Sunday, March 10, 2013

Like: Oz the Great and Powerful

Though I have a friend who may stomp on me for admitting this, I have to own up to never being much of a Wizard of Oz kid.  When I was small, I certainly watched the 1939 classic on several occasions, but L. Frank Baum's elaborate world was a fantasy that paled in comparison, for me, to the Victorian weirdness of Wonderland, or, for that matter, Neverland.  All of this is my lead in to saying, essentially, that there wasn't much chance of Disney's Oz the Great and Powerful insulting any delicate sensibilities of my own.  Where I loathed Tim Burton's over-decorated, Narnia-style mess Alice in Wonderland, I found myself surprisingly willing to suspend my disbelief and take in the scenery of the all too similar Oz.  As walks down the yellow brick road go, it's certainly not terrible.  And, though the film is certainly lacking a bit of logic, a bit of magic, and all interest in 'realism', I have to say: I have no problem accepting it as a contribution to that loosely oriented series.  
Baum published eighteen volumes of Oz tales, and since then innumerable authors have penned stories collected from the far reaches of this so-called marvelous land.  Though the characters continue and the terrain is repeatedly tread, I've always considered the Oz mythos to be one quite open to interpretation and experimentation.  It seems only natural that Disney should arrive on the scene; and for now they've wisely chosen to leave Dorothy alone.  This Oz follows the titular wizard decades prior to the events of the 1939 film.  Opening with a standard 4:3 ratio in referential black and white, we meet Oscar (James Franco), a sideshow magician in a traveling circus. Oscar is   quite the ladies' man - or tries to be - and as he tries to escape a cross section of messy situations, he takes off in a hot air balloon only to get sucked straight into a tornado.  As we know, this is a form of transport that can lead over the rainbow, and, of course, minutes later Oscar is fully immersed in a full-on, CG fantasy land straight off a Lisa Frank folder.   
Oscar meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), a pretty, gullible witch who informs him of a well-known prophecy that states a wizard will arrive to vanquish the wicked witch and take the throne.  Since Oscar is a con man and a liar, he goes along with the charade in hopes of acquiring untold riches.  Soon enough, we've got flying monkey accomplices, talking china dolls, and a whole gaggle of witches who may or may not be conning the con man.  As a family adventure, the pieces add up well enough. The whole world is a spun sugar fantasy, a sun-soaked painting seen through a prism, speckled with glittering light, and rich with a wealth of immaculately rendered bubbles and rolling fog.  It's a charming adventure, and one with just enough narrative ingenuity to keep things moving steadily along. Young viewers, I'd imagine, will fall for this head over heels, especially if viewed in its rather dazzling 3D treatment (quite sure this is the only way to watch a film this fake).

That said, though I liked it well enough as a pretty bauble, as a raw fantasy, there are certainly a few issues.  Specifically? The characters are phenomenally shallow. Perhaps this is a silly thing to comment on given that, well, The Wizard of Oz itself didn't have too much in the way of super-stellar characterization.  Our troupe in that first go was made up of a girl who just wanted to go home, and three other characters summed up largely through single adjectives.  Now, though, we've reached a point where we expect a touch more psychological depth from the characters who populate our fantasies, and there's something a bit too cheekily vapid about these witches and wizards.
 Though Sam Raimi seems to play, at times, with the old school cheesiness of some of the happy-go-lucky elements of Oz, there's something about Franco's smile that never quite suits our collective idea of the wizard. As for the witches? They're a bigger problem. Though Rachel Weisz makes a decent go at the stereotypical baddie, Mila Kunis's Theodora is given an arc the stinks of something I'd have to call misogynistic. Baum, of course, was something of a feminist.  His protagonists, as we know, were almost always female.  With that in mind, the second string placement of all three witches (Michelle Williams's Glinda included) is already an oversight, and Theodora's crushed out fragility is downright frustrating.  Though the film loses a point or two from this writer on those grounds, I can't say I didn't generally enjoy it.  On the whole it was a lavish production, a welcome distraction from the grey days of a Chicago winter, and generally, a pretty decent Raimi flick. So, stuff your face with popcorn, keep 1939 out of your mind, and just take it in. At the very least? The opening credits are worth the price of 3D admission alone.

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