Friday, September 27, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful

Directed by Sam Raimi.
2013. Rated PG, 130 minutes.
Cast:
Zach Braff
Bill Cobbs
Joey King
Tony Cox


Oscar, Oz (Franco) for short, is a carnival magician and ladies man only making chump change from his chosen profession. While trying to escape a certain beating, and possible death, at the hands of The Strong Man, Oz takes off in a hot air balloon. Like Dorothy would years later, he finds himself entangled in a tornado which dumps him in a place also called Oz. Immediately, he discovers that the people think he is the wizard that has come to save them from the wicked witch, as has been prophesied. Once successful, he will be named king and be given the royal treasure, a Scrooge McDuckian room filled with gold coins and other objects, both large and small, made of the precious metal. It’s an offer he finds too enticing to resist. In case you somehow haven’t caught on, this is a prequel to the revered classic The Wizard of Oz.

Like the movie it’s leading up to, Oz the Great and Powerful is a visual treat. Yes, there is lots of CGI, including some interesting creature effects. However, it’s the endlessly vivid color palette that dazzles the most. It’s particularly effective early as the movie transitions from the black and white of Kansas to the multi-hued Oz, but manages to remain a source of pleasure throughout. This adds to the movie’s overall sense of fun. Our eyes happily dart around the screen as our adventure bounds forward.

Story wise, Oz gives us a fresh take on characters we thought we knew. Most notable is the evolution of The Wicked Witch of the West, which I’ll not completely spoil if you haven’t seen it. I will say that it adds layers to the dynamics between she and Oz. In all, there are three witches. Honestly though, their work is a bit of a mixed bag. Rachel Weisz fares best. Of the trio, she is the most thoroughly believable. Michelle Williams, perhaps taking it easy after some emotionally draining films over the last few years, is solid but doesn't knock our socks off. Mila Kunis seems to be miscast. She gives a game effort, but it feels like she’s out of her element. Thankfully, she’s nowhere near a big enough detriment to ruin the movie. In the title role, James Franco seems to be having a great time. His enjoyment transfers to us. I am on record as saying I’m not a big fan of his. Still, I found him to be a blast here.


I understand this isn't the most liked film. In some circles, it’s downright reviled. To me it appears to be a victim of expectations. The Wizard of Oz is so pervasive in American culture, nearly every person of every age goes into it with a preconceived idea of what story this movie should tell and how that story should be told. This is an impossible tree to climb. Fiddling with a universe we all know and love will piss some people off. These folks will then declare with absolute certainty that Oz the Great and Powerful is not worthy of being a prequel to the iconic original. And they would be right.

The truth of the matter is Oz wouldn't be a worthy prequel no matter what. The movie that inspired it is nothing less than a national treasure. Think of it this way: it’s the only movie older than the original Star Wars that most people you know have seen at least once. I’m not talking about your small circle of friends and family, either. I’m talking anyone you've ever laid eyes on in real life. In fact, most of them have seen it twice. And it was made nearly fifty years before Star Wars. Living up to such a legacy feels like an impossibility. Yes, I am aware how well received the novel (which I've read) and the play (I've not seen) Wicked are. Trust me, if (when?) an adaptation of that hits the big screen many will cry foul. It might even play for too narrow an audience, depending on how true it stays to its source(s).

Here, we get the wizard drawn from behind the curtain, fleshed out a full of energy. The movie breezes by and looks great. Sure it’s flawed. I’m not saying it’s a masterpiece. I am saying that it keeps us involved enough in the story to keep us engaged. We enjoy the new characters and develop a new understanding of the old ones. Like many prequels, the conclusion suffers from a lack of tension because we already know how it ends. Despite this, it still functions nicely as a stand alone project. Unfortunately, it will never be allowed to actually stand alone. If you go in just looking for a fun flick, you shouldn't be disappointed in Oz the Great and Powerful. Once you start comparing it to The Wizard of Oz, both the facts and your rose-colored memory of it, it will wither and die like The Wicked Witch of the West after a bucket of water has been poured on her head. Don’t pour water on it.


MY SCORE: 7/10

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