Tuesday, April 23, 2013

"O" is for Oz - The Great and Powerful

 Allow me to begin with a seemingly unrelated anecdote: the reason I was hesitant to write a full review of The Hobbit last December was that when I found myself describing it to friends, I almost always began by saying "well, it's not as bad as you've heard it is." Beginning a review from a defensive position is tricky, and I find it's much more helpful when you have the benefit of time and context to help support enjoying a film with strong assumptions about its quality or lack thereof (see Retro Reviews of Tron and Dazed and Confused, both of which refute the most common stereotypes surrounding the films.)

 Meanwhile, movies that are more recent exist in the echo chamber that is the internet, where everything sucks more than it might actually and movies that are considered to be very good to great will also suck in a year's time*. So movies that are good but not great or that generally succeed in being entertaining for the target audience - let's say, kids - from directors held to impossibly high standards are therefore "total crap" and "a waste of time."

 And so the Cap'n finds himself in the unenviable position of explaining to you that while Sam Raimi's Oz - The Great and Powerful is nowhere as good as we thought we deserved, it's still a mostly harmless bit of Disney-fied Raimi as anyone should reasonably expect. Considering that trying to make anything tied to The Wizard of Oz without anything specifically trademarked in the MGM film (which, let's be honest, is where more people base their knowledge of Oz than Baum's novels), it's an admirable, if flawed, end result.

  Being that it's a prequel, I'm guessing you know that Oz - the Great and Powerful doesn't have Dorothy or the Tin Man or the Scarecrow or the Cowardly Lion (well, the latter two in a form you'd recognize, anyway) but it does have a young version of the Wizard - Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a carnival con-artists and serial ladies man who finds himself in the wrong hot air balloon during the wrong tornado in Kansas and ends up in Oz. You might have heard of it. He meets three witches - Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and later, Glinda (Michelle Williams) - one of whom will be a Wicked Witch of the West by the end of the film. Can you guess which one?

 SPOILER - It's Glinda. Totally Glinda. Those bubbles are toxic, man.

 Since Oscar isn't the Wizard we know yet, that means he has some adventures with characters not appearing in that other Oz movie (and also not that OTHER Oz movie or the OTHER OTHER OZ movie - sorry Tik-Tok and Pumpkinhead), so we meet some other Baum characters or variations thereof, like Finley (Zach Braff), a talking money who wears a bell-hop's uniform, and China Girl (Joey King) who is thankfully not a racist stereotype but is instead a little girl made of china. Also there's Knuck (Tony Cox), who I mention because it amuses me that the only thing he really wants to do is play a fanfare and nobody will let him.

 They have adventures, etc, and then Oz becomes the Great and Powerful by slaying the Jabberwocky... wait. Wrong Disney reboot of a famous children's novel turned movie. Actually Oz - The Great and Powerful manages to resolve itself without a huge battle, which puts it a notch above similar relaunches of crap that was for kids but is now bad-ass action (Snow White and the Huntsman, Jack the Giant Slayer, Alice in Wonderland). There's some ingenuity and good old fashioned misdirection to Oscar's plan that logically places him where we remember the Wizard from that other movie we can't see the likenesses of characters from. Hence the "sexy" Wicked Witch.

 I know, I know - I'm making it sound as bad as you assumed it was. The truth is that Oz - The Great and Powerful does a few things very right and plays it safe in a lot of other ways, and the end result is pleasant but mostly forgettable. It's summer popcorn fare a little bit earlier than usual and I suspect children love it. Good for them. It's not a timeless classic but it's a LOT better than I was expecting considering Alice's Adventures in Narnia is its spiritual ancestor in this round of "what property do we have people remember fondly?" If Oz - The Great and Powerful HAD to happen, this is at least a better version of it than I'd anticipated. There are some nice homages to the film done within legal parameters and I appreciated the Academy Aspect Ratio that opens the film (black and white, full frame, not sepia. We don't want to upset the ghost of Louis B. Mayer!)

  Also, when you compare it to the Raimi-produced Evil Dead remake, Oz - The Great and Powerful is a LOT better!

 Speaking of Evil Dead movies -  I'm not sure why people are clamoring so much for Army of Darkness 2 when it seems pretty clear to me that, like he did from Evil Dead to Evil Dead 2, Raimi remade the film and Disney slapped a different title on it. Make no mistake, were this film to star a younger Bruce Campbell and not James Franco (The Ape), you'd be wondering why Ash was fighting flying monkeys and non Deadites. But how, you ask? Allow me to explain:

 Both Army of Darkness and Oz - The Great and Powerful have a protagonist who is basically a good guy but who has some serious character flaws. Both are sucked through a vortex to another time / place and they immediately agree to the assumption that they are the great savior everybody has been waiting for. They take advantage of this for a brief period of time before being sent off on a quest that will rid the land of evil, and subsequently fail to do what they set out to do (yes, the reasons are different, but stick with me). They rally a small group of willing locals to fight a witch they were somewhat to directly responsible in creating and use modern science to overcome their foes. The only difference is that one leaves and the other one terrorizes a lion he will one day bestow courage onto. Also another witch turns into the "Raimi Hag" after being defeated, and will eventually be crushed by a house.

