Sunday, March 10, 2013

"Oz the Great and Powerful"

 3 / 5 

Great and powerful is a bit of a stretch, but after the overblown bombast of Alice in Wonderland, expectations for Oz the Great and Powerful couldn't be much lower.  Disney, the studio behind Oz, is  incapable these days of producing a small or modest films, but fortunately Oz avoids the wretched excess of Alice -- though its determination to recall the vastly superior Wizard of Oz keeps it from becoming its own creation.

It's neither a dazzler nor a dud, with some real charms that are often offset by CGI garishness and a plot that contains about three characters too many, all of whom go on for about 30 minutes too long.

For no reason other than to tie itself to the visual rhythms of 1939's Wizard of Oz, the new Oz begins with an elongated prologue filmed in the square 1.33:1 aspect ratio of the original and in black and white.  When it finally segues into color, the effect is not as stunning or surprising as Wizard, in part because movie theaters are no longer staffed with individual projectionists, so the black-and-white footage is framed within the larger wide screen, a dead giveaway that the full screen will come to life once we get to Oz.

Getting there is not as stylish an affair as the 1939 movie, though the mode of travel is the same -- a tornado, this one created not with large fans, miniature sets and a woman's nylon stocking, but with lots and lots of computer power.  So begins a series of visual disappointments that serve primarily to remind us that the tricks of the trade 74 years ago may have been old-fashioned, but they created breathtaking movie magic that all the pixels in the world can't replicate.

Played by James Franco, Oscar ("All my friends call me Oz") Diggs is a circus sideshow magician who  can't marry the woman he loves because he wants to be great -- it's not the most exciting motivation on the order of dreaming of life beyond the rainbow, perhaps, but like so much of Oz the Great and Powerful, it gets the job done.  The woman is one of several doppelgaengers Oz will meet once the twister takes him to that strange land -- and in the style of modern "origin" stories, we learn she's betrothed instead to a man named Gale, leaving us to reason she'll have a daughter named Dorothy, who will go to live with her uncle and aunt ... you know the rest.

Once he arrives in the CG version of Oz, Oz learns more or less immediately that he has long been expected.  He's a prophecy come to life, a man named after the land who will bring peace after a long period of suffering at the hands of two witches who rule from the Emerald City.  They're Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), two of three daughters of the late, lamented King of Oz -- and they want to take over his throne.

They send Oz on a familiar-sounding quest, down a certain road made of yellow brick with orders to find and kill the wicked witch.  Along the way, wouldn't you know it, he meets some odd denizens of Oz who accompany him, but instead of a lion, tin man and scarecrow, this trip is made by a charming china doll (beautifully voiced by Joey King), a winged monkey in a bellman's outfit (voice of Zach Braff) and the aforementioned wicked witch -- who, it turns out, is actually the good one, a perky blonde named Glinda (Michelle Williams), who reveals that it's actually her sisters who are holding the Land of Oz hostage.

Indeed, in a rather complicated plot twist, Theodora's skin turns green, she dons a pointed black hat and cackles a lot.

The psychosexual motivations of the two sisters make for the movie's weakest scenes, and unfortunately there are quite a few of them, along with exhausting computer-generated graphics that are of variable quality -- more than a few times, the actors seem to be running in place, unsure of where they should be looking or what they are running from.

Oz the Great and Powerful labors mightily to square itself with the 1939 movie, which it was legally obligated not to directly reference -- but everything from the tornado to the yellow-brick road, from the Munchkins (they even sing!) to the costumes, from the saturated colors to much of the set design pulls in visual references to The Wizard of Oz so frequently to be almost distracting.

The movie is best when it focuses on the relationship between Oz and Glinda, and her efforts to get him to see that while he may not quite be the all-powerful wizard of prophecy, he is all they've got and he has to believe in himself.  It's a sweet story, well-played by the actors and shot with director Sam Raimi's comic-book-influenced visual flair.

But the genuine humanity infused by the lead actors (particularly Franco and Williams) sometimes has a hard time competing with the epic digital scale of the film.  Oddly, it's a movie about learning lessons and accepting who you are -- but never quite has the courage to be its own creation.

Nothing will ever compare with the relative simplicity, lovely emotion and visual flair of The Wizard of Oz.  While Oz the Great and Powerful makes surprisingly bold efforts to compare itself directly with that film, it simply can't live up to it, and leaves you wishing it had become its own singular creation.

Oz the Great and Powerful is an entertaining recollection of a superior creation.  It is inarguably a loving and sincere tribute, as loud and garish as a Vegas spectacle that certainly gives you your money's worth, it even leaves you wanting to spend even more time in Oz -- albeit with Judy Garland, Frank Morgan and Margaret Hamilton.

Viewed March 9, 2013 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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