Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful Movie Review

Remember when the great advance in film technology was having animated characters interact with human actors? From the simplistic designs of Mary Poppins to the sophisticated effects of Who Framed Roger Rabbit the union of live action and animation was a marvel used sparingly. Today we have Oz the Great and Powerful which is a demonstration of what happens when that technology runs amok.

Sitting through the slow and dull slog of this Wizard of Oz prequel is an exercise in tremendous patience and the ability of the mind to leap beyond the constant thought that you’re watching James Franco and Mila Kunis interact with a fully computer animated world populated by cartoon characters. If you thought the Star Wars prequel trilogy looked like a bunch of fine actors struggling to perform alongside CGI marks, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The existence of a poorly animated flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) as the comic relief alongside Franco’s titular non-wizard is an insult to the costuming, makeup, and real sense of danger that gave The Wizard of Oz such dynamism. Let Disney get their hands on a classic, though, and they’ll turn it into goofy pap. Does anyone doubt that Judy Garland’s sojourn along the Yellow Brick Road is all ages viewing? And that’s with a minimal amount of ridiculous comic relief.

Like The Wizard of Oz, the film begins in Kansas, filmed in plain Jane black-and-white in the 4:3 Academy aspect ratio until a twister whisks Oz (actually named Oscar) off in familiar fashion to the land of Oz as the screen widens and becomes full of resplendent color. Truth be told, the visuals are sumptuous and alluring in a way you would expect to be pleasing to a small child. Of course it’s hard not to recognize that it all seems designed to be a visual treat for the Pre-K crowd. But it all looks so cartoony and absurd. And director Sam Raimi, in his quest to outdo his own Spider Man trilogy, forgot to bring any humanity to the characters, a fault also attributable to screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire. It’s a poor showing when the most human character in the film is an actual China doll (wonderfully voiced by Joey King) who was shattered and then repaired after losing her entire family. She’s not nearly as hollow as the rest of her cohorts, Oz included.

Typically in stories like this it’s the villains that generate the biggest interest, the best characterizations, and the best performances, but not even the icy beauty of Rachel Weisz or the warm nurture of Kunis as the wicked witch sisters bring much to the table either in terms of motivation or empathy. Michelle Williams sleepwalks through a thankless role as Glinda, the Good Witch, originated with maternal sweetness by Billie Burke in 1939. Franco just wanders aimlessly looking lost amid a sea of dazzling brightness and special effects. It’s becoming decreasingly interesting to me to watch actors pretending to have genuine reactions to the green screens that I know they’re playing to. This is a movie during which I was constantly aware of sound stages and manipulation, which speaks to the film’s inability to pull me into the narrative.

Oz the Great and Powerful even fails as a prequel in its delivery of story material that we never had any curiosity about to begin with. Did anyone, after watching Judy Garland traverse the Land of Oz to defeat the wicked witch and win precious gifts for her friends from the Wizard himself, ask themselves, “How did the Wizard get there and how did that witch get to be so wicked?” Of course not! You know why? Because Dorothy’s journey of self-discovery was in her head as she lay unconscious in her bed. The Wizard of Oz gave us “it was all a dream” before it became a worn out narrative crutch used by writers who’d run out of ideas. Oz the Great and Powerful tells us how some dream characters in a work of fiction from 75 years ago got there. Talk about the very definition of low impact.

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