Oz the Great and Powerful
Director : Sam Raimi
Screenplay : Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire (story by Mitchell Kapner; based on the works of L. Frank Baum)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2013
Stars : James Franco (Oscar “Oz” Diggs), Mila Kunis (Theodora), Rachel Weisz (Evanora), Michelle Williams (Annie / Glinda), Zach Braff (Frank / Finley), Bill Cobbs (Master Tinker), Joey King (Girl in Wheelchair / China Girl), Tony Cox (Knuck), Stephen R. Hart (Winkie General), Abigail Spencer (May), Bruce Campbell (Winkie Gate Keeper), Ted Raimi (Skeptic in Audience), Tim Holmes (Strongman), Toni Wynne (Strong Man’s Wife)
The last time Disney ventured into the Land of Oz, it was 1985 and the company was in dire straights, its fortunes so muddled and dimmed from its glory years that the decision makers were actually considering the idea of shuttering the company’s animation division. The result was Return to Oz, a bizarre and incredibly dark sequel to The Wizard of Oz that discarded the candy-hued Technicolor of Victor Fleming’s 1939 musical masterpiece in favor of something much more sinister (one example: within the first few minutes of the film, Dorothy has been shipped off to a mental institution and is being threatened with electroshock therapy to get rid of all those pesky “memories” about her adventures in Oz).
Oz the Great and Powerful is an entirely different beast altogether, as it is clearly the product of a Disney corporation that is so powerful and successful that it now owns not only the entire stable of Marvel super heroes, but the Star Wars franchise, as well. Of course, they can’t own L. Frank Baum’s world of Oz because it’s not up for grabs, having fallen into the public domain years ago. However, with Oz the Great and Powerful, Disney is clearly angling to make the fantasy world its own while also appropriating as many elements of the 1939 MGM musical as possible without directly stepping on any legal toes (wrangling with lawyers has ensured that the film isn’t promoted as a true prequel to MGM’s classic0, although, for all intents it purposes, it most certainly is, which is perhaps the film’s canniest sleight of hand).
Tribute to MGM’s Oz—which includes actors playing dual roles on either side of Kansas/Oz divide and strikingly familiar set designs evoking the yellow brick road and the Emerald City—begins right at the beginning, as the film opens in sepia-toned black-and-white and in the Academy aspect ratio, to boot (Fleming didn’t have the option of shifting to ’Scope widescreen once Dorothy discovered she wasn’t in Kanas anymore, an additional visual flourish that director Sam Raimi gets to exploit). The year is 1905, and we are introduced to a two-bit carny illusionist named Oscar Diggs (James Franco), who promotes himself in a travelling circus as Oz, a great wizard, although his showmanship is primarily a lot of bluster and he saves most of his chicanery for wooing naïve local girls with fabricated stories about his dead grandmother’s prized musical box. The fact that Oz is an emotionally distant, unrepentant lothario immediately establishes the stakes of his potential redemption, which unfolds once his hot air balloon is sucked up into one of those pesky Kansas twisters and he is deposited in the Land of Oz.
Once there, he becomes embroiled in a power struggled between three sister witches—bright-eyed, open faced Theodora (Mila Kunis); sultry, scheming Evanora (Rachel Weisz); and eternally optimistic Glinda (Michelle Williams). The land of Oz is without a ruler, and the arrival of Oz the carny huckster is believed to be the fulfillment of a prophecy, a possible mistake that Oz is only too happy to indulge, especially since it gets him into Theodara’s good graces and also gives him access to the mountains of gold in the Emerald City’s vault (the image of Oz gleefully sliding down a hill of golden coins plays against the scene in Kansas where he drops his meager earnings into an ashtray for counting). As Dorothy will years later, Oz also picks up some travelling companions: Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), a flying monkey in a bellboy’s suit, and China Girl (Joey King), a diminutive, sweet-voiced china doll whose family and village have been wiped out by the Wicked Witch (both of these characters have corollaries in Oz, with Braff playing Oz’s long-suffering assistant and King playing a little girl in a wheelchair who begs Oz to heal her during his show).
Given that Sam Raimi’s cinematic career began in 1982 with Evil Dead, an anarchic horror-comedy held together with twine, red food coloring, and as many tricks as he could muster out of his creaky 16mm camera, it is not surprising that he would be attracted to Oz the Great and Powerful, whose climax is nothing if not a celebration of technological ingenuity and the powers of persuasion. Seeing Oz working with various denizens of the fantastical land he is about to call home to conjure up not magical spells, but rather mechanical gimmickry that is one part Thomas Edison and one part William Castle is clearly aimed at movie aficionados who delight in the magic of clanky contraptions. It is a supreme irony, of course, that Raimi’s film is such a clear product of the digital age, its vast visual splendor produced almost entirely out of 1’s and 0’s inside banks of computers. To his credit, he gets a great deal of mileage out of the CGI at hand, and he pays proper respect to the visual inventiveness of a different era by making certain backgrounds look like traditional matte paintings and actually making gimmicky use of 3D by throwing things at us from the screen. He also reserves the right to incorporate just enough of his gooey horror-comedy to remind us that Oz comes courtesy of the same director who made Drag Me to Hell (2009) and not just the Spider-Man blockbusters (I am thinking particularly about a bunch of snapping carnivorous flowers and a last-minute witch transformation that is genuinely horrific).
Unfortunately, Oz the Great and Powerful never fully takes off, partially because it is weighed down by a somewhat awkward central performance by James Franco, who constantly feels removed from the film (one could only imagine how it would play if they had cast Robert Downey, Jr.). Franco never seems entirely comfortably in the role, as if he isn’t sure if he should be playing it straight or ironic. The other actors fare much better, particularly Weisz, who conveys an increasingly nasty sense of entitlement, and Williams, who has the unenviable role of making Glinda the Good something more than a chirpy innocent (Williams manages to invoke the vocal cadences of Billie Burke while slyly suggesting that her character’s sanguinity is something of a performance). That the female roles are the most memorable is intriguing since Oz the Great and Powerful, which was written by Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards) and Pulizer-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole), is arguably at heart a broadside against male chauvinism, as Oz’s self-serving manipulations de amour—his greatest illusion prior to saving Oz—are single-handedly responsible for the creation of the green-skinned Wicked Witch, one of moviedom’s most memorable villains. It turns out that it takes little more than a jerk’s broken promises to make a good girl go really, really bad.
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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