Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
Dir. Sam Raimi

3 out of 5

A prequel to the seminal Hollywood classic The Wizard of Oz isn't as far-fetched as it initially sounds.  The world created by L. Frank Baum sustained a key canon in fantasy literature for decades, not to mention Oz's re-appearance in modern revisionist tales such as Gregory Maguire's Wicked cycle and the wildly popular musical of the same name.  Disney's Oz the Great and Powerful is more of the latter, a big-budget extravaganza that investigates the origins of the Wizard of Oz, imagined as a womanizing circus magician named Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco).  After running into some trouble involving the wife of a fellow carny, Oscar flees the traveling camp and gets swept up in a violent tornado that transports him to Land of Oz, where prophecy foretells of a powerful wizard bearing the name of his kingdom who will return to claim his throne from a wicked witch.

"Witch" is hardly an epithet here - on the contrary, they form a respected civic triumvirate.  The beautiful sisters Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz) watch over the Emerald City and its untold riches, which they promise to Oscar in return for protection from their enemies.  That group happens to include the third witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams), who, in the grand tradition of Disney recluses, is not the terrifying monster she is purported to be.

All of these plot elements point to another prefabricated "prophesied hero's journey" arc, but director Sam Raimi and screenwriters David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner add their own wrinkle by frequently pointing out that Oscar is a fraud, armed with parlor tricks against real magic.  He's a compelling protagonist despite his lack of agency - which only makes it more disappointing to watch a limited actor like Franco struggle mightily in the role.  He shuffles through the film with a stock expression of mild annoyance, reacting to the bizarre goings-on with a mixture of sleepy confusion and abject panic.  (Let's just say that a "green" city surrounded by soporific poppy fields is a fitting home for this particular wizard.)

Despite the anarchic possibilities of Franco actively attempting to troll an expensive, effects-heavy tentpole, Oz gets back on track thanks to the stellar performances of his castmates, including Zach Braff as the voice of Oscar's lowly monkey valet and the dazzling Williams as goodness incarnate.  Her sweet but firm presence elevates the film's second half, which also benefits from Raimi refocusing his attention on sly visual homages to the Oz mythos instead of generic CGI razzmatazz.  The Spider-man director's expertise in darkening the edges of a goofy, family-friendly fairy tale nudge the film closer to the tone of Disney's last Baum adaptation, the 1985 cult classic Return to Oz.  However, Oz the Great and Powerful unabashedly aims for the hearts and minds still captivated by the classic 1939 MGM musical, a pleasure trip to the past that employs just enough flash and humor to transmit the scrupulous moral lessons of Baum's stories to a new generation.

1 comment:

  1. Fine review Eric. Just like the original, there are some elements that kids may be scared by (the flying monkeys are terrifying, even for a 19-year old like myself), but it's still a perfect family movie.