 (I couldn't find "The Classic" but have heard it's somewhere in there, despite the fact that Raimi's Oldsmobile would stick out like a sore thumb in turn of the twentieth century Kansas or in the land of Oz)

 I'd like to point out that I disagree with the common held argument that James Franco is wrong for the Oscar Diggs / the Wizard but that Robert Downey, Jr. (initially cast) or Johnny Depp (approached after Downey left) would have been better choices. While hating James Franco is almost as in vogue as hating Anne Hathaway or Kristen Stewart, he brings the right kind of sleazy but affable charm to the role. I like that he has his con man act down, and he's a non-threatening sort of lothario - charming but ultimately incapable of much more than skipping town.

 Robert Downey, Jr. has, for all intents and purposes, been showing us what his version of Oscar Diggs would be like since Iron Man - and to be frank, his presence would be overpowering in this movie. He's sweep in to Oz like a human tornado, chewing the scenery and owning the place from the moment he arrived, and it would, quite frankly, rob the reveal of "the Wizard" at the end of much of its power.

 Similarly, bringing Johnny Depp in would for Oz - The Great and Powerful into one of two directions - either Oscar Diggs would end up an eccentric when the audience desperately needs a protagonist who is closer to normal or we'd end up with the toned-down Johnny Depp of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, a leading man he was never meant to play. You bring in Depp for eccentricity, because when he plays the straight man or is forced to carry a film like this without being quirky, it collapses on itself.

 Not to mention furthering the connections between Oz - The Great and Powerful and The Tim Burton Players Present Alice in Wonderland, which already share a studio and producers. So hate James Franco all you want, but shy of Bruce Campbell circa 1993, he's as good of a choice as Raimi could make.

 Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Oz - The Great and Powerful's tangential connection to Disney's other Baum-inspired film, the traumatizing Return to Oz. Is Return to Oz a better movie? Well, it certainly elicits a stronger reaction from me than The Great and Powerful did, but that's because it scared the living daylights out of me as a child and some of the imagery (the hall of heads, the Mountain King) continue to haunt the recesses of my memory. Oz - The Great and Powerful mostly plays it safe instead of opting to give children nightmares, but one aspect of the film that I think gets overlooked is that it's still very much a Sam Raimi film - just in a context we're not necessarily used to seeing it.

 You need to wait no longer than the hot air balloon scene in the tornado to see the love that Raimi has to torment his leading man, as sharpened stakes of wood come at Diggs from every direction with ferocity and a sense of cruel glee coming from behind the camera. It continues throughout the film, after Diggs lands in Oz, although Raimi saves a bit for Bruce Campbell (who apparently managed to make it into the opening credits by spending the 60 seconds he has on screen by being beaten by Tony Cox with a stick). As I mentioned before, the return of the "Raimi Hag" was a nice surprise, although how I could have forseen him making a movie with witches and NOT including that, I don't know.

 For a film about goodness and light or some crap, the man in the title never really drops any of his misleading ways, right down to the establishing of his iconic throne room (I guess MGM couldn't prevent that one from happening, although the ruby slippers, Munchkins, and Flying Monkeys are absent or changed considerably). He's still a charming scoundrel, one that scared off one truly wicked witch and one that was basically evil because of him. While you can go home happy with your children, there's an undertone of cynicism in the film that I don't think gets attention.

 Since most of you will probably Redbox or Netflix Oz - The Great and Powerful (I can't believe I just used both of those as verbs), the hyperbole of internet complaining will be softened and you might even enjoy it. It's a trifle of a film, to be sure, and I'm not convinced we need more of these movies (don't tell Disney that), but it's honestly not as bad as you've heard. In fact, sometimes it's pretty good, or at least better than okay.

 Can you choose something better? Of course you can - there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of fantastic films out there just waiting for you - but let's be honest with ourselves. We all like a little mindless popcorn fun every now and then, and this isn't going to ruin your day with nit-picking or insultingly stupid narrative decisions. And it's Sam Raimi, so if you're going to make your case that I should watch Evil Dead because his name is attached, the least you can do is meet me half way.

* True story - while reading the comments under a review of Oblivion, I learned that Wall-E is over-rated, that Tron Legacy is better than Prometheus, and that Wall-E ripped off Short Circuit, therefore Wall-E sucks. Also that Wall-E is shit and everybody hates it just like Christopher Nolan fuck that guy.

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