Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Cinema File #133: "Oz, The Great And Powerful" Review


We live in a world devoid of magic. 

In film, where once we were able to sit back in quiet amazement and watch as cinematic magicians took us on a guided tour of fantastic worlds once thought beyond our imagination, now we have...CGI on a set covered in green fabric. Perhaps it was too much to hope for that one of my favorite directors, and one so well known for his love of practical effects even as he lives and works in an industry that has all but abandoned them, might have been the one to restore some of that bygone mystery and majesty. If I picked up on the themes and metaphors right, Oz, The Great And Powerful seems to be as preoccupied as I am with the way film making has changed since the universal classic upon which it is based, and while it certainly does its bare minimum job of being entertaining, it left me wondering if I should let go of what little hope I have left of a return to the good old days.


The story follows Oz, the two bit charlatan from Kansas last seen as Frank Morgan's man behind the curtain in the 1939 film upon his first arrival in the land that strangely bares his name, riding a hot air balloon into a tornado and finding himself the prophesied king of this magical realm, provided he can use his magic to bring peace to its people. There is a moment in the movie just before we leave the drab black and white world of reality and enter the land of computer generated wonder that is a perfect example of why I ultimately walked out of this film so crestfallen. As Oz' balloon basket hurdles to what he assumes must be his death, he is assaulted by a barrage of wooden shards from all sides in a brief action scene clearly reminiscent of the mad cap carnage seen in The Evil Dead films as Ash's body was dragged through a gauntlet of branches. The thing is, that was real wood hitting Bruce Campbell in the face repeatedly, and watching James Franco do his best to imagine the very fake wood attacking him and dodging nothing, just made me...well, sick.


I know that in large part this isn't Sam Raimi's fault. I can't blame him for acquiescing to a modern zeitgeist that has left 80's rubber monster junkies like me behind, but unless I'm misinterpreting or reading too much into it, this is a movie that seems to be trying very hard to get me to fall in love with the magic of movies again, which makes the reliance on soulless modern technology all the more depressing. Oz is a showman put in the position of putting on the greatest show of his life, but the smoke machine he sits in isn't bellowing smoke at all, and the man behind the man behind the curtain is just some guy at a computer screen. Back when we were kids watching the original Wizard of Oz, movies really did feel like magic. Even later, when we grew up and understood nominally how special effects worked, the explanations always seemed just a little bit incredible. Being told that they could fabricate something like Jaws or the T-Rex from Jurassic Park and make it look as real as they did, surely they must simply be leaving out the part about the voodoo spell needed to bring everything together. Now, there is no voodoo, nothing incredible. At this point, asking me to believe again is kind of insulting, and the thought that movies like this are illuminating the minds of children nowadays is positively chilling.


To its credit, for a movie of its time, as much as I hate movies of its time, it is a generally entertaining story that will please most unassuming people with its heartfelt and family friendly atmosphere. Its pablum, but its upbeat and colorful and exciting enough to carry you through to the end where good triumphs over evil and a happily ever after is had by all. I want to talk about the good things, but for me, they only highlight the bad. In Oz we have the prototypical Raimi-esque protagonist, a lovable con man in way over his head. The story is right out of Army of Darkness strangely enough, which made me wish that Raimi had made this back in the late 80's or early 90's with an age appropriate Bruce Campbell as the lead and a world built from scratch instead of pixels. The idea of magic tricks applied to warfare in a fantasy setting has potential, but it takes the magic out of the world far too much. Seeing inanimate scarecrows and clockwork tinkerers without tin men to make, when I could have seen an army of living cloth and metal soldiers square off against flying monkeys and those Oh We Oh guys, seems like an obvious missed opportunity.


Also, the casting leaves much to be desired. I tend to like James Franco in more understated performances, but he just can't pull off the sweeping flourish of someone like Oz. Every time he slips into his charlatan spiel and tries to affect a voice with gravitas, it sounds like a little kid playing superhero in the backyard. Mila Kunis is good as the witch in the beginning when she gets to play the innocent ingenue, but once she goes mean and green, I just don't buy her as maniacally evil. Rachel Weisz is a little better as an antagonist, but fades into the background far too fast to make way for her partner in crime. Zach Braff plays a comic relief Flying Monkey who provides some of the funnier lines, but gets old before the end, and Joey King is the voice of a little porcelain girl who is sweet to the point of being manipulative. I should highlight Bill Cobbs as the Master Tinkerer who was surprisingly lively considering I actually thought he had died years ago, and I commend the use of actual little people for the Munchkins as opposed to the Snow White And The Huntsmen creepy face transplant thing.


Overall, Oz, The Great and Powerful feels like Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland without the overt terrible-ness. It is a CGI extravaganza easy on the eyes and the brain that looks as pretty as it does hollow. To be fair, I think the Alamo of big budget fantasy movies with substance fell long before this, and I guess I'll take well made fluff over poorly made fluff if I have to. Of course, the other classic thing about movies that they can't take away is that I don't have to, and neither do you. If you're a huge Disney-phile, I'm sure this will be right up your alley, but otherwise, just go watch Return To Oz if you want a continuation of this world worth seeing. That claymation Nome King is worth a whole army of CG flying monkeys any day of the week.

This image from 1985 is cooler than anything in this new movie.
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