Friday, March 28, 2014

Film Friday: Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

I am generally a fan of remakes of The Wizard of Oz. There is something universal and compelling about that film which almost invites people to remake it in different contexts or settings. That said, few (read: none) of the remakes have been very good. So I was intrigued to hear they planned to do the prequel to The Wizard of Oz. This sounded like it could hook into the desire to see a good remake while avoiding the pitfalls of actually remaking a great film. Unfortunately, Oz The Great and Powerful was doomed by a series of bad choices which just made it excessively dull.
The Plot
Oz The Great and Powerful is the prequel to The Wizard of Oz. The story begins with the Wizard (James Franco) a carnival magician, being sucked into a tornado. He is in a hot air balloon for reasons that take fifteen minutes to develop and which you absolutely don’t care about. Naturally, he crashes in the Land of Oz. Once there, he runs into Theodora (Mila Kunis), a naive girl with hidden witch powers. She immediately thinks that Franco is the wizard of a local prophecy: one who will come and free them from an evil witch. Theodora believes the evil witch is Glinda (Michelle Williams) because that is what her not-very-nice sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) tells her.
Franco is a conman with a heart of gold, of course, and he embraces the prophecy as a means to get his hands on Oz’s massive treasure... or to help them, it’s not clear. He befriends a flying monkey who becomes his sidekick and a China doll whose legs he repairs. He then meets Glinda and learns that she’s actually a good witch and that she protects a city of Quadlings, Tinkers and Munchkins.
Meanwhile, Evanora tricks her sister, who had fallen in love with Franco somehow, into believing that Franco is two-timing her with Glinda. In her anger and sorrow, Theodora takes a green apple from Evanora. This apple withers her heart and makes her evil. It also turns her green... like Kermit the Frog. And let me tell you, it ain’t easy being green. Anyways, the two now-evil witches decide to eradicate the plague of Quadlings, Tinkers, Munchkins and Francos, and the other side fights back. The whole thing ends in a surprisingly entertaining battle of wits.
Bad Choices
I said in the intro that Oz The Great and Powerful was doomed by its choices. What choices you ask? Well, let’s discuss.

Misfired Opening: The film opens in black and white. It involves a carnival in Kansas and it has all the actors you will see in Oz playing real people here. There’s even a girl who looks like Dorothy. This is all meant to remind you of The Wizard of Oz. Even the aspect ratio changes once we hit color footage. Unfortunately, rather than being clever, this is a huge mistake because this opening is so oddly similar to The Wizard of Oz that it immediately blurs the question of whether they are doing a prequel or a remake of The Wizard of Oz. Yet, it is also so different that it feels like a truly sloppy remake. So as you find yourself watching this, you feel confused and you feel underwhelmed by their attempt to “retell” The Wizard of Oz, even though they aren’t actually retelling that story. It was a bad choice.

And that choice was made all the worse by the length of this portion of the film. The opening is just longer than 15 minutes and the problem here is that none of this is all that interesting and none of it will matter in the rest of the film. In fact, you know that nothing you are watching will be the slightest bit relevant, so it’s hard to care about the first 15 minutes of the film. So basically, the film gets off on a very wrong foot and leaves you struggling to care about the story before it even begins.
Casting.. or perhaps direction: The next problem was casting, or at least direction. Rachel Weisz does an excellent job as the evil witch. She’s a solid actress who brings just enough menace, believability, and style to the role to make her everything you need in a villainess. The only problem is that she fades into the background too often and is overshadowed by everyone else. She also turns into a generic Raimi witch at the end (something we’ve seen throughout the Evil Dead series and in Drag Me To Hell).

Michelle Williams is adequate as Glinda the Good Witch, although she’s not daffy enough to ever grow into the Glinda from The Wizard of Oz without first suffering senility or some sort of stroke.
Both of those actresses are fine, except that while they are playing the story straight, Kunis and Franco are engaged in melodrama. Kunis goes through wild mood swings that aren’t really rooted in her character and then, when she turns evil, she does her cackling best. I actually like what she does a lot. In fact, she breathes life into the role of the witch. But it doesn’t mesh with Weisz or Williams, who apparently didn’t get the memo that this was to be a melodrama.

