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Film Review: OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

Published On March 8, 2013 | By John Hanshaw | FILM REVIEWS

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OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL
Starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff and Joey King
Production Designer, Robert Stromberg
Visual Effects, Scott Stokdyk
Cinematographer, Peter Deming
Music by Danny Elfman
Produced by Joe Roth, Grant Curtis, Palak Patel, Josh Donen and Philip Steuer
Written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire
Inspired by the works of L. Frank Baum
Directed by Sam Raimi
 
Sam Raimi’s “Oz The Great and Powerful” is not that great, and it’s not that powerful, and the overly-produced, overly-lavish film ends up being a big average film that will register with pre-teens–but not too many others. For a $200 million film that visually looks great, and has an A-list production, technical and acting crew, the film falters where it shouldn’t—story, character development, dialogue, pacing, timing, and even acting at times. The film, produced by Disney, ends up being too, well, Disney–corny, tacky, clunky, unfunny at times, stilted and a bit too light-hearted for its own good. And the story tries too hard to tell too much, and the dialogue is wholly unoriginal and bland and, oddly enough, considering the cast, the acting is constantly forced and awkward. A little bit more darkness and a lot less cornball pre-teen humor would have made this film much better.
 
This film is such a disappointment, all around–it really is.  There are a few saving-grace factors that, fortunately for the filmmakers, do indeed prevent the entire mess from collapsing into a trap door elevator in a cloud of sulphur as a complete, total flop. But first, let’s face it, and get it out of the way, because it needs to be stated up-front because everyone is thinking it:  Everyone loves “The Wizard of Oz”–the 1,000-pound flying gorilla in the room whenever something Ozish comes up.  It’s literally one of the most popular movies of all time, in terms of how often it’s been watched, re-watched, re-re-watched, referenced, discussed, enjoyed, written about, bought, sold, viewed, studied, analyzed, played to “Dark Side of the Moon,” and re-re-re-re-watched.  And, well, maybe not everyone, but many folks want any new Oz-related story to succeed on a similar level–despite the impossibly high expectations established by the 1939 film–and they want any new Oz project to indeed be fun and entertaining, and to take everyone back along a yellow brick road to that same heightened level of fantasy, wonder, enjoyment and imagination so uniquely and expertly delivered with 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz.”  
 
But darn if repeated attempts on film to accomplish this near-impossible feat keep failing, or near-failing, in miserable fashion–with the present “Oz The Great and Powerful” company included.  First, there was “The Wiz,” that awful, oddly-staged musical disaster of a film with a mis-cast Diana Ross and a mis-cast Michael Jackson and even a mis-cast Richard Pyror that famously failed and flopped in 1978.  Next on the crumbling yellow brick road to ruin was 1985’s horrendous and overly-dark, overly-creepy and overly-depressing “Return to Oz,” a mistake that all involved should be ashamed of–except for the actors, including Fairuza Balk, a most interesting and complex actress who deserves more and better roles than Hollywood has given her.   Then, someone somewhere who perhaps participated in a few too many illicit substance experiments in college decided that “Tin Man” would make a great four-hour mini-series on the always-troubled SciFi Channel just six years ago, in 2007.  As with many projects (not all) airing on this irritatingly perplexing channel, it was a confused, overly-long mess that marred everything related to Baum’s world.  And now “Oz The Great and Powerful,” which starts out with a great idea, but ends up looking pretty, but acting and feeling dull and bland and empty at its core.
 
The one exception to the dismal rule of the post-1939 Oz curse is Broadway’s exceptional “Wicked,” from 2003, literally one of the most well-received, well-praised and popular Broadway musicals during the past 10 years.  However, that’s a stage musical–not a film or television project.  That’s a different medium.  And, dare we say it, we haven’t seen the film version of “Wicked”—-yet.
 
“Oz The Great and Powerful” certainly starts off in a promising fashion, with the suggestion of a great, previously-untold backstory to the Baum-Oz World.   Oscar Diggs (a bumbling, stumbling and seemingly over-matched and under-whelming James Franco), a small-time magician with a small-time traveling circus who is part conjuror and part con-man, part Lothario and part loser, part Barnum and part buffoon, is performing with the circus in quaint, old-fashioned, early twentieth-century Kansas when suddenly, he is abruptly–a bit too abruptly, for adequate storytelling purposes—-swept away directly into a hurricane, or a twister, and, somehow, he lands in the land of Oz.  This occurs early in the film, but this important set-up occurs in a rushed, pained and contrived manner–a bit too contrived, a bit too rushed and bit too pained–and already one of the first of many red flags in the story’s failings
 
Soon after he lands in Oz–too soon, for storytelling purposes–Diggs meets the beautiful good witch Theodora (the breathtakingly beautiful Mila Kunis, whose natural, unforced beauty and presence is one of those saving graces, because you just cannot take your eyes off of her), and Theodora immediately pegs the rakish, goofball and conning Diggs–who in Kansas went by the nickname “Oz,” apparently–as the predestined or foretold Wizard–or, as people in this film keep saying, KING–of Oz. Is it the Wizard of Oz, or the King of Oz? It’s not quite clear, and Diggs is referred to as both–which is yet another of many annoying storytelling glitches in the film.
 
