Saturday, August 17, 2013

Review: Oz: The Great and Powerful

It seems, based on passing mentions of him here and there, that the James Franco backlash is well underway. I thought he was likable and pleasant in the few things I've seen him in (obviously I haven't seen Spring Breakers), and I'd include Oz: The Great and Powerful on that list too; he's essentially the one consistently above-average factor in this mostly mediocre Huge Disney Event. So whatever the backlash is due to, I'd be mildly surprised if it was his acting.

That's not to say Franco is perfect for the role of the Wizard. He's charming and invested, and though the CG sidekicks' voice acting was solid, none of the other human cast did nearly as well as Franco at reacting plausibly to the fantastical goings-on. That said, Franco's "carnival showman" persona feels forced—which may have been intentional, but an actor with a little more genuine power and menace would have suited the character better, especially near the end. Franco also speaks and behaves in too modern a fashion, which I wouldn't mind if it wasn't so obvious that Oz is trying to directly act as both prequel and homage to The Wizard of Oz. Surely some young actors somewhere are capable of '30s-style speech and acting—but perhaps not the most marketable young actors.

Which brings us to two of the film's biggest dead weights, Mila Kunis (Theodora) and Michelle Williams (Glinda). You know that thing that happens where otherwise talented actors, when thrust into situations where almost everything else in the shot is CG, adopt a vacant, static facial expression, most often right before the camera moves off them? That happens a lot in Oz, and mainly to these two. Williams has little to do besides exuding an otherworldly aura, which she more or less achieves, but blandly. Kunis's performance seems even more modern than Franco's, and while she looks great, she seems lost and out of place a lot.

To my surprise, the same was true of the usually-dependable Rachel Weisz. She, like the others, has a few solid moments, but too often she doesn't seem to know what's going on in her character's mind. Or maybe she does, but she was directed to be needlessly opaque.

The script doesn't help these actors out any, to be fair. For one thing, the fact that three of its four name actors are women makes Oz's total failure at the Bechdel test seem almost defiant. And more fundamentally, making Theodora's barely-plausible feelings of betrayal act as the main motivating factor of the plot has the foul stench of weaksauce. (I guess its flavor is weak, but its smell isn't. What am I, an expert on metaphorical sauces?)

Plus, like so many movies of its type, the oppressive sense that we're simply being led by the nose from one FX setpiece to the next harms immersion. At times, Oz does break free from this bad habit. I particularly liked the scene introducing the little china girl (the best effect in the film) and her town—a Sam Raimi Oz movie needed, at minimum, a glimmer of real Return to Oz-style darkness. And the ending, where too many big tentpole extravaganzas deflate, is mostly satisfying and impressive.

So as a family fantasy, Oz is certainly less of a disappointment than, say, Johnny Depp's Alice in Wonderland. But of course, being a worldbuilding nerd, I felt compelled to extrapolate some of what this prequel tries to establish. (Skip this paragraph if you don't want spoilers.) First off, the Wizard seems to have set up a situation whereby he has to live in near-total isolation for like thirty years, since all the citizens think he's evolved beyond his corporeal form or whatever. That might be bearable if his girlfriend Glinda (A) isn't going to get sick of his shit eventually and (B) uses some magic to keep him sane with the occasional clandestine vacation. Moreover, the two wicked witches are totally let off the hook—obviously to allow the events of Wizard of Oz to take place, but some more convincing set-up of this would've been nice. As it is, the Wizard gets a (very tacked-on-seeming) line where he offers Theodora a chance at redemption—my guess is Disney wanted a prequel-sequel. And what would that be like? The Wizard, cloistered in Emerald City, dispatches Glinda and other allies in attacks against the wicked witches that are predestined to result in yet more non-comeuppance? And who's looking after the South? What's the South gonna do now that Glinda's moved up north? And who's gonna stop the Munchkins from singing now that the Wizard's totally immobile?

I should also mention—and based on Men in Black 3 I'd wager we can blame the original 3D release for this—that on 1D home video, some of Oz's effects look quite fake. Well, c'est la vie; they all keep saying 3D isn't going anywhere, so I guess we'll just take our medicine whether we like it or not, and live with the side effects.

I seem to recall Oz not being all that well received. Certainly, expectations would have been high, and Oz fell short of arguably most of them. I hate to blame Sam Raimi; I'd prefer to blame studio interference. Yet for all its visual style and obvious expense, Oz seems to falter most where the rubber meets the road: actors making the story and setting seem like something other than a rear-projection cartoon. And since these actors are obviously talented, one wonders if the direction is what went wrong.

Yet the first Spider-Man (also Raimi) beat the odds in a way Oz didn't. And Spider-Man wasn't Disney. So I can blame studio interference!

Star Score: 2.5 out of 5

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