The real problem, however, is John Leguizamo James Franco. Franco plays the Wizard somewhere between melodrama and a Sesame Street appearance. The result is that many of his actions feel like he’s acting – such as when he screams to himself “I can’t swim” when he crashes in a pool of water and he thrashes around until he realizes he can just stand up. It feels like he’s doing a routine... a routine we’ve seen done a million times. Moreover, because of the Sesame Street angle, his misbehaviors are never real, i.e. you know he’s a good guy no matter what he does, so his conversion to good is kind of meaningless. And his choice of melodrama throughout means he has no chemistry with any other character and it becomes impossible to believe that anyone would actually put their faith in him.
Take No Chances: An even bigger problem with the film is that there isn’t a single moment where the film takes any chances. Everything is exactly what you expect and there isn’t a surprising moment to be had. Even the magic trick Franco does in the intro has appeared in better films and was done exactly the same way. He claims to be the best fake magician around, couldn’t they at least give us something we haven’t seen before to help us believe that?

This has been my problem with director Sam Raimi’s post Army of Darkness career: he gives you exactly what you expect and never challenges you or gives you anything more. Essentially, he is a technician, not a creative type, and his films lack those “wow” moments, and that’s on full display here again.
An Incongruous Costume Choice: There is one costume choice I need to call out as well. Overall, the whole film has a 1930’s art deco style. Everything fits that perfectly, from buildings to costumes, and it gives the film a definite style that works really well. However, in the middle of this world of tuxedoes, bellhop costumes, decorative soldiers and evening gowns, they choose to put Kunis into black leather pants. Not only does this not fit the 1930’s style at all, but when she turns into the Wicked Witch, it makes her costume different than the one that would eventually be worn by Margaret Hamilton. It is a minor point, but it is noticeable, especially as this issue was easily avoidable.

The result of the above is this: you have a film that loses you in its first 15 minutes. The next hour and fifteen minutes are visually stunning, but emotionally empty and struggle to win you back. The characters go through the motions and you really just don’t care. There are tonal problems and the writing doesn’t impress. There are no memorable moments and nothing you will take with you once the credits roll. You will find yourself looking at your watch a lot.
At the hour and a half mark, however, the film finally kicks into gear. This is the point where good and evil prepare to square off against each other and then proceed to do battle. From this point forward, the film has a solid pace, some fantastic imagery (even if it is very similar to Curoscant from the Star Wars prequels), and a plot that becomes quite fun to watch. The story is somewhat unpredictable at that point and even the moments you can predict are so well done that you will enjoy them.

So is this worth seeing? Well, if you’re at all a fan of the Wizard of Oz remakes and homages out there, then I would say yes. Visually, the film is stunning. The last twenty minutes are truly fun to watch. The first part is dull, but you can get past that. I would recommend, however, adjusting your expectations to seeing the film as essentially a quasi-melodrama aimed at kids. So if that’s cool for you, then see it.



Kit said...

Yeah, the original is superior in just about every single way but I still enjoyed this one.

Tennessee Jed said...

we just dvr'ed this film during a free trial on Direct TV recently. Haven't watched it. Looks like you have saved me the time :)

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, In all honesty, I suggest giving it a try. It does grow on you. It is a stunning film visually and the ending is quite good. The rest is bearable, but dull. If you have an interest in it, give it a shot.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I enjoyed parts of it, but found the whole thing overall to be rather lifeless and dull. I do appreciate what went into it. And there are some moments I did enjoy a good deal.

Kit said...

I like the first appearance of the Flying Monkeys. That spooked me!

AndrewPrice said...

I liked the Winkie guards in the cemetery -- excellent imagery, very scary. I love Kunis' makeup too and that she goes all out after the change. The monkey/scarecrow scene was a good one too.

Tennessee Jed said...

I'll give it a try. If it comes to it (and I fully expect it will,) I can ff to visually stunning scenes and the ending. Thre is always the chance it will hold our intrest enough to watch it in entirety. If not, I also recorded the 1954 film Sitting Bull. I dout it is historically accurate, but it does feature John Hamilton (played Perry White on the 1950'a t.v. Superman show) in the role of President U.S. Grant.

AndrewPrice said...

Good thinking, Jed! We try a lot of things around here that we're not too sure about and we end up turning off pretty quickly. Sometimes though, you do find some good stuff that way.

Koshcat said...

I came to the same conclusion. So much potential that just missed the mark. I will say it was better than what I expected for whatever that's worth.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, That's a good way to put it -- tons of potential that just missed the mark. On the plus side, it wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been. They did avoid a lot of badness that seems standard in films today. And I guess lack of badness is the new good.

