22 March 2013

Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

(Dir: Sam Raimi, 2013)

I'm curious as to how much a love of The Wizard of Oz affects enjoyment of Oz the Great and Powerful, or more specifically, how much a love of that original movie amplifies enjoyment of this new film. I don't have much of a history with The Wizard of Oz - I probably last properly saw it in my early teenage years and at this point remember very little aside from the key aspects that have seeped into cultural cognizance. It was a film I merely saw as a kid, not one I loved. Thus I approached this return to the magical world of Oz with little anticipation and no vested expectations. 

Set twenty years earlier, the story finds carnival magician Oscar Diggs, aka Oz (James Franco), caught in a hot air balloon over Kansas during a tornado. Somehow he is whisked to the magical world of Oz, which is stuck in the throes of an evil queen, yet the people await a prophecy to come true that will see a wizard named Oz one day arrive to save them - and maybe this is him? He meets three witches and reluctantly embarks on a "magical" journey. 

Franco is a confusing leading man here. On the one hand he has the classic look and charm you'd expect of a man from the early 1900's, mostly thanks to the smile he's not shy of flashing, yet there's something irritating about him amplified by an emptiness. This emptiness is perhaps inherent to the character's transient con man nature, but for a film like this it doesn't make for a very engaging lead to hang onto. Far better are the witches, or at least two thirds of them. Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams both seem perfectly suited to their characters. Williams' Glinda is a beautiful, loving, calm witch - the epitome of a good witch if you will and suitably enchanting. Weisz's Evanora is more complex and she seems to have more fun playing up the character. Then there's the third witch, Theodora, played by Mila Kunis who is not good here. I usually find Kunis a decent enough actress but here her performance is entirely one note and feels horribly stilted. Any attempts at emotion don't work and she just comes across like a pretty face with no depth, that is until the scenes that involve a lot more make-up which destroy her beauty and enhance the blankness of her acting. Considering she is arguably the most important witch here it's something of a problem.

A lot of effort has gone into creating the magical world of Oz and thanks to the wonders of digital technology it's far more detailed than previous visits. Thus we're inevitably presented with CGI overload and it's not a particularly enticing dish. There are too many times when actors look like they're standing in front of a green screen (was production rushed to meet the set release date?) and the whole world just generally feels fake rather than magical, not aided by the artificially bright sheen. The most effective uses of CGI come from the digital characters Finley, a flying monkey voiced by Zach Braff, and China Girl, a literal tiny girl made of china voiced by Joey King. Both have important supporting roles to play in the story and the advances in character animation ensure they work pleasingly. It seems a very obvious approach, but shooting the opening real world scenes in a traditional black and white 1.33:1 ratio before opening up to bright, colourful 2.35:1 once arriving in Oz proves very successful. These black and white scenes are actually some of the best in the entire film, mostly because they present an intriguing story and ground the film.

The thing to bear in mind is that Oz the Great and Powerful is a Disney family film, which although directed by Sam Raimi feels like it could be directed by anyone as the entirely predictable plot meanders on. That's not to say it's devoid of merit or totally unenjoyable - the final denouement is really well handled for example and I'm sure there are a plethora of satisfying links back to The Wizard of Oz. But for a film nearly entirely set in a colourful, magical world, it's disappointing that the best scenes are in the black and white real world. There are moments of mild humour which lighten things but the attempts at foreshadowing seem even too obvious for a family film. Weisz and Williams are the best things about Oz the Great and Powerful, everything else is merely just ok at best. 

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