Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) – Review

Review: Oz the Great and Powerful is a pleasant mix of wondrous, scary, funny, and exciting elements and moments. The film is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, detailing how the Wizard came to Oz and became the man Dorothy encounters (which is sort of weird, as The Wizard of Oz is presented as all being Dorothy’s dream – also, Oz in this is not Mr. Marvel right? Or is he?). More specifically, Oz is a contemptible carnival magician/con-man who finds himself in The Land of Oz after being caught in a Tornado. Now in this strange land, Oz is tempted by the promise of riches to go off on a mission to stop the Wicked Witch and free the people – but things are not quite what they seem.

Oz the Great and Powerful reminds me of the great films I loved as a kid – full of adventure, humor, frightening moments, and great characters – and in that way it has a nice nostalgic feel. In a way, this nostalgic feel rooted in how the film has a classic adventure quality to it is sort of the point – why director Sam Raimi wanted to make this film. As a kid, I can imagine being scared of the Wicked Witch, amused by the silly humor, and enthralled by the action/adventure – now as an adult, I enjoyed the sleazy façade of Oz as a con-man, the surprisingly strong supporting characters, and the emotional spectrum that the film touches on. It has a good heartfelt message without the modern skepticism and cynicism (which is probably why it has a classic/nostalgic quality to it), and this is also why Raimi was maybe the perfect person to make this film.

Raimi’s style certainly seems to meld well with the tone and material. His kinetic camera theatrically emphasizes moments, while his somewhat goofy yet sweet sense of humor fits the world well and is one of the strongest aspects of the film. And, for fans of Raimi there are a lot of references to his work and cameos (like Bill Cobbs, Ted Raimi, John Paxton, and of course Bruce Campbell).

Visually, the film is both fantastic and problematic. Most of the film’s sets seem to be created digitally giving the film a very clean and colorfully bold palate which pops and does fit the aesthetic of the world. Additionally, there are a lot of visual and thematic references to The Wizard of Oz that fans will appreciate. However, the artifice of