Monday, March 11, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful / ***½ (PG)

Oz: James Franco
Annie/Glinda: Michelle Williams
Theodora: Mila Kunis
Evanora: Rachel Weisz
Frank/Finley: Zach Braff
Girl in Wheelchair/China Girl: Joey King
Master Tinker: Bill Cobb
Knuck: Tony Cox

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire. Based on the “Oz” series of novels by L. Frank Baum. Running time: 130 min. Rated PG (for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language).  

I imagine that many an average moviegoer often feels they’ve seen an entirely different movie than the critics. Critics will frequently decry audience pleasers, complaining about dramatic and directorial technicalities that matter little to someone just going to the movies for a good time. Often critics allow their biases against certain formats, such as 3D, to distract them from the movie at hand. Often these critics will make good points about the storytelling that are lost on the untrained eye. I remember when I was just a fan of movies and not a critic. It was always disheartening to feel that the supposed “experts” looked too hard into something from which I’d found great enjoyment. I imagine this must be the case with the new movie “Oz the Great and Powerful”.

Now that I am a movie critic on top of being a fan of movies, I often find myself on the other side of that coin. With this movie, however, I do feel I saw a different movie than most other critics, who were mostly underwhelmed by this new visitation of L. Frank Baum’s fantasy world. I found the film to hold just as much magic as the Land of Oz itself, and even a little bit more. While I understand that most people will really just differ with the critics on the entertainment value of the film, I find it hard to believe that so many critics dismissed the many different layers of storytelling and cinematic homage contained within this surprisingly well-conceived story. Surely I saw a different movie.

“Oz the Great and Powerful” acts as a prequel to Baum’s first “Oz” novel, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, and the 1939 movie, “The Wizard of Oz”. Instead of telling of Dorothy’s adventures in Oz, this film focuses on the Wizard and how he ended up in his position in Oz. The story begins in 1905 Kansas at a traveling circus show. We meet Oscar Diggs, known as Oz to most. He’s an illusionist who depends more on the con in every aspect of his life than on honesty.

Like the 1939 movie, this section of the film is presented in black & white and the 4:3 screen aspect ratio that was the standard then.  It is also shot on a set rather than on location as most films are today. Even the dialogue reflects the original film’s time period stylistically. Only the 3D format differs from the original, which is a stylistic mistake. The 3D and the smaller screen would be more effective if the 3D wasn’t introduced to the screen until Oz makes his journey through the tornado and into the colorful CGI created world of Oz.

Once in the coincidentally named Land of Oz, our huckster hero finds a world unlike any he’s seen, and unlike anything the audience has even seen before.  This Oz is much grander and more majestic than the one originally witnessed in 1939. He meets the witch Theodora and her sister Evanora, who claim his coming was foretold in a prophecy that said he would rid the land of its scourge, The Wicked Witch, and take the throne of the Emerald City. He sets out to kill the witch, never letting on that he is not in fact a wizard. When he finds the witch, she is not what he expected. I will not tell more of the plot.

Also in reflection of the 1939 film, many of the people Oz knows in Kansas have a counterpart in Oz. In Oz, he saves a flying monkey named Finley, who sounds an awful lot like his former magic show assistant Frank. During one of his shows in Kansas a wheelchair bound girl asks Oz to make her walk again. In Oz, he saves a China Girl—a girl made of China—by gluing her broken legs back on. And, his former love, Annie—in her Dorothy style gingham dress—has a witch doppelganger in Oz.

Screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire do an excellent job tying all the new elements to the points in the original story. Annie is set to marry a man named Gale, making her Dorothy’s mother. Oz, while spending most of his life conning those around him, finds a fitting way to resolve the events that sets up every detail we learn about him from Dorothy’s first adventure in Oz. One witch cries tears that burn her skin, just like water would to a witch in Oz. Another is diminished to the point where a house falling on her might spell her end. And, the munchkins even try to fit in a song before the less than sentimental Oz shuts them down.

The performances are just as fitting to the Oz mythology as the story elements. James Franco handles the a-typical hero of Oz with a heavy dose of lechery dabbed in just enough sentimentality to peek his goodness underneath. Michelle Williams makes the almost hokey role of Glinda work in this more severe portrait of Oz than the original. Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz make for a believable pair of witch sisters with one hiding her evil intentions and the other handling the difficult transition of the betrayed becoming the dominant very well. Zach Braff and Joey King turn in motion capture performances as Finley the Flying Monkey and China Girl that threaten to steal the show without ever quite running away with it.

Sam Raimi’s direction is the show’s main point of wonder. Raimi utilizes the 3D format to full effect. Many of the effects are done for the sake of effect, which might explain some critics’ scorn; however, this is in the spirit of the novels and the original film, which showed off its special effects for their own sake in its own time. Much of the 3D effects are quite artistic in nature, depicting the magic and the beauty of Oz on a more glorious scale.

Perhaps it’s the lack of punctuation in the film’s title that sent critics off this movie before they even saw it. While it’s unfortunate to find the comma so underappreciated, it’s just as discouraging to think that a film with so much awe and beauty could be accused of “lacking magic.” The story seems to be the most attacked, which is mind boggling to me. It contains wonderful structure, allusion and foreshadowing. The characters are well rounded and true to themselves, even when considering previous incarnations. With the third biggest opening for the month of March in history, I’m more inclined to lean with the public on this one. “Oz the Great and Powerful” is all that it claims.

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