I don’t think I’ll break any hearts when I say that the first quarter of 2013 has been a massive shit buffet for movie fans. I know it’s standard for wide releases to suck during awards season, but these past couple of months have been flat miserable. Critics and movie geeks all over the country were scrambling to find an underappreciated gem, a worthwhile movie to recommend, or any kind of honest silver lining to be found in multiplexes, but it’s been tough going.
Thankfully, all of that is past and the month of March is upon us. Ever since the shocking commercial success of 300, this has been a window for strange and unusual films (by mainstream standards, at least) that could go either way in terms of quality. This year, the March/April season was kicked off by 21 & Over, The Last Exorcism Part II, Phantom, and Jack the Giant Slayer. All of them bit the dust.
I was most disappointed by Jack the Giant Slayer, as that film had the largest budget, the best pedigree, and the most studio support. By all appearances, that should have been the film to shake off the awards season blahs. But then I remembered: That was just the appetizer. Right away, I should have known the reason why WB put Jack where they did: They clearly wanted Jack to get its chance at a big opening weekend before today’s film came along to wipe it off the map.
Oz the Great and Powerful is a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz,” starring James Franco, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, and Mila Kunis, all under the direction of goddamn Sam Raimi. Heaven knows the pedigree is there, but you’d be forgiven for questioning the wisdom of making an Oz prequel in the style of Alice in Underland, and trusting the Evil Dead guy to make it. But with each successive trailer, the folks at Disney made it abundantly clear that they and Raimi were not dicking around. The trailers were absolutely gorgeous, with countless amounts of money and manpower oozing from every frame. Just look at the flying monkeys, for example: Those are clearly the flying monkeys we all know and love, yet they’ve somehow been made scarier and more feral, reborn through modern Hollywood magic and Raimi’s demented imagination.
Of course, there’s another problem facing this movie, and it’s the same one that potential Oz adaptations have faced for decades: The Wizard of Oz — the 1939 Judy Garland classic directed by Victor Fleming — is one of the most iconic movies in cinema history. It’s what shaped the popular concept of Oz, despite the fact that it was a notoriously piss-poor adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s original book.
In theory, anyone can adapt Baum’s work, as it has since gone into the public domain. In practice, any adaptation of Oz would have to address the 1939 film and its current status as an asset of WB. Anyone who did otherwise would inevitably have to deal with headaches from people who never bothered to actually read the source material (“Silver slippers? What happened to the ruby slippers?”). Alternatively, filmmakers could sidestep around the legal complications and present the 1939 iconography as best as possible without tempting lawsuits.
Not surprisingly, Disney went with option #2. I’m not even kidding when I say that Disney’s army of lawyers combed through every single minute detail of this production, looking to curb any possible reason for a lawsuit from WB. Seriously, just read this.
Anyway, let’s get back to the previous question: Is Oz the Great and Powerful better than Jack the Giant Slayer? In my opinion, yes. Though that’s hardly saying much and it should be perceived as faint praise.
Let’s start with what the film gets right. First of all, the film looks absolutely gorgeous. Even during the film’s black-and-white segment, Raimi was smart enough to tint the film ever so slightly in places that needed an extra dramatic punch. It’s subtle, but it’s there and it’s very effective. Additionally, the segment is presented in a claustrophobic aspect ratio, though some of the film’s effects and props are so fantastic that they literally burst through the screen’s borders. It’s a very clever touch.
Then, when we go to Oz and the screen’s borders open up… I know you’ve seen that in the film’s trailers, but that one simple moment never gets old.
From the very first, I was blown away by Oz. It’s bright, it’s colorful, it’s vibrant, it’s magical… it’s absolutely everything that Tim Burton’s Wonderland should have been. Moreover, the production design, costume design, visual effects, and sound design are all nothing short of masterful. On a technical level, this film is simply sterling.
Special mention must be given to the 3D effects. Whether you love them or hate them, they were made an integral and indispensable part of this movie’s presentation. Personally, I think that this film serves as a phenomenal example of how 3D can make a film more immersive when it’s done right. I can understand how tempting it is to go with the 2D option, but I guarantee that you’ll regret taking that option before the opening credits are done rolling.
Additional kudos are due to Danny Elfman, who apparently decided to kiss and make up with Sam Raimi after their reported creative differences on Spider-Man 2. I’m really glad they did, because Elfman turns in one of the best scores I’ve heard from him in a very long time (and that’s saying a lot!). From start to finish, Elfman’s sensibilities blended together beautifully with Raimi’s sensibilities and the fantastic world of Oz. His music left me awestruck through the whole running time.
Finally, I must tip my hat to Master Raimi himself. Casual moviegoers might only see a beautiful film bursting with creativity, but cinephiles will know that this is just Sam Raimi with 3D and a massive budget. His old habits — strange camera angles, abrupt cuts and camera zooms, a sick sense of schadenfreude toward his main characters, etc. — may be muted, but they are all unmistakably there. His sensibilities remain nicely intact in spite of all the fancy trappings, and the film is better for it. Very nicely done.
