Friday, March 08, 2013

Zaki's Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

James Franco as the Wizard of Oz

The last time director Sam Raimi, one of the most talented visual voices of his generation, tried his hand at a big budget blockbuster, this happened. And so, with the unfortunate, unplanned end of his post-facto Spider-Man trilogy proving an unsatisfactory experience both for him to make and the audience to watch, it's entirely understandable that the one-time Evil Dead helmer decided to move as far afield from the webslinger's big city turf as possible when seeking out his next blockbuster opus, Disney's Oz the Great and Powerful.

But while the director does his best to invest his trademark visual flair into this (*cough*unofficial*cough*) prequel to MGM's 1939 screen adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, that flair is largely subsumed by sumptuous, empty calorie excess. Oz is less a personal statement than it is a checklist of blockbuster "to-dos." It trades on the audience's long-entrenched familiarity with the original film's redolent imagery (re-imagined here in glorious high-def 3D) but relies on that familiarity to forgive the absence of little things like character and depth.

Oz the Great and Powerful stars a game (if completely miscast) James Franco as Oscar Diggs, a ne'er-do-well con man who masquerades as a the magician "Oz" in a traveling circus in dustbowl-era Kansas, with a line for every occasion and a girl in every town. When one of his ill-planned hustles involving a strong man's girlfriend catches up to him, Diggs escapes the suffocating 4x3 confines of Kansas in a hot air balloon, and after an encounter with a wayward twister, is deposited into the technicolor landscape of Oz (a.k.a. Pandora-lite).

Once there, he makes the acquaintance of Theodora (Mila Kunis), a witch of indeterminate goodness, who informs him that he's the fulfillment of a long-in-coming prophecy involving some business about a wizard dropping from the sky bearing the same name as the land. It's all very convenient. Anyway, before long, Oz makes the acquaintance of Finley, a flying monkey voiced by Zach Braff (what is it about James Franco and talking monkeys, anyway?), and sets off on a certain Yellow Brick Road toward a certain Emerald City and a meeting with a certain good witch (Michelle Williams). Will he pull off the ultimate con, or will he perhaps learn a lesson about heroism and leadership? I wonder.

I mentioned earlier how Franco is miscast a role that calls for equal parts smarminess and world-weariness to really sell it. Think of a young Bill Murray, or even the man who was originally being courted for the role, Robert Downey. As it is, Franco feels like he's sitting at a distance from the proceedings, never fully engaging. It's as if he's playing dress-up in his dad's clothes.

When caught in his hot air balloon in the middle of the twister, his plaintiff cry to the heavens that he'll change his ways if given a chance should be a revelatory moment, but instead it just feels empty and removed. And the complaint about age-appropriateness doesn't stop at Franco. It can also be lodged at the two love interests duking it out for Oz's affection, Kunis and Williams, both of whom feel like little kids marching through roles intended for grown-ups. Of the human cast, the only one who seems to "fit" is Rachel Weisz as scheming witch Evanora.

In fact, "empty" and "removed" are pretty apt descriptors for everything we see. The CGI landscapes are at once rich & lush (especially in 3D), but also cheap & fake. We go through the motions as we're introduced to a variety of characters in the "real" world of Kansas, who we've been conditioned to know will turn up later in a different form. And Zach Braff (as Oz's long-suffering assistant) was there! And Michelle Williams (as a woman who loves Oz but is engaged to a man named "Gale"...hmmm) was there! We've been down this yellow brick path before, so it's less about making any new statement than it is about firing the neurons of familiarity.

Michelle Williams as Good Witch Glinda
And maybe that's enough for some, but for me it can't help but be disappointing. There's a fascinating story buried somewhere in here about the many-layered cultures of the land of Oz.  What their society is like, how it's stratified, etc. Heck, author L. Frank Baum got 14 novels out the premise between 1900 and 1920, and director Walter Murch unleashed squeezed the deliciously dark, criminally overlooked Return to Oz in 1986. Unfortunately, for the public at large, their knowledge of Oz begins and ends with the 1939 film, and it's that depiction that Raimi's sticks closest to.

As a result, like Oz the character, Oz the film is afflicted with a kind of schizophrenia as it tries mightily to determine precisely what kind of story it wants to be -- a romp or an adventure -- and doesn't quite land at either. Although it tries mightily to populate the screen with elaborate feasts for the senses, Oz the Great and Powerful is boxed-in by the narrative tropes of its forebear. Like its main character, it's ready to go with light, sound, and spectacle, but it's all just an elaborate facade for something altogether ordinary. C-*

* (Except for the monkey. Loved that monkey. Give him his own movie.)

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