Sunday, March 3, 2013

'Oz the Great and Powerful' (2013) directed by Sam Raimi

Oz the Great and Powerful is a prequel to the 1939 classic, a prospect that didn't exactly fill me with confidence. There have been an awful lot of CG heavy reinterpretations of fairytales  lately, and frankly, fatigue is setting in.  Also, the world of Oz just doesn't seem like a place that'll benefit from having its back story fleshed out.  My initial thoughts were that the film reeked of an attempt to repeat the enormous gross of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland 3D. So, as the opening credits rolled expectations were not particularly high, but I was surprised to find the film quickly carving out a pleasantly light-hearted and not entirely serious niche for itself.

James Franco as Oz
We open with Oz as a stage magician in a fairly grim dustbowl circus.  Audiences are abusive, his fellow performers generally despise him and he lives in tatty poverty.  Importantly we quickly establish that he's actually is an outstanding magician and showman, letting us sympathise with him when he bemoans his circumstances.  The pressure in the circus comes to a head, with Oz running away in terror from an angry strongman and taking refuge in a hot air balloon.  He cuts loose and flies away, waving his top hat and whooping "so long, suckers!" (I love a good "so long, suckers!"). But his celebration is cut short, behind him is a huge tornado.  Before he knows what's going on he's been transported to Oz, where a prophecy talks of a powerful wizard who falls from the sky, saves the kingdom and becomes King.  Oz quickly begins exploiting the situation, his head filled with starry-eyed dreams of gold, power and naive and sexy witches.

Your enjoyment of Oz the Great and Powerful will largely depend on your opinion of James Franco.  This is very much the James Franco show from start to finish, the film taking great pleasure in bouncing him off a series of weird characters.  Fortunately, the self-appointed mayor of Gay Town is perfect as a pleasantly egotistical would-be renaissance man.  Franco plays a great confidence trickster; a huckster thrown into a fantasy world, not taking it seriously.  This light cynicism works well in making the bizarre world of Oz believable to us, allowing us to laugh with the film at how weird things are rather than at it.  

As a casual student of Franco-ology, I love the idea of James Franco as a man wandering into situations he doesn't know much about and smirkily bluffing his way through events.  Additionally, he cements his reputation as the go-to man for films involving CG apes and monkeys.  After this and the better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be Rise of the Planet of the Apes it's clear that no-one in the business can talk to an invisible monkey quite like Franco can.  I realised partway through that Sam Raimi has essentially made this film already; the basic plot is very, very similar to Army of Darkness and the way Franco bluffs his way through danger has certain shades of Bruce Campbell's Ash.

Rachel Weisz as Evanora and Mila Kunis as Theodora
The rest of the cast generally take the outlandish premise as an excuse to ham it up to various degrees.  But then, if there's any time to ham it up a bit, it's when you're playing a cackling, green skinned witch in medieval fetishwear, commanding armies of winged baboons.  The three witches, Theodora, Evanora and Glinda, are respectively played by Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams.  Kunis is pretty damn brilliant as Theodora, injecting what is essentially a pantomime character with some genuine pathos and a sprinkling of masochistic body horror. Weisz and Williams are slightly less complex, although as almost literal embodiments of good and evil they have much less wiggle room.

Similarly impressive are the voice-acting of the CG characters, particularly Zach Braff as the flying monkey servant, Finley and Joey King as the 'China Girl'.  Zach Braff sounds an awful lot like Danny DeVito as Finley, and makes what would be an exceptionally annoying character surprisingly enjoyable.  But it's the China Girl that makes the biggest impact; everything about her screams fragility and King's voice work goes a very, very long way towards pulling the character from the uncanny valley and giving her genuine pathos.

Zach Braff as Finley the Monkey
There's an awful lot of CG in this film, a huge amount of the production must have been James Franco wandering around a big green green room talking to no-one.  There's so much that it becomes self-indulgent, and you sigh inwardly when for the fourth or fifth time the film finds an excuse to show off some fancy 3D trickery or yet another artfully composed fantasy landscape.  It all looks great, but this film is probably a little too long, and by the end you find yourself  fatigued by endless scenes of the camera swooping around the landscape and just wishing they'd get on with the plot.  

Sadly, the most disappointing aspect of the film is the workmanlike direction.  I am a huge fan of Sam Raimi's earlier work: Evil Dead II is absolutely fantastic, and there's much to admire in Spider-Man 2 and Drag Me to Hell.  But, even though there's a Bruce Campbell cameo and Raimi's yellow Delta 88 Oldsmobile apparently makes an appearance (although I couldn't spot it) Oz could be directed by any jobbing big budget director.  You get a tiny taste of Raimi's trademark kinetic style in the tornado sequence and there's a few Dutch angles that I doubt another director would have put in, but that a once exciting director like Raimi could put out something as blandly shot as this is quite depressing.  Perhaps the ever-present corporate hand of Disney on his shoulders stifled some of his natural creativity.  

Very pretty.  Back to the plot please.
This aside, I had a surprisingly enjoyable time watching Oz the Great and Powerful.  I'm generally wary of prequels, finding them largely devoid of dramatic tension and filled with annoying winks to the films that come after it chronologically.  Aside from a few jokes and references, Oz this, being both a self-contained narrative and a clever way to set up the events at the beginning of the 1939 classic.  Thematically it's tightly constructed, with over-arching themes of the skill of showmanship, the relation between performer and audience and appropriately, given that it associates itself with one of the most iconic films of all time, the immense power of cinema.  I'm lukewarm on the recent trend for CG drenched interpretations of classic fairytales; but this the best so far.


Oz the Great and Powerful is on general release from the 8th of March

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