(Side note: In case you’re wondering, Bruce Campbell and Ted Raimi were both given their due cameos in this film. But they’re both under heavy makeup, so good luck spotting them.)
Moving on to the actors, I must say that this cast had me very impressed. Most of them do quite well with what they’re given, but I consider Michelle Williams to be the MVP of the bunch. When I saw Williams on the screen, I saw beauty, innocence, hope, courage, faith, wisdom, and everything else that’s good in this world. She took the role of Glinda and succeeded in making it her own. Considering how iconic this role is, I can give no higher praise than that.
Next up are Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis, respectively playing the sisters Evanora and Theodora. One of them starts out as an evil witch, and the other one turns into the Wicked Witch of the West as the film goes on. I won’t spoil which witch is which, though I’m sure you could make a guess based purely on their wardrobes.
Anyhow, these actresses both play to the cheap seats in this picture. They chew scenery like it’s no tomorrow, making no attempt to hide the shallow nature of these characters. You’d think this would be a point against them, but come on. One of them is so evil that an entire town celebrated her murder, and the other one is the goddamn Wicked Witch of the West. There is absolutely no point in trying to underplay these roles. It can’t be done.
(Side note: You might be wondering how either of these beauties could possibly be turned into the hideous green witch. Did I mention that the makeup effects in this movie are really good?)
Then we have the leading man himself, James Franco in the role of Oscar. It should come as little surprise that this remarkably talented actor does a fine job of playing an ambitious and charming con artist. He does very good work with what he’s given, but I’ll get to the screenplay’s failings in a moment.
The leading cast of this movie is solid. The side characters, however, are unfortunately weak. Easily the worst offender — and the greatest misuse of talent — is Zach Braff, voicing a little winged monkey named Finley. This character is so annoying and unfunny that the whole film would have been better if he was mute.
We’ve also got Joey King, whom you might recognize as young Talia al Ghul from The Dark Knight Rises. In this film, she voices an unnamed girl made entirely of fine china. Naturally, this means that she’s very weak and prone to break if she so much as trips. She does pass the “treasure test” during the film’s climax, so I’ll grant China Girl that much. That said, she’s a dull and unmemorable character whose main purpose is to beat certain emotional lessons into the protagonist (and the audience) with the subtlety of a rock candy sledgehammer.
Of course, there is one thing that Franco, Braff, and King all have in common: They got screwed over by what passes for a script. The film credits Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards and Into the Blue 2: The Reef) and David Lindsay-Abaire (who somehow went from Rabbit Hole to Rise of the Guardians) as its writers. Based on those credits I listed, perhaps you can understand why they were poor choices to script this project.
This film’s screenplay is lazy in just about every way possible. It’s got false drama, predictable storytelling, plot holes the size of Kansas, pathetic attempts at humor, you name it. Aside from one or two funny jokes, it’s not an exaggeration to say that every single line of dialogue falls flat on the floor. Franco had me with his depiction of a womanizing con artist, and then he lost me with a long and boring monologue about Oscar’s desire to be a great man. Franco was trying, bless his soul, but he could not save that godawful monologue.
As for plot holes, I’ve got two favorite examples. One of them comes near the start of the third act, when the Wicked Witch of the West goes to threaten Oscar and all the people he’s protecting. She says that they’re all dead as soon as her sister and their army arrive. For extra measure, she crows that Oscar will be the first to die.
Say it with me, I’m sure you all know the words: SO WHY NOT KILL HIM NOW?!
The second example… well, I’m loathe to go into detail for fear of spoilers. Suffice to say that by the end of the film, the Munchkins are all intimately familiar with Oscar’s bag of tricks. Everyone in Munchkin County knows his brand of stage magic and they know exactly how it works.
So either the Munchkins still think that Oscar’s a wizard, despite their advanced knowledge of his technological prowess, or an entire town can keep the secret that Oscar isn’t really a wizard. Either way, I call bullshit. Anyone with half a brain would call bullshit.
Last but not least, there’s the movie’s thematic material. The film seems very big on faith and determination, but it’s all wishy-washy lip service that never really says anything specific or goes anywhere new. Perhaps more importantly, I don’t think the film did quite enough to adequately punish Oscar for his lying and heartbreaking ways. Then again, I suppose he has to stay a humbug for when Dorothy catches up with him.
Oz the Great and Powerful is a gorgeous film that sadly rings hollow. This film had the perfect cast, the perfect director, the perfect composer, and a whole team of talented individuals bringing Oz to life in an inspired way. In other words, this film had absolutely everything except a screenplay. All they had to do was bring on one competent writer to take another pass at the screenplay and it would have been great. As it is, the pitiful storytelling and the pathetic dialogue bring this whole film tumbling down.
Even worse, this is very much an “all-or-nothing” kind of movie. You have to see it in 3D on the biggest possible screen, or there’s just no point in seeing it at all. If pretty visuals are enough for you or your kids, get thee to the multiplex this instant. If you’re looking for a 2013 film with a decent narrative, keep looking.