A film review by Craig J. Koban March 13, 2013
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL
2013, PG, 112 mins.
2013, PG, 112 mins.
Oscar: James Franco /
Glinda: Michelle Williams /
Theodora: Mila Kunis /
Evanora: Rachel Weisz /
Frank: Zach Braff /
May: Abigail Spencer
I can certainly appreciate what a bold, ambitious, and courageous decision it must have been for director Sam Raimi to helm a long awaited prequel to one of the most beloved films of all time in 1939’s THE WIZARD OF OZ.
relative good news about the long-gestating OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is
that Raimi – who began his career making schlock and awe gorefests like
THE EVIL DEAD and then migrated towards big budget comic book extravaganzas
like the SPIDER-MAN trilogy – manages somehow, against all obvious odds,
to pay both respect and reverence to the Golden Age classic that made Judy
Garland a legend while, at the same time, intrepidly forging a visually
lush and epic modern day fantasy that stands rather uniquely on its own
have called OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL a “spiritual” prequel to the
’39 original, which sounds about right.
The dichotomy that Raimi and company have to maintain here is
daunting: If there was too much oh-and-ah deference to the original then
the new film would come off as a pale and empty headed homage, whereas too
much deviation away from it and people would lambaste the prequel as being
too disrespectful to Victor Fleming’s iconic film.
Yet, Raimi – a self-professed Oz fanatic – understands the
inherent difficulties with tackling such hallowed material that so many
devotees know beat for beat. Crucially,
Raimi’s enthusiasm for both his film its predecessor really shines
through, which helps dilute some of the film’s nagging faults.
THE GREAT AND POWERFUL takes its cues from the 1939 film and, of
course, many of the iconic books by L. Frank Baum, but it ostensibly is
concerned with telling an origin story of the “man behind the curtain”
in the original, the kindly charlatan that is the Wizard of Oz, (played
affectionately by Frank Morgan) and how he came to the mythical land well
before Dorothy Gale dropped by. In
an absolutely beautifully rendered opening act (which pays a loving wink
to the original’s stylistic look), Raimi begins the film in Kansas in
1905, using lush and vibrant black and white photography that’s even
cropped in the old 4:3 Academy ratio (which is how all films of OZ’s era
were filmed). It’s a
compelling aesthetic choice for a modern film, having the smaller scaled
story of Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) shot with such cropped
intimacy, because when he does get whisked away to the magical land of Oz
the film then opens up to the modern day 16:9 widescreen vista that explodes
into vibrant and lush colors. It’s a virtuoso and nostalgic treat for the eyes, which all
but references what happened in the original.
Oscar begins the film – and traverses through much of the story – as a
two-timing fraudster, but at least he acknowledges it.
His magic shows - as part of a traveling circus - are nifty indeed, but
he stiffs his hard working colleagues for a cut of the action, not to
mention that he goes through pretty assistants more than he does socks.
Yet, Oscar is a good man inside wanting to do great things; he just
lacks the compulsion – and the right set of circumstances – to make
such a transition. Well, he’s giving one during a potentially violent
altercation with another fellow circus performer; he manages to escape in
a hot air balloon and gets taken up in a twister that, yup, transports him
to a world of Technicolor and digitally rendered wonders.
he does land in Oz he meets Theodora (the limitlessly photogenic Mila Kunis,
who has never been more
exquisitely beautiful than here), a good witch that welcomes Oscar because
she thinks that he has arrived to fulfill a prophecy to defeat the wicked
witch. Oscar, of course, is
overwhelmed at first, but he becomes tempted by the status and riches he
will receive for such a task, so he agrees to the mission, teamed up while
walking the yellow brick road with a cute flying monkey named Finely (a
really enthusiastic Zach Braff) and a tiny porcelain doll that hails from,
ahem, Chinatown, named China Girl (Joey King).
Along the way, Oscar is giving advice from Theodora’s sister,
another witch, named Evanora (the ageless beauty, Rachel Weisz) and
eventually from Glinda, the same witch that, years later, will mentor
Dorothy, this time played by Michelle Williams.
Glinda sees through Oscar’s lies, but she nonetheless has faith
in him, and everything culminates in a large battle to rid the world of
the wicked witch as Oscar comes to realize the gravity of his mission.
THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is a technological dynamo through and through and
easily garners a sense of awe and wonder in its fantastical sights that,
say, the recent JACK THE GIANT SLAYER
failed to do. The film
utilizes wall-to-wall CGI to deliver a vibe of a storybook fable come to
life that’s pain-stakingly vibrant, lush, oftentimes beautiful to
behold, and very easy on the 3D glasses covered eyes (much like Cameron
did in AVATAR, Raimi really understands
that sparkling and stunning colors play with better clarity in the dimness
of 3D). The multi-dimensional
film makes use of its artifice quite well, especially in the more
obvious in-your-face moments of intrigue or during stunningly low-key
moments when snowflakes cascade down from the sky.
Many have complained that this new OZ lacks the purer simplicity of
approach that its predecessor had. I
can see this point of view, as perhaps more so than in the original, the
extent of the fakery here in superimposing the characters in the Oz
environments is more glaringly apparent, which leaves OZ THE GREAT AND
POWERFUL feeling more sterile and unauthentic looking.
Yet, the sumptuous digital artistry on display takes a life as its
own that becomes more agreeable as the film progresses.
be fair, the performances are a bit muddled and overwhelmed by the
production, Franco –
who took the role only after Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp abandoned
it – certainly can play a duplicitous hustlers in his sleep with a
devilish sincerity; he’s certainly full of over-the-top and boisterous
life in the film, albeit in a just-adequate capacity (one can only imagine
what Downey or Depp would have done with the part).
The actresses playing the witches essentially let the wardrobe and
makeup do the talking; Weisz is fine, although her role is a bit
underwritten, and Williams – one of the finest actresses of her
generation – seems to have a disconcerting Stepford Wife-like glaze over
her face most of the time. Kunis is as fetching as ever and has spunky eagerness, but
her creepy transformation into one of the most iconic green hued movie
baddies of the 20th Century is but a pale shadow of what
Margaret Hamilton did 74 years ago. Her
makeup is bravura, but Kunis screams and bellows her villainous lines more
like a jaded schoolgirl than a truly demonic and black-hearted witch.
Plus, you know you’re in a bit of troubled with the computer
characters are more endearing than the flesh and blood actors.
thing bothered me, like, seriously, why wasn’t OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL
– especially considering our modern day fondness for the genre – made
as…a musical!? One
sly scene that shows the Munchkins introducing their loyalties to
Franco’s Oscar in song form is splendidly old school…that is until the
wizard-to-be tells them to shut up and that singing is not required to win
over his affection.
Granted, there was only so much that Raimi could do here (after
all, Warner Brothers owns iconic rights to THE WIZARD OF OZ, which made
the exclusion of some elements forbidden for Disney, who produced
Raimi’s picture). However,
I still came out of OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL with a level of respect –
albeit begrudgingly - for the film. It’s
a well-intentioned, ultra-stylish and deeply heartfelt Oh-Eee-Oh ode to
the enchanting and impossible-to-top1939 watershed effort.
Raimi’s film lacks the “Over the Rainbow” sense innocence,
whimsicality, and purity of its forerunner, but OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL
is a superiorly helmed and grandly envisioned family entertainment.
Like its title character, the film lacks actual magic, but makes up for it in terms of at least believing in itself.