Most everyone else in Oz–except for only a handful of residents who seem to have some level of intelligence and insight–believe Diggs to be the wizard, or king. Of course, Diggs is not a wizard, he’s not a king, and he’s not even that good of a small-time magician for a small-time traveling circus.  He possesses zero supernatural or fantastical abilities or skills.  But Diggs, the con-man, senses some type of opportunity for fame, fortune and the good life in this new place, and immediately professes to indeed be the wizard, or king, that everyone expected.  He must then deal with a land that, of course, is not as peaceful and easy as it originally seemed.  Diggs discovers that a darkness lies over Oz, and the forces of evil are about to wage a war against Theodora, her older sister Evanora (the equally beautiful Rachel Weisz, another partial saving grace) and, of course, Glinda (the equally beautiful Michelle Williams, the strongest performer on the Michigan sound stages here, and a formidable actress who seems to be the sole performer who really rises above the subject manner on a sustained level throughout the film).  Diggs must learn to stop being a cad and actually care, he learns to use his meager resources and skills for an actual good use, and along the way he strives to help the people of Oz fight the forces of evil and preserve their land.  And he learns to become a better, wiser and more caring person in the process.  
 
The fact that a bumbling magician ends up in a fantastical land filled with real magic and real fantasy presents an intriguing story–on paper. But the filmmakers somehow fail to consistently probe deeply and literately into the various complications that such a possibly fascinating scenario could present. Oh, they try, and they are aware of all the possible layers, and there is indeed a good message, theme and moral to the tale—but it’s all so surface and plainly stated and obvious, it all comes across as more style over substance. The lavish, beautiful sets, costumes, mattes, paintings, buildings and visual effects are above-average and state-of-the-art—-but when you have such a good story waiting in the wings, and the dialogue and action and plot don’t rise to the story’s possible high level, all of the flash and glitter and computer-generated-effects and green screens and animation and paintings and creatures will not save the day.
 
This is–yet again–the main problem for too many modern-day fantasy, science-fiction and genre films in Hollywood.  A first-draft outline of a story that is actually promising somehow gets watered down, filtered, dumbed-down and diluted to the point where the resulting end-product is a succession of noisy, over-produced special-effects set pieces, or elaborately-designed scenes, that deliver on a visual and visual-effects level, but leave out deeper, literate and well-spoken and well-presented story, dialogue, pacing and timing–and emotion.
 
“Oz” is so fascinated with its elaborate and, yes, beautiful, production design, glorious cinematography, effective special effects, visually stunning visuals and high-tech, flawless animation, the film thus lets the technical aspects completely overpower the plot points, subplots, dialogue, literate wording and the acting.  Franco is somewhat mis-cast in the role, as he can’t seem to adequately convey the deeper emotions and conflicts that such a character should present–a con-man caught in complex con who learns that maybe he’s better than this and maybe can do some good after all. There’s something there behind those Victorian clothes and magic tricks, but the something just doesn’t rise to excellence. Some reports stated that Robert Downey, Jr., was considered for the role of Diggs–and that would have been perfect. Also, Hugh Jackman would have thrived in the part. Downey and Jackman possess the deep levels of complexity and contentiousness necessary to convey the sniveling, conniving flim-flam man that Diggs should be on screen. Even a bit of Robin Williams would have worked here, if he was kept securely in check and not allowed to overdo things.  But Franco just doesn’t connect on all levels, and his conflicts and transformation appear half-hearted and somewhat incomplete.
 
The set-up for the conflict that eventually ensues between Diggs and his allies and the eventual enemies of Oz–to state who that is would be a spoiler and would give away parts of the plot–is also contrived and stressed. Diggs is sent out from Oz to find an evil witch, but he finds Glinda, who is good, and then suddenly they are attacked. This happens in a blink, and without much deep explanation. Then, it’s back to Oz’s Emerald City for a high-noon fantasy-magic show-down between Diggs and Glinda and their rag-tag allies and the evil enemies. How and why the enemy becomes the enemy is poorly staged, poorly told and lacking in drawn-out suspense. The dark side just seems to happen–in a scene or two. There is some set-up and some exposition, but, again, it’s clunky, and told without much tension. Like much of the story, things just seem to happen in an instance, without a deeper set-up or exposition.
 
