Thursday, March 14, 2013

Oz: The Great And Powerful

2013, Sam Riami -- in theatre

I have written previously (in my Return to Oz review) of my lack of affection for the 1939 classic Wizard of Oz.  In spite of my borderline disdain, there's something within the concept of Oz that has always intrigued me.  Like all great fantasy, especially fantasy for children, there's a representation of darkness, the threat that everything is not going to be all right.  In Wizard there's the implication that Dorothy's parents have passed, what with her living with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry.  There's the devastating tornado that uproots her from her family and tears her away into foreign terrain.  There's the horror of witches and flying monkeys, and that's just the obvious stuff. When the Wizard is exposed as a tired old man from Kansas himself, there's a sadness there too, of a man having to pretend to be someone he's not for a very very long time.

Return to Oz was by far darker throughout, starting with everyone thinking Dorothy was disturbed, leading up to her potentially getting electroshock therapy, before escaping back into an Oz that seems virtually post-apocalyptic.  These sorts of dark tinges in the movie have long made me curious to explore Oz more, yet I never have.  I just keep going back to the films (even Wizard I have seen countless times... in spite of my troubles it's an alluring production, especially the final act in the Emerald City).  Eventually I'll get there, but for now I'm excited there's another feature.  However, the realization that it was not an adaptation of one of L. Frank Baum's many, many Oz stories left my expectations low (alongside the many middling and unfavourable reviews that passed my way).

The biggest disappointment of learning it's an "original treatment" is that it's quite obviously drawing upon the continued popularity of the 1939 feature rather than its own adventure (but having not read Baum's stories I cannot say whether building off of, or piggybacking on preceding stories is a thing or not).  The thing that sunk Return to Oz though, was the expectation (both from the critics and the public) of a repeat of the the classic, and I feared Oz: The Great and Powerful would try too hard to correct that financial mistake.  They did indeed lean heavily on the original Wizard for inspiration, but they have their cake and eat it too, as the writers, director and studio found their own legs to stand on.

In taking a minor player from the 1939 classic (but major player in Oz mythology) and centering an adventure around him it also doubles as an origin for the Wizard we're familiar with and expands upon the land we've seen before.  As a child I always wanted to explore the Emerald City more, and this film gives you a guided tour.  Oscar "Oz" Diggs starts off (in black and white 4:3 aspect ratio, no less) as a small time con-man and illusionist, a teller of lies and an purveyor of fakery, and a big-time skirt-chaser, a genuine cad on top of it all, affording himself no love or friendship.  Working in a carnival in Kansas, he's chased off stage by an angry mob, and a short while later chased into a hot air balloon by an angry strongman (whose wife he made the moves on).  In between the two chases, he meets with an old flame, Annie, who notes she's marrying a man named Gale, an obvious tie to Dorothy (I presume this to imply she's their mother).

The balloon ride is ill-fated, as Oscar is swept up in a 3-D tornado (I'm not certain that Baum always used the tornado as a portal to Oz, it was a river in a storm that took Dorothy there in Return) and arrives in a strange land of waterfalls and giant flowers and biting river faeries.  He meets Theodora, a wide-eyed witch who believes that Oscar is the wizard of a long-told prophecy who will bring peace to the land.  Theodora also believes she has a part in this prophecy by his side, whether she constructed this as her own delusion or was something her more deceitful sister Evanora seeded in her mind is unclear.  But it's Oscar's rejection of her that sends her already volatile emotional state into deeper despair (her tears burn and scar her face, a nice allusion to her fate in Wizard).  It's clear Theodora is a pawn of her sister (perhaps Evanora realizing that her sister wields more power naturally), and Evanora continues to play her, up to and including poisoning her goodness so all that remains is her rage.  Evanora, likewise, is the evil witch who has divided the land of Oz and created the strife that infects it.  She portrays herself as a Good Witch and deflects all of the land's ills on the Witch of the South, noting that Glinda killed her own father, their former ruling wizard (and as is noted, the people of Oz are forbidden from killing), when indeed the wizard died by her own hand.

