Release: Friday, March 8, 2013
Somewhere over the rainbow, a new director was buried up to his neck in notes, Munchkins (the kind from Dunkin Donuts, not the ones in the movie) and contemporary revisions to one of the most classic fairy tale stories of all time. Too bad the end result didn’t come out quite as dreamy as the first. Then again, when do they ever?
Sam Raimi takes off for the wonderful land of Oz in his visually dazzling prequel to the 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz. Unfortunately, for a good portion of this ride we still feel like we’ve been left back in plain old Kansas, as far as good acting is concerned. Given the fact that it has been quite a minute since yours truly has seen a movie rated PG, my first thought was to go, “Oh, yeah. They probably can’t do or say such-and-such…” But sacrificing more adult thematic elements for a broader MPAA rating ultimately was not what made this version a weak film. When I refer to “good acting,” I don’t expect Daniel Day-Lewis to pop out of a hedge and astound us with all the research he’s done to become the best possible Munchkin or goblin he can be; a film like this can get away with passable acting from moderately believable characters. You can suspend disbelief for everything else, and heck — why not? That’s the magic many who go to see this film are seeking!
James Franco is the main perpetrator of the lazy acting evident across the board. Mila Kunis plays Theodora/The Wicked Witch of the West, Rachel Weisz is Evanora, and Michelle Williams is Glinda (the Good Witch). Other notables include Zach Braff as the voice behind Frank Finley, Oz’s soon-to-be monkey/assistant; Bill Cobbs plays the Master Tinker; Joey King gets to voice Oz’s other sidekick, the China Doll.
The three witches are painted as rather blank canvasses, although they are never at any point really boring to watch. They’re simply predictable archetypes that fail to conquer any new territory within the genre of make-believe. This little detail is not so much a problem when you find yourself swooning over the incredible CGI and crazy colors. But when it comes time to meet and greet a lost man in a hot air balloon that has fallen into Oz from another very strange place, the dialogue and the acting really must make the elder members of the audience nostalgic for the film of yesteryear.
Back to Franco: as more-or-less the centerpiece for the film, he needs to realize his acting chops have got to be a heck of a lot better than this to sell a movie this well-established. (And by well-established, I mean having 50+ years of being loved by millions.) The more frustrating fact is that we’ve seen him do it before! Franco was mesmerizing in 127 Hours — that one story about the fearless outdoorsman who got trapped in a narrow canyon in Utah and had to cut his right arm off in order to escape and survive. While this was no character study, Oscar “Oz” Diggs certainly has some huge mythical shoes to fill to go from being the outsider to The Great Wizard of Oz. The so-called Great and Powerful has got to step it up a notch for Dorothy to have any interest in journeying to Emerald City with some annoying tin man, a scaredy-cat lion and a scarecrow. Oz’s lines are delivered with such passionless methodology it became dangerously close to being boring. Not to mention, the script was not great either. More than a few times I found myself dumbstruck by the things Oz said; things that certainly didn’t feel true to the spirit of this adventure. I’m not giving these things away, mind you, in the fear I might spoil some of the fascination.
The character of Oz was probably the biggest let-down for me in that I can totally see Franco elevating his performance in this role quite easily had he been given a few extra weeks or months to get it down. Or at least that could have been time enough for him to figure out that perhaps simple character acting is kind of lame. I guess a deadline is a deadline and the actors knew what they were doing. Right???
Beyond my knit-pickiness, I had little else to worry about with this place. Wardrobe, special effects, sound and extras were not a problem. Not in the slightest. The costumes were fanciful, the journey into Oz breathtaking — arguably a high point for children and grown-ups alike — and could have been even more so in 3D. The many extra actors hired as citizens and creatures and other weird thing-a-majigs that inhabit the land of Oz were fine as well. One note about the sound, though. At the time I didn’t notice it, but the film lacked any sing-a-longs, or any real soundtrack that any of us would remember. It didn’t really require it, and since it would be a tough act to follow the soundtrack of the original with, I’d imagine Raimi just told the sound director just to not even bother trying.
Where Oz The Great and Powerful allowed its imagination to run wild, other than the great special effects, was over the course of the journey Oscar had to make from Emerald City and out into the vast expanse of Oz. Tasked with hunting down and defeating the Wicked Witch, Oscar must prove himself to be the Great Wizard everyone automatically assumed he was upon his arrival. He encounters a little monkey, named Frank Finley, who is getting harassed by some nasty (like, really nasty) vines and overgrowth near a forest. Oscar sets him free, thus the immediate and everlasting servitude Frank now believes he owes the Wizard. Later, Oscar and Frank come upon what looks like a war zone in “China Town” (cute, because this entire area is made entirely out of chinaware.) It is here they find the China Doll girl, who’s in some serious trouble and explains that the Wicked Witch had sent her minions out across the land to search for the so-called Wizard who has just come into town, and wherever they don’t find him, presumably the minions get to destroy everything and everyone. That would appear to be the case here, anyway, since she appears to be the sole survivor with a terrible wound. Oscar reluctantly helps her, too and the partnership has become an odd trio. And so we move on down the Yellow Brick Road.
The overarching theme doesn’t require much of the viewer at all. Oz The Great and Powerful teaches one to always believe in him or herself; to believe that there’s something more than that which they see in a mirror. Oscar’s “great” transition from selfish, dirt-poor and misogynistic circus magician to sympathetic, richer-beyond-his-wildest-dreams and being a creative force (in a way that helps more people than just himself) is meant to leave the greatest impact on us. Thanks to Franco’s underwhelming performance and a good deal of contrivances along the way (more spoilers, so I won’t say), the end result is not as profound as Raimi may have expected.
Is it satisfying? Depends on what you’re coming for.
Is it captivating? Sure, the visuals are stunning and may rival things like Avatar, Brave, and Hugo. Mired in visual riches, Raimi’s new vision treats the original with respect by paying obvious tributes with certain plot elements, but more often than not it stays in shadows where it could have been dancing in the sunshine.
Recommendation: I would go and see Oz The Great and Powerful because there certainly have been worse adaptations of great old films. But if you are not a fan of James Franco, I would stay far away since this film will not help persuade you that yes, he is in fact a good actor. Apparently he has his moments. Still, a pretty fun time for most, and the kids are definitely going to be entranced.
Running Time: 127 mins.
Quoted: “I don’t want to be a good man; I want to be a great one.”
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