The talented Zach Braff (“Scrubs,” and another sorely under-utilized comedic actor in Hollywood) and the impressively talented 13-year-old actress Joey King (she’s a girl) turn in adorable, likeable performances as Diggs’ CGIed companions in his battle–the Billy Crystalish second banana Borsch Belt-like flying monkey Finley and the original, heartfelt and irresistibly cute porcelain girl known as China Girl, respectively.  Braff is funny and his lines are effective, and King is quite fetching and lovable, but there are problems.  While the characters are likable, their introductions are, again, awkward and forced. Diggs just happens to stumble on Finley in a forest, and although Finley gives a reason for his predicament, it’s weak. The same with Diggs and China Girl. Everyone just sort of meets, by coincidence, and things just appear to happen, by chance, but the meetings and incidents just aren’t that clever.  And let’s face it, a stand-up comic flying monkey and a foot-tall girl made out of china aren’t exactly the greatest allies in a great good-versus-evil grand battle royale in some fantastical fantasy land. They’re more comic relief and heartstrings relief.  Which will appeal to pre-teens, who will eat it up. But for other, older filmgoers looking for more depth, the film could entertain them on a technical level, but not on a deeper, adult level.
 
Michelle Williams’ Glinda is the type of powerful ally that you want to see Diggs aligned with–formidable, smart, tough and indeed mesmerizing. Williams succeeds on these levels as an actress, and her character succeeds as written. The film’s Glinda is the only performance and characterization that meld together on a high level to surpass the clunky dialogue and forced storytelling. But the film needs about another half-dozen such successes–and they aren’t there. While Kunis and Weisz light up the screen with their beauty and presence, again, their characters’ are not well-drawn-out, their dialogue is unoriginal and surface, and at times their actions don’t make any sense in relation to what else is going on.
 
“Oz The Great and Powerful” needed a script doctor. The film needed a seasoned pro to come in and completely re-write the script to eliminate the numerous, glaring story, plot and dialogue deficiencies.  The film needed a William Goldman or Paul Haggis or Marc Mandel or Larry Gelbart, badly.  The film also needed to be just a tad darker–which, according to some reports, Raimi argued for in discussions with Disney suits.  The suits apparently won, as that recognizable, corny Disneyesque pre-tween humor keeps popping up, annoyingly, at the expense of a needed somewhat-darker side. The film did not need to be exceedingly dark or bleak, but it needed just a touch of a more rougher, tougher, darker edge to bring some needed suspense, tension and more adult-level depth to the proceedings.
 
The 3D in “Oz” is also underwhelming–another example of why this tired, annoying and headache-inducing gimmick needs to be dropped from all films as quickly as possible. It’s simply not needed, it’s distracting, it’s a nuisance–and there are long stretches of the film where absolutely nothing happens relating to 3D. There are also scenes where it is overly obvious that the only reason those scenes were included were to add a 3D effect. Hollywood needs to ditch this tired gimmick quickly.
 
It’s interesting, and pertinent, to note that just six days before “Oz’s” scheduled March 8 release date, Peter Jackson’s instant-classic “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” aired on television. This extraordinary fantasy film achievement displays from the exciting opening moments to the ominous closing shot nearly everything that Raimi was apparently talked out of including in “Oz”–true depth, beautifully delivered and exceedingly eloquent monologues and speeches, suspense and tension that grips you so your eyes widen, an incredibly diverse and exceptionally talented cast that conveys a range of emotions with just a look or two, beautiful scenery, tough and rough and tense battle scenes, inventive and original creatures, and an overwhelmingly sense of another time, place and world.  Just about all of what is achieved at such a high level in the “Lord of the Rings” films is sorely lacking in “Oz”–but those elements should have been there.
 
That is a fair analogy, considering the same high level of pop culture acclaim that the Baum books, the Tolkien books, the Jackson films and “The Wizard of Oz” all hold in the public’s view.  Jackson’s four excellent “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” films and Victor Fleming and King Vidor’s “The Wizard of Oz” should be the templates, the gold standards, for such epic-level fantasies, among many other films, of course.
 
Those films represent a good start for the home base, the foundation, the cornerstone, of fantasy films. And Hollywood studios and suits just need to stop re-visiting the overly-familiar world of already-known entities in film after film. There are literally thousands of original, untouched stories out there, waiting to be filmed.  Studio officials do not need to keep coming back home to the same, over-used, familiar faces, familiar places and familiar spaces.  They need to leave the familiar comforts of home, seek out their own yellow brick roads, and journey out to new lands for new source materials for new films.
 
Because, as Dorothy so singularly, so simply–and so deeply—reminded us all at the end of “The Wizard of Oz,” there’s no place like home.  There’s no place like home.
 

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