Backthrow said...

I saw it last summer on a rental... it was a watchable misfire. I actually liked the black & white, different-ratio opening... there were indications there that it was going to be a funnier movie (with a slight mean streak, which I like) than the rest ended up being.

Franco ended up being a minor liability; he tried hard, and they could've cast the part much worse than they did, but he didn't quite have it in him to play the role as "big" as it needed to be. 20 years ago, Bruce Campbell would've been perfect, or Robert Downey, Jr. today, if he wasn't already committed to both Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes. Kunis was, as I recall, okay... but the whole two-witch idea was a bit convoluted, diluting the menace, rather than multiplying it. Strange when one turned green and ugly... shouldn't the other have been that way, too, if they were made evil by the same means?

The rampant CGI/green-screen in it is both a blessing and a curse. It creates an amazingly beautiful, surreal world, but then the threats usually don't feel real. I liked the china doll character, and her voice work was excellent. Franco's monkey friend looked great, but his voice was like some bland version of Red Buttons or something, and didn't quite fit. Technically, it felt a bit "off", like you knew he was an actor in a sound booth reading the lines, rather than buying him as an organic merging of sound and image.

The climax was good. I liked that it didn't rely on some miraculous last-minute true magic, but rather on the wizard's skill at fakery, that he was actually good at from the very beginning, rather than the cliche of his being a failure at it, until the last possible moment.

As far as it not matching up with the 1939 film, that's a given, apart from the original being such a classic... I knew going in that this Disney "prequel" was going to have things that were legally obligated to be different from what was presented in the 1939 MGM (now Warner-owned) film. That's probably one reason (though not the only rationale) for making Kunis' witch decked out in leather gear.

As for Raimi, he's no visionary, but I think he's more than just a technician. John Glen is a technician. Post-Army of Darkness, I thought A Simple Plan, The Gift and the first two Spider-Man movies (especially 2) were great. Others, like The Quick and the Dead, Spider-Man 3 and Drag Me to Hell are flawed but fun, and are unmistakeably Raimi films. Technician-directors are more generic than he. I think he just gets a bit lost/muddled without a solid script backing him up, and is subject to studio meddling, without a fight, when he's working in the big-budget realm. He's also a far better director than he is a producer (although he's had occasional success in that role, especially with Hercules/Xena on TV).

Outlaw13 said...

I didn't mind the opening at all. I wasn't confused or thought that it was a remake of some sort. Maybe because I had read some thing s about the movie prior so I knew this was a prequel. I obviously enjoyed the movie more than Andrew, but everyone has their opinion. As always Bruce Campbell did make an appearance, which is always an easter egg I look for in Raimi films.

BevfromNYC said...

Who was the one who told James Franco he could act? I just don't get it. He just can't. He can't even slide on being "interesting".

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Backthrow is correct - Disney was forbidden from doing certain things (even down to the shade of green on Mila's face) because they don't own The Wizard of Oz. It was an MGM film now owned by WB. (And you know it's WB because they release a new boxset of the film seemingly every f---ing year!)

I enjoyed this movie, more than I was expecting. It was... sweet. Franco did the best job he could given his limitations and the work he's usually known for. His monkey sidekick and the china doll were great. The only misfires IMHO were Mila Kunis who was a bit out of her element (some actors just have limits)... and the all-greenscreen CGI look of the film: looks great but you know deep down none of it's real.

But my opinion shouldn't matter: the original film is one of those classics I have no interest in revisiting. [ducks flying objects] I saw it once or twice and that's good enough for me. :-)

BevfromNYC said...

Scott - I really enjoyed the film, but it was hard to get passed the dreadfully miscast Mr. Franco. I really liked the "steampunk"-ness of it.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, A watchable misfire is a good way to put it, though it really does take the ending to save the film.

Franco is definitely a liability. He just doesn't have the presence to lead this film. In terms of the two witches, I don't think it's too convoluted. Plus, there are multiple bad witches in Oz, so if you're trying to explain the origins of the Wicked Witch, you kind of need to introduce her sister. I thought the conversion into the Wicked Witch was the one gem in the film.

Agreed about the climax. I'm glad he wasn't able to suddenly do real magic. I think that is what lifted this above the ending I was expected because they had to be clever about it.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, I didn't see Bruce Campbell at first, but the moment he opened his mouth, I spotted him. He would have been great as the Wizard 20 years ago.

