Tuesday, March 19, 2013

'Oz' the Forgettable and Adequate

My biggest fear was that Oz the Great and Powerful would be another Alice in Wonderland. For those of you who don't know, I hold Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland as one of the very worst movies I've ever seen in my lifetime. So when I heard Disney had recluted Sam Raimi to direct their prequel to The Wizard of Oz, I felt like history was repeating itself. Just like Burton was once a creative and unique voice that has become a cardboard version of himself in recent years, I was afraid for Raimi, who has directed such delightfully energized movies like Evil Dead and Spider-Man 2. Thankfully, my biggest fear didn't come true. Oz the Great and Powerful is not a terrible movie, but I also wouldn't call it a good movie. I guess it is just ok. The kind of movie that entertains you while watching it, then you forget about it the minute it's over. 

Even if I have some major problems with the movie, there are three things I really liked about Oz. Let's start with the good stuff. First of all, the movie starts out with an amazing credits sequence, which I would dare to say is going to end up among the best 3D-sequences of the year. Secondly, there's a couple of supporting characters, one a winged monkeys voiced by Zach Braff, the other a china doll voiced by Joey King, that even if they don't stand in the same league as the iconic companions Dorothy had in The Wizard of Oz (who could?), are lovable in their own right and provide both a lot of humor and a lot of heart to the story. I sympathized with these animated characters more than with any of the humans. Third, I liked how the movie manages to keep a pacifist message by turning the largest portion of the "final battle" into a game of wits. This is something that you rarely see in movies, where it's usually all about fighting and killing the bad guy. The way the heroes of Oz fight the evil witch, stays true to nature of the main character and the fact that the good people of Oz were established as peaceful fellows.

Now, in order to address my problems with the movie, let's talk a little about the plot. And I'm going to go into some spoilers, but not really, since not only is this a prequel (sort of) to one of the most beloved movies of all time, but also based on century old books that are in the public domain. The hero of this story is the wizard himself, Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco), who works as a carnival magician in Kansas when he is transported by a twister to the magical Land of Oz. Now, because of copyrights and that kind of thing, this movie is technically not a sequel to the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. The people at Disney worked really hard so that no image infringed the original movie's copyright, which is held by MGM. There might not be enough detailed iconography for MGM to sue Disney, but nobody is going to watch Oz the Great and Powerful and say that the movie doesn't go out of its way to add callbacks to the 1939 film. 

One of the ways the movie recalls The Wizard of Oz is in its prologue sequence, which takes place in Kansas and is shot in black and white. Not only that, but it also establishes a Wizard of Oz-style scenario in which the Oz meets in Kansas pop up later once he is transported to the magical land. Michelle Williams, Zach Braff and Joey King all pop up in this sequence. My big problem with this is not so much that it is a callback to the earlier film, but that having these characters pop up doesn't particularly make sense in this story. The Wizard of Oz was framed as a dream-like fantasy that may or may not have taken place in Dorothy's head, making the appearance of the Kansas characters in Oz logical in the dream scenario. When the same thing happens in Oz the Great and Powerful, the dream scenario is set and never answered, since Oz doesn't really go back to Kansas or "wake up from his dream" until the end of The Wizard of Oz. So, is he or isn't he sleeping? Does the Land of Oz exist in a shared-dream space? What is exactly going on here? All this logical confusion could have avoided if only the filmmakers weren't so keen on alluding to the 1939 classic (Something that is, in my opinion, just crazy. How could they live up to one of the best movies of all time?).  

I can let this confusing attempt at connecting two movies that aren't technically connected slide, but there is one aspect of Oz the Great and Powerful that sinks the movie for me, and that is the arc of Mila Kunis' character. I guess it's kind of a spoiler to say this (except to anyone who has read L. Frank Baum's original book), but Mila Kunis plays the Wicked Witch of the West. We first meet her as Theodora, tough, as she helps the Wizard get to the Emerald City. She falls in love with the Wizard, then feels betrayed by him once he sides with good witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) and thanks to a little manipulation from her sister Evanora (an incredibly campy Rachel Weisz) and turns into the Wicked Witch that we all know. 

Now, the arch of James Franco's Oz, is that he is a selfish man that learns to be a good man after his adventure. This is all well and good until you take a look at the way Theodora's arch is handled in comparison. This good witch turns evil in part because of Oz's womanizing ways. The idea of our hero being part of this character's downfall is incredibly powerful as a dramatic element, which is treated horribly by the movie. It's not like the filmmakers didn't know what they had in their hands, since all of these ideas are alluded to by the film, then shoved to the side or handled awkwardly and quickly. When our hero finally learns his lesson, the thought of Theodora's tragedy couldn't leave my mind. Everything is even more problematic when you take into account the romantic relationship between Oz and Glinda.  

Score: 4/10

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