Oscar, a trickster, is tricked himself by Evanora, sent on a journey to kill the "wicked witch of the South", in return claiming his throne and the ample riches of Oz.  Reluctant to kill anyone (for all its weaknesses I adore this film for it's conceit to non-violence), even if all it entails is breaking a wand, Oscar hesitates and recants his mission when he discovers Glinda, the Good Witch, is the spitting image of Annie.  Glinda, like Annie, sees Oscar for what he is, a charlatan, a liar, a cad and a fake, but also full of potential, and inherently a man who wants to do good.  She knows he's not a great wizard, at least not in the strictest sense of the prophecy, but he is a man who can theoretically guide the people of Oz as the prophecy declared, so long as the people believe in him and what was foretold.

Glinda is, quite obviously, a pacifist.  Soft spoken and kind-hearted, she needs Oscar to be their leader, their general in battle, because she hasn't the heart or mind to do the deed herself.  Cunning is not in her nature, kindness is.  It's her kindness that bolsters Oscar, that raises his confidence and allows him to be the man he always wished he was.  Though he's no great wizard, he can be a good man, and be good to people.  He will learn from others and change, as he promised to the sky when thrust at the center of the tornado (although Baum's stories, I believe, remained religiously neutral).

Oscar, like Dorothy in the other Oz films I continue to reference, collects a couple of curious accomplices, including a flying monkey named Finley and a china doll who never gets a proper name.  The discovery of China Girl (as Oscar nicknames her) is one of the most conceptually gruesome moments in children's cinema.  Though nothing outright horrifying visually, when Oscar and Finley discover China Town, it's buildings and people smashed, it's a curious scene.  Upon hearing the sobs of China Girl, then finding her behind a table, legs broken underneath, the weight of the scene takes hold.  This was a town once rich with life and China Girl witnessed its death, shortly before she was crippled herself.  She's a tough girl (she carries a knife) and Oscar repairs her legs with quick-drying glue, but the loss of her family weighs on her, and the darkness in her story runs very deep, though the film makes a point of not getting too lost in it.

The performances in the film waver between sound and broad.  With the minor players all doing their part to keep things in check, while James Franco, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis (in a brassy reprise of Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch when she turns) play it bold, old-timey film style.  Cinema rarely gives actors the opportunity to do that, but it's surprisingly fun to see when they do (last year's Oscar winner The Artist had it, only limited to broad physicality).  Unfortunately, the script drags the bigness of the performances as well as the pace of the film far too often, as it spends so much time mincing over Oscar's willingness to be the hero that's required.  It's nailed up early in the film and continually hammered home.  The film clocks in at almost 130 minutes and could use 30 minutes of trimming and tightening (and I could easily tell where to start).  It's a kids movie, through and through, and the lulls will find even the most patient child anxious in their seat for the scene to move on.  The biggest drag is the film's seemingly endless love affair with its own special effect.  It spends laborious amounts of time trying to wow and flutter the audience with fantastical landscapes, which in all their digital glory, look about as impressive as a cartoon.  Cartoons tend not to languish on their scenery too much because time is too precious, these live action fantasies could learn a thing or two by studying them (in fact, I wondered why this wasn't a digitally animated feature in the first place).  A few establishing bits and we're good, we don't need multiple 3-minute travel/falling sequences.  All the awe and wonder becomes a little tiresome when it's awe and wonder all the time.

As an addition to the Oz mythos, it fares pretty well, in fact (that Oscar introduces scarecrows and fireworks, among other things, to Oz makes a certain amount of sense), and Kunis' turn as the Wicked Witch was one of the great pleasures I've had in the cinema of late.  It's not the singin' and dancin' Wizard, but I'm quite thankful of that.  It's got some pretty major flaws, but as entertainment with the kids (I'd say 6+ depending on if your kid gets scared easily... my 11-year-old found some scenes scary, but he's a softie when it comes to that stuff) you can definitely do worse.