In terms of how much you liked it, opinions can vary. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, I have NO idea. At first, he kept reminding me of John Leguizamo, which is not a good thing. Then he just kind of faded away into "generic male actor." He definitely lacks the personality to lead this film. Recasting him would have helped the movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I thought Kunis did a really good job after she became the witch, however. She was very believable, especially her anger. It was a different version of anger than you get these days too. She didn't need to kick a puppy to prove she was evil, she didn't do the "whispering at 100 yards" that all the action heroes do when they are angry, and she didn't get stupid. I liked that portrayal a lot.

You don't like The Wizard of Oz? Wow, that might be unforgivable. We might have to revoke your film watching license.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, There was definitely a flavor of steampunk, which I liked as well. Visually, I thought the film was great.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

It's funny because just the other day, Kevin Smith and his co-host, KROQ's Ralph Garman, were talking about Oz on their Hollywood Babble-On podcast.

Surprisingly (given their different personalities), Garman loves it while Smith is totally over it. "It's the 74th anniversary... it's the 75th anniversary... big deal! Can we move on now!?!?!" :-)

The other big classic film I really have no interest in revisiting is, of all things, E.T. Unlike my friends, I didn't grow up watching it and I didn't see it in its entirety till I was 20. It's fine, but nothing I need to see again. (It also doesn't help that the kid/alien movie I grew up on was Flight of the Navigator.) :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I avoid the hype surrounding the movie, so that doesn't turn me off. I just think the movie is fantastic. It's also so culturally relevant that you have to know it to understand half of what goes on in our culture.

I'm not a huge fan of E.T. either. To me, it was a good movie that hasn't stood up to the test of time. I never saw it as an amazing movie.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

I understand the relevance part and it's one of those things where it worked in reverse: I was able to basically piece together the movie after watching nothing BUT references. :-)

tryanmax said...

First of all, visually, I thought this film was stunning. Knowing beforehand all the legal issues, I was surprised that Disney and Raimi were allowed to get the look as near to the original as they did. It's not a replica, but it is an extraordinarily loving homage bordering on replica. I'm personally happy with the B&W opening. In itself, it makes sense.

I agree the intro was largely unnecessary, as well as contradictory to the original. I was disappointed that his balloon set off from Kansas as opposed to Omaha, which is clearly emblazoned on the original balloon. The original premise was that the wizard landed in Oz through a publicity stunt gone wrong. That's a more compelling story than the one created for the prequel and one that I would have rather seen.

It's easy to fault Franco and Kunis, and initially I did, too. But I think Andrew sets it straight by pointing out that the other main characters missed the memo to play it campy. The Wizard of Oz was campy. The supporting and minor roles played campy. The whole premise is campy. So the fault lies with the actors who took it too seriously and the direction that didn't correct that.

The Sesame Street problem arises from the script, not from Franco. The character has more complexity than the narrative can handle. Dorothy was simply an archetypal ingénue. Franco's Oz ought to have been an archetypal trickster, a PT Barnum sort that is easy to grasp. Instead, we got an Oz who shifts between conman and lover, self-doubting tinkerer (the Edison stuff was also unnecessary) to heroic savior (with a little white-man's burden tossed in). Basically, they turned Oz into the boringly overqualified action hero we've become all too familiar with.

This is further compounded by the rag-tag bunch he assembles. In the original, Dorothy's traveling companions were their own characters. Any reflections on Dorothy were up to the viewer to interpret. In the prequel, the companions are each very clearly designed to reveal aspects of the main character, so they are barely characters in their own right and only compound the unwarranted complexity of Franco's role.

Also, none of the characters from the original even developed. As iconic as the story is, the character realizations are foisted upon them by the Wizard at the finale. Franco's Oz actually has quite a bit of development, which is great for him, but not fitting with the whole Oz thing. What's more, it creates new narrative problems which are all gathered in the issue that Franco's Oz overcomes his insecurities only to make Morgan's Oz appear regressive even beyond Franco's original state. This implies a missing bridge narrative that must be depressing on the order of Revenge of the Sith if not worse.

Finally, there were no songs. There ought to have been songs.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I've had a couple movies ruined that way. Trailers in particular can give away too much.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I'm ok without the songs. Although, including songs might have helped steady the tone by telling everyone "think musical, not drama!"

