the "horses of a different color" in a field outside the Emerald City, and not to mention those lovable (and incredibly annoying) Munchkins even perform a musical number (although thankfully cut short by Oz). There is such an overwhelming aspect of sensory overload in Oz the Great and Powerful, with the extremely bright colors, overused CGI effects and the added and cliche use of 3D technology in several noticeable scenes.
As for James Franco, who is the main character of the movie, we get so tired of his lies, fake grin and overacting that the only characters who are even remotely likable aren't even human: that of Finley and China Girl! The sibling rivalry between Theodora, Evanaora and Glinda become such a huge part of the plot elevating to almost "soap-opera" levels that when The Wicked Witch is finally revealed in such an over-dramatic sequence; the only part that tries to present itself as actually scary, becomes laughable. As Mila Kunis' witch character is prominently featured in the movie, she actually comes across as very dull and emotionless, with the confusing hint that she may actually be falling in love with Oz is not very convincing. Knowing this is directed by Sam Raimi, who got his start in combining campiness and horror (which I have always been a fan of), I feel his vision does not really fit the World of Oz as well as it should have. There are many elements in the movie which seem very Raimi-like, from the quick cuts and extreme close-ups during action scenes to even the design of Evanora in her final form reminds me very much of the witches in Army of Darkness (1992) and Drag Me To Hell (2009). Another Sam Raimi trademark is the casting of Bruce Campbell (Ash himself!) in a cameo role as an Emerald City guard! As with the recent Disney version of Alice in Wonderland (2010) I half-expected Tim Burton to do this and even Johnny Depp to play Oz (not surprising that he was actually offered the role)! The addition of the film score by renowned composer Danny Elfman, who was the most obvious choice regarding the world of Oz. Yet while Elfman's music is featured in several of Raimi's movies (Darkman (1990), A Simple Plan (1998), Spider-Man Trilogy) he is also featured in many of Tim Burton's movies as well, which makes it seem that Burton (Wonderland) and Raimi (Oz) are almost becoming interchangeable. Overall Oz the Great and Powerful is a fun and entertaining movie, but had very little substance to all it's overdone CG/3D craziness. For those old-school fans of the original 1939 Wizard of Oz musical, you may be in for a disappointment, but if you prefer the more "hip and modern" take on on Oz such as Wicked, then you might find it enjoyable. As for me, I love Disney movies as well as Sam Raimi's films, but halfway through this movie, I wished I had my own pair of ruby (or silver) slippers to click together wishing "There's no place like home..."