Sunday, March 10, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful

I really wasn't expecting this to be decent.  Obviously "The Wizard of Oz" is a movie so classic to beyond all critical analysis, it is a movie that defines the magic and wonder that is movie-making, so making a prequel some eighty years after the fact is going to be troublesome to say the least.  And its made all the more troublesome because Disney doesn't own the rights to the MGM 1939 original, meaning that they can't use any of the music, have to tip-toe around the most iconic imagery - for example, no Ruby Slippers, and can't call this an "official" prequel.  Frank M. Baum's "Wizard of Oz" series has now long-been in the public domain, so anybody could make a new book, movie, or Tony-winning Broadway musical based in that universe, but you have to be very careful with MGM's lawyers.  Also, if we recall Disney's latest fantasy resurrection, the hideous "Alice in Wonderland", "Oz the Great and Marketable" really didn't have much going for it.

And yet, I'd say for the most part this is a decent fantasy movie.  I mean, I'd still much rather be watching a film version of "Wicked" and rocking out to "Defying Gravity" on the big screen, and if I have to be nerdy about film trivia, the massively bizarre 1985 "Return to Oz" is a way better movie*, but "Oz the Great and Powerful" is still a great movie for children and pretty good for adults too, I'd say.  There are some things that go horrifically wrong with this movie, and I won't go into that until after the page break for fear of spoilers, but I'm going to say the concept is solid, the imagery is pretty and properly fantastic, and the cast is mainly endearing and fascinating.  Sam Raimi is directing, and he's largely given up his "Evil Dead" horror roots in order to conjure something bright and colorful for the children, creating a world that is clearly unreal, but in a way that works with the fantasy setting we're trying to create here.  Unfortunately there's no musical numbers, most of the iconic Oz cast is missing in action, and it never feels quite like it melds with the Thirties original, but its still a decent ride, if nothing game-changing.

The concept here is to show the origins of the Wizard, explaining how this obvious con man managed to take over this fantasy kingdom and why the Witch didn't just squash him years ago.  The Thirties original never really worried too much about the further logic of its story, it was just there to be a fun adventure with song and joy for the audience, but that still means there are odd gaps in the tale.  And the way this movie explain it is that the Wizard is indeed a crook and a fraud, but its those powers that yet him con his way into defeating true evil powers.  Its about about a character letting go of his own selfishness and helping people out, its kinda charming, and could have been something really great.  Unfortunately, some things really don't work.  And I'm talking the Wicked Witch here.  The actress playing the Witch is so baaad, its beyond measure.  I'm here, right now, unable to name a worse performance in any movie.  So expect a 90% decent movie, and cover your goddamn eyes when that Witch comes on screen, because this is acting and make-up and casting so horrible as to become the thing of nightmares.

One of the things I was really worried about coming into this movie was James Franco.  He's really not the right actor for this role, and you can tell right from the trailers that he wasn't going to be winning Oscars for this movie.  What you need is a fast-talking, smooth operator, the kind of guy that could charm you and sell you on anything, just a lovable rogue guy that gets himself into all kinds of trouble and gets away with it thanks to that winning smile and fast fingers and wit.  James Franco really isn't that guy, and I'm not saying that Franco wasn't trying in this movie, but he isn't a showman.  I would have gone with say, Robert Downy Jr., Billy Zane, or - since this is a Sam Raimi movie - Bruce Campbell.  They all would have been the man for this role.  Still James Franco does manage to be mildly inspiring here and there, but he kinda fades in and out of the movie, but its decent enough.  Much better than I expected.  The fact he's able to play a character that detestably manipulates several women and still manages to prove that he has a good heart is pretty cool, acting and script-wise.

Obviously "Oz the Great and Powerful" borrows the gimmick of the Thirties movie, which is starting in black and white, then transitioning to the fabulous new technology of Technicolor after the main characters lands in Oz.  This time Sam Raimi even filmed the first ten minutes of the movie in a 4:3 aspect ratio, similar to most movies made before the mid-Fifties, and this was a cool move that I rather admire.  It makes Kansas seem somewhat small and uncomfortable, a place too tiny to fit a personality as great as the Wizard's, and it makes the transition into CG-filled Oz all the more spectacular.  Oz, this time, is full of computer-generated wonder.  Its a crayola paradise of color, looking somewhat similar to Willy Wonka's garden at points.  Raimi litters the landscape with impossible fantasy cliffs and rolling crescents of rocks.  Occasionally he even adds a bit of slap-stick horror, conjuring up memories of his "Evil Dead" movies, like the planks that are trying to kill James Franco while he's flying in the tornado, or the two crows that shout "YOU'LL DIE! YOU'LL DIE!" at our cast of heroes.  There are the rare puns, like China Town, a village made out of dishes and porcelain doll people.  The CG is never believable, many parts of this movie feel like James Franco is walking around in a cartoon, but I feel it fits the fantasy mood.  It isn't supposed to look real, its supposed to look unreal.

However, the special effects fail completely when it comes to the Wicked Witch.  But let's not get into that just yet, I'm going to keep on giving "Oz the Great and Powerful" praise before I get to that.

