Wednesday, March 13, 2013

An Uneven Trip to Oz Is Still Fun, Even If It Does Feel a Decade Too Late

Oz the Great and Powerful - Directed by Sam Raimi, written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, and Zach Braff - Rated PG

I really should not have watched Oz.  It kind of represents the very films I've been condemning lately.  My most recent post involved asking, or demanding, that Hollywood stop making this movies that straddle the age line in an attempt to make a film truly for everyone.  I also complained about the fact that they seem to all be in 3D and come across as cash grabs.  Despite all of that, I still went to see Oz the Great and Powerful, and, worse yet, I actually liked it.  In my defense, I did point out that Oz was more prequel than revision of a classic story.   
I must stress that I only "liked" it.  I didn't love this film and odds are I'll never watch it again.  But I enjoyed the experience of the film (in IMAX 3D) and found myself lost in it a time or two.  It is not an amazing film or anything, though.  It is confusing in tone at times, parts of it did rely too heavily on CG, and some major roles are miscast.  More often than not, however, the film entertained me. 

The story is basically the origin of the wizard from the original 1939 film (even though this cannot be considered an official prequel because of rights issues between two different studios).  The wizard (played somewhat successfully by James Franco) is two-bit circus performer who aspires to be a great man, but succeeds only at conning gullible women into sleeping with him.  When this leads to problems within the circus, he escapes, only to be sucked into the vortex of a tornado a la Dorothy.  The wizard wakes up in Oz and begins a quest to save the land from a wicked witch. 

As far as storylines go, the film is pretty childlike and lame.  But who's watching this for a story?  All people need to know is that this is not a remake of the original, so don't expect to see the Tin Man or anyone like that. 

Oz is first and foremost a visual film and in that regard it succeeds.  I watched this in IMAX 3D, and I have to admit that I am a sucker for that format.  For one thing, the inflated ticket price makes me want to like it to justify the expense.  Secondly, when done right, it can look amazing.  Oz is certainly not a home run as far as visuals go, but there are enough moments to justify spending the extra money if IMAX is an option.  Honestly, if I had watched this in regular 2D, I would be much more harsh in my judgment. 

The greatest trick Franco ever pulled was convincing Sam Raimi that he looks like he's from 1905.
The visual and the action suffice, but the acting falls short at times.  Franco plays a swindler with a heart just fine and is believable at times, but he still seemed completely out of place, both in Oz and in the real world of the opening.  Look at Franco, does he look like someone from 1905?  I really wish one of the first two actors considered for the role, Robert Downey, Jr. and Johnny Depp, would have taken the part.  Mila Kunis plays one of three witches that could become the wicked witch (Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams are the other two), and she seems out of place, as well.  The rest of the cast is fine, with Zach Braff being the only standout, in my opinion. 

It's hard to get behind this film because it just seems like director Sam Raimi is trying to one-up Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.  To be fair, he does just that, as this film is much more enjoyable.  It's just that Raimi, who is already pretty similar to Burton, should not be doing the same safe, lame work that Burton has relegated himself to.  Raimi would be better suited to stick with film's like his last effort, the sickeningly fun Drag Me to Hell.  On an uplifting note, he has said that he doesn't plan on directing the already green-lit sequel.  And on an even more uplifting note, Raimi has said that he is working on a script for Evil Dead 4, later clarified to actually be Army of Darkness 2.  In fact, many people have noted, and I agree, that Oz is very similar in structure to Army of Darkness.

Which brings me to the biggest source of contention for a film like this: what is it?  Is it a children's movie, a teen movie, or a family film.  I guess I would say it's a family film above all, but it contains elements of everything.  Is it too intense for little kids?  Maybe.  I think the original Wizard of Oz film is more disturbing than this film, though.  (CG flying monkeys have nothing on the 1939 version of a flying monkey...)    Sam Raimi did toss in a screaming witch scene (which seems to be a requirement for each of his films) that could bother some children.  This complaint applies to the humor, also.  Some of the gags are childish, but then there are multiple jokes about the wizard being promiscuous.  Sure, most of it will go over younger heads, but it still felt uneven.

Sure, this flying monkey might look goofy, but I'd still freak out if I saw this thing in person.  CG monkeys don't scare me...
Perhaps the largest part of the audience wasn't looking for any type of film other than a new Oz movie.  Let's face it, it's not like the franchise has been utilized with any regularity (although now I'm sure it is about to be exhausted).  I must admit that childhood nostalgia for that classic film was the biggest reason I bought a ticket.  But this leads me to my potential biggest problem.  I always enjoyed the original because of how each character was a physical representation of elements from Dorothy's real life.  That's fine because she wakes up back in Kansas, having learned a lesson.  So Oz is a place of her imagination.  After a little research, I found out that the film made it all a dream while the books by L. Frank Baum considered Oz to be a real place.  This film claims to be an adaptation of the books rather than a prequel to the film, so it is not beholden to that dream concept.  Okay, but then why are so many characters obviously figments of the wizard's subconscious if Oz is a real place?  The China doll with the broken legs is the wheelchair bound girl the wizard couldn't cure in the real world.  His flying chimp helper shares the same DNA as his real world helper.  There are more examples and each one is played by the same actor in each world.  Kids might not have issues with that, but that question stuck with me more than anything else in the film.  I just find it cheap for the film to cherry pick elements from both sources. 

These problems didn't really occur to me while I watched the movie.  That is the most important thing, I suppose.  Oz the Great and Powerful kept me entertained, and I didn't think of most of these negative things until later on.  Sure, a good movie should hold up under scrutiny, but I still consider it a success if it provided entertainment in the moment...and all in 3D!  I know, I know, the 3D thing is getting old, both the element itself and the complaints about it.  I must admit that this is the perfect film to utilize 3D.  The original film ushered in color in an interesting way, so it only makes sense for this film to begin as a square, black-and-white film only to expand in color and dimension when Oz is reached.  This should have been one of the first new 3D movies.  Maybe that's the problem.  This film should have been released five or six years ago.  Then maybe it would just be considered a fun time at the movies.  Instead, it's a fun time, but the scent of cash grab is still in the air.

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