Thursday, March 21, 2013

Oz: The Great and Powerful

We're off to see the wizard, because...

Well because the powers that be at Disney have conditioned their lasted offering-- Oz: The Great & Powerful-- as the first cinematic event of the new year, a phenomena that no one associated with The Wizard of Oz could have ever possible imagined when they released their much beloved classic seventy-four years ago.  The powers that be from the force that is Disney (appropriate, I feel for a company now in charge of the fate of Star Wars) appear to have worked their magical sleight of hand, if box office truly means anything about the prowess of the magic of filmmaking, but in this viewers eyes, it's easy to call uncle to their great big and expensive bluff.  Because Oz: The Great & Powerful is not so great nor powerful, but flimsy, derivative and sadly commits one of the worst offenses that bloated, big budgets mega-projects can do: it bores.

Director Sam Raimi, who guided the first Spider-man franchise with the delicate bond of spectacle and humor, at first and foremost seems an odd and inspired choice to revisit the magical land of Oz.  With his elan and glee for macabre, outrĂ© horror sensibilities matched with a gilded professionalism, it's an easy invitation to the hallowed ground that Dorothy and friends famously traveled.  Yet something feels amiss from the start.  Oz opens beguilingly, if not altogether in inspired fashion with a black and white prologue set the Academy aspect ratio.  A beckon, a reminder, but also a bit of an arms-up defense for a film trying to hold a candle to one of the most watched pieces of cinema of all time, while also flailing about on its own terms.  It's Kansas, set about twenty-years before The Wizard of Oz, and we meet Oscar Diggs, a magician/scam artist on the traveling circus show.  The circus itself is named after L. Frank Baum in homage to the original creator of the Yellow Brick Road, whose work to the delight of many a canny businessman has entered the world of public domain.

Diggs, all show with little substance (much like the film that surrounds him) is a shrewd entertainer and one who believes he's destined for greatness, but he's a callow lad, a womanizer, a scoundrel and more than bit unseemly even for the most liberal of wannabe Disney heroes.  He's played by James Franco, in a performance that already feels divisive, and if not entirely worthy of derision, than certainly worthy of discussion.  It's not necessarily the fault of Franco that his Oscar (nicknamed, naturally, Oz) is loathsome, nor is it a terrible performance, but it reads like the cinematic illustration of Franco, the actor vs. Franco, the movie star.  In the right roles (such of 127 Hours and the current Spring Breakers), the ubiquitous and curious actor is granted the freedom to explore the strange facets of his curiosities in interesting, unsettling and ultimately surprising ways, but in the more packaged bits of the Hollywood (like Oz and perhaps his ill-fated gig as Oscar host), the actor comes across sweltered and caged by the cushy confines.  Oscar needs a performer self-deprecating enough to make his treachery and smarmy-ness somehow likeable.  A tall order, especially under the circumstances provided in the less than great and powerful dialogue provided by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire.  Franco is weighted down by the effect, but it would be foolish to point the finger on him.

After a circus skirmish where Oscar's philandering is revealed to an unsuspecting boyfriend, the wizard needs to scram, and quickly.  He hopes into a hot air balloon while in pursuit, when, well, wouldn't you know it-- a twister strikes Kansas taking Oscar to the magical, Technicolor world of Oz.  While comparison is foolish, Oz: The Great & Powerful can't quite help itself, riffing on one of the greatest cinematic moments in history as Oscar enters Oz-- suddenly the film turns into the widescreen spectacle show of color, one of which is certainly a delight and awfully pretty, but also a tad empty.  The sequence diverts into an amusement park ride, something of which is posited as a fun adventure is cynically produced as an attraction, all of which would be fine as a five-minute spectacle in Fantasyland, but unsettling at a moment in a movie where the magic is supposed to hitting its mark.

Again, something feels amiss.  It's not quite the look-- some of the shots and color palette is at times gorgeous and refreshing in its mixture of high tech visuals and just-left-of-perfect effects.  Thankfully the film, boasted as being from the producers of the grisly and ugly Alice in Wonderland, has learned a few lessons on the nature of color schemes for its reinvented plagiarizing of classics.  There's even a wondrous CG creation in the form of China Girl, the best friend Oscar meets whom he certainly doesn't deserve.  What's missing is the spark of character, something of which as the film drags on is never acquired.  Oscar finds himself in Oz and is proclaimed the great wizard that will save the land from the Wicked Witch.  The shallow false prophet tries to exclaim his non-magical prowess, but becomes distracted by the comely come-ons by Theodora the Good (Mila Kunis), a susceptible, emotional witch unsure of her rightful path; at first and foremost nothing matters at all but the eternal love she feels for Oz because of a moonlight dance.

The gravest mistake of Oz: The Great & Powerful and the one argument that feels worthy to get all hot and bothered about is the films characterizations of the witches-- there's three in all that make an appearance, and all of whom bedazzled and aglow with the great and powerful one.  Rachel Weisz plays Evanora, Theodora's older and more suspicious sister, while Michelle Williams plays Glinda.  The cat, I'm sure is nearly out of the bag at this point, but the twist of the story is that one of these ladies will turn green and well, wicked.  The journey to get there is the troubling part, and just in verisimilitude of the great green baddie played by Margaret Hamilton seventy-four years ago feels a bit too hard to buy.  Cast with a messed view of gender politics in a lame sort of Oz-fueled The Witches of Eastwick, Raimi and team puts forth three of the most resourceful actresses currently working in movies, casts them as powerful sorcerers and has each of them consumed by the advances of a gross mortal boy.  Sexism and Disney have gone hand in hand for generations, but even the most distressed damsel they've produced has had a bit more of a spine than these three.  Only Weisz seems to really recover, thanks to her game and camp-tinged line's unfortunate the lines themselves are all raspberries.  Even The Wizard of Oz, which entered cinemas in 1939 reads with a stroke of feminist progress as it presents Dorothy as a sharp, independent adventurer, while both Glinda and the Wicked Witch are great and powerful without the assets of a man.  It's a film that seems to have it a little both ways on terms of female gender politics, as the three main female characters are all strong and independent, while mercifully riffing on one another-- Oz: The Great & Powerful sidelines the three witches as mere props, robbing them even of the power to scold one another.  A better idea might have been if they joined forces to conjure a better script.  C- 

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