Naturally, I think you are right that I am right about the actors! :D In all seriousness, at first, I blamed Franco and Kunis for not fitting in. But the more I thought about it, they are the ones who got what the tone was supposed to be. As you note, everything in the film is camp and over-the-top unreal. This is not a movie that was meant to be acted like a drama. And yet Williams and Weisz both play their roles as if they were in a straight drama. They are the ones who are out of place, and it makes them fade too much into the background when they should be larger than life -- especially Weisz who should come across as "the BIG EVIL WITCH!" and instead comes across as a hostess. Williams, by comparison, comes across as a school teacher rather than the nutty Good Witch.

That said, I do think Franco lacked the screen presence to pull off the lead role. He just doesn't have what he needs to pull your eyes away from everyone else on screen. I agree about the way his character is written though. It's too many things combined, and none of them are given enough dominance to give you a sense of who he is. So instead of a huckster or a hero or a lover, you get a generic hero hiding as a fake huckster who wants to be a lover. It feels like they couldn't settle on who he really was, and that kept him fumbling his way through the scenes until he embraces his inner huckster at the end.

Agreed about his companions too. While I liked them, they definitely were there to service his character, i.e. they were props.

On the opening, I have long felt that when you can remove something from a film and no one would notice, then it's not a good thing to include. You could start this film with the balloon crash and no one would miss the intro.

T-Rav said...

I think this movie was vitally important for understanding The Wizard of Oz. How else would we have known that the Wizard and Glenda have a thing going? (Er, spoiler alert.)

Basically, I agree. I didn't really care about the movie or most of the people in it (Rachel Weisz was fun to watch, as always), but the ending surprised me by not being a generic set-piece battle. I was actually expecting something like the boring fight in Burton's Alice in Wonderland, but it was tricky enough to be interesting. Overall, though, I just don't know why I should care about the movie. It's true there were a whole series of Oz books, but that doesn't mean you can make a good movie series.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, That's exactly how I felt. Didn't care about the movie until the ending, which was a pleasant surprise.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's just because I have such a love of the source material, but I enjoyed this movie (and most other remakes/sequels/prequels, etc.--The Wiz movie excepted, of course).

It's hard to make a prequel. Any characters you know you've seen before, you know where they're going to end up, and any you haven't, become disposable or else you wonder what happened to them. So the character development becomes much more critical to the story. The Star Wars prequels had so much potential in this regard, but while George Lucas has a fantastic imagination, he's a mediocre (at best) storyteller.

Anyway, back to this movie. I liked the opening. It served as an appropriate homage to the classic film, I think. It may not have contributed much to the story, but at least it didn't drag on too long.

I sprung for the 3D version in the theaters because I had read that Sam Raimi had done his homework. I wasn't disappointed in this film visually in the least. Well, maybe a few of the background CGI animals, but overall, it transported me to a different world, full of fantastic sights.

I'm not very familiar with James Franco's body of work. I may have only seen Spider-Man 3, and most of that film was forgettable anyway. Initially, I thought the role might have been better filled by Robert Downey, Jr. or Johnny Depp, and Franco seemed like a second-rate choice. But after I thought about it a bit more, the Wizard is a second-rate con man, so maybe the casting was a subtle bit of genius.

Overall, I enjoyed this movie, but it wasn't as great as I had hoped. Not one for my collection, but I wouldn't mind watching it again someday.

I watched the original 1939 movie as often as it was on TV growing up. I enjoyed it, but it always bothered me how different it was from the book. Recently, I realized how the whole movie comes across as a PTSD-induced fever dream (or something along those lines.) Kind of takes a lot of the fun out of it. This movie is kind of in that vein, especially with the Glinda/Annie characters. But since he never "wakes up," I find it slightly more forgivable.

Anonymous said...

One more note in addition to my above post. I liked this movie because it had a lot in the details. For instance, when the Wizard recites his full name--Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmanuel Ambroise Diggs-- it's just like it is in one of the book's sequels. The book reveals that as a point as to why he goes by just "Oz"--the rest of his inititals spell PINHEAD!

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, This is definitely a movie that looks to details and for that I'm glad. They don't try to hide their lack of detail in huge CGI battles or blurry screens galore.

In terms of Franco, I'm not sure who would be better. I hate going back to Depp or Downey. To me, they've become played out. I'm REALLY glad they didn't pick Ben Stiller.

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