James Franco's supporting cast is mainly decent, and several actors actually outshine.  Abagail Breslin voice acts a little China doll who is more or less a weak and pathetic little adorable creature that represents the Wizard's conscious.  This is what he needs to grow up for, this is what he needs to protect.  Oz also has a flying monkey sidekick, who generally isn't very funny and he looks like a worse monkey than the CG creatures from "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", but he does have his cute faces.  Rachael Weisz makes for a great evil witch - though not "THE Witch" - chewing on scenery and having a blast in a not very sophisticated but still fun role.  Glinda, the Good Witch is played by Michelle Williams, who is the main driver behind James Franco and the side of Goodness, she does a fine job.  Some of the smaller comic relief characters are pretty shitty, but that doesn't really matter.

The problem though... is the fucking Witch.  Spoilers ahead, but here we go.  Mila Kunis starts the movie out as just a minor witch who James Franco meets and then manipulates into sleeping with him.  She takes this poorly, let's say.  For the first half of the movie Kunis has this very thankless role of being this dumb chick who falls right for Franco's obvious line, and unfortunately she's too bland to ever really become sympathetic.  Weisz does an excellent job manipulating her into becoming a second Wicked Witch, which is where the problems really start.  The Witch is so bad she's getting three paragraphs to herself.

Oh My God... I knew coming into this movie that the Wicked Witch was going to look terrible, and I was rather hoping that she wasn't going to have much screen time.  Maybe they would be smart and just show her in shadow, only like a cameo or something.  No, she's right there, dead center for half the movie.  And it looks awful.  It looks fucking awful.  Mila Kunis is very pretty, to the point that she manages to blend in with the cartoony CG effects, she's so beautiful its just stunning.  They decided, very stupidly, to make the Witch effects all with computers, no green make-up.  So her skin is too smooth, she has no wrinkles, and her face is too wide.  The Wicked Witch of the West is one of the most iconic movie characters ever, and we've all seen her, we know what she's supposed to look like, and this looks wrong.  This actually looks hideous.  These are perhaps the most ill-conceived special effects I've run into since "Green Lantern"'s mask sunk into his eyes.  Plus, they gave her cleavage, and leather.  What, is the Wicked Witch supposed to be a sex symbol now?  What are you thinking?

 It is actually this bad-looking.  No joke.

But it gets worse.  This Witch wasn't going to be great, but maybe Kunis could get the performance right.  She didn't.  Instead of trying to copy the squeeky and completely classic Witch voice of Margaret Hamilton, the original actress, Sam Raimi and Mila Kunis, in the dumbest decision ever, use just Mila Kunis' normal voice.  Her lines aren't well-written either, the Witch is terribly whiny in this movie, and its so much worse hearing it from Mila Kunis' voice.  It sounds like Meg Griffin from "Family Guy" is trying to be scary, its terrible.  When the Wicked Witch came on screen, I closed my eyes and wanted to run away.  I'm struggling to name a single worse performance in any movie.  This might be the single worst run of acting I've ever come across.  Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars Prequels is better than this.  I've seen actresses in low budget movies that can barely speak English who have made better impressions than this.  There's merely mediocre acting, there's bad acting, there's acting so bad its funny, and there's acting that's frightening, its so bad.  The Witch is so bad, that I don't think I can watch "Oz the Great and Powerful" again.  I was groaning loudly in the theater.  When the movie ended, I made sure to flee as soon as possible just in case the Witch had another scene during the end credits.

Its a shame really, because I really do like the main idea of this movie, and the climax actually sold me a lot on "Oz the Great and Powerful".  Again, Spoilers, but the Evil Witches aren't defeated through raw power, they're tricked.  The Wizard uses some projection equipment, a few special effects, and some fire works to make the Witches think that he's been reborn as some almighty powerful talking head that could crush them.  That was cool, its like a big-budget version of how Warwick Davis defeats the witch at the end of "Willow".  All the citizens of Oz are in on the joke, creating a powerful false deity to scare away the real creatures of power.  Showmanship beats the monster, I like it.  Then the movie rather stupidly features a very dumb laser fight between Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz, but I guess I can't win them all.

So ultimately, "Oz the Great and Powerful" is pretty much a good movie.  I might even find myself glowing about it... if it weren't for that fucking Wicked Witch.  If you want to see a single performance sink a whole otherwise legitimately good movie, watch Mila Kunis in "Oz the Great and Powerful".  I am still stunned by how awful that was.  Its enough to make me really worried about the new Star Wars Trilogy coming out in 2015, just imagine what's going to happen if they try to cast a new Han Solo... oh dear.  But for now, if you want a pretty good fantasy movie to take your kids to, "Oz the Great and Powerful" will fit that bill.  Or even better, rent it, that why you can fast-forward past Mila Kunis.

* I actually really wish I were reviewing "Return to Oz" right now, since it is something truly special.  It stars a young Fairuza Balk as Dorothy, now returning to Oz after living in Kansas for some time (and escaping from a mental ward).  Oz has been destroyed, the iconic characters are turned to stone, and the wasteland is now patrolled by various monsters.  Its a very dark movie with lots of great stop-motion effects that give it this freakish unreal quality.  In fact, it was too dark and too weird, which is why nobody has heard of it, people wanted a warn and huggy Oz, not some disturbing nightmare land.

1 comment:

  1. Wait, wait, wait: PAUSE. There's a sequel movie? I only thought that there was a low budget anime made from a 80's? Quick! To the INTERNETS!

    But seriously I did enjoy this movie alot although I do have to agree that James Franco was NOT the right guy to play the Wizard. I don't think the witch effect was THAT bad either. Don't get me wrong it was bad, and they could have just kept her in the shadows thing like they did with that fireball scene, but it doesn't destroy the entire movie. And for the new Star Wars trilogy will be sequels to the originals and a few actors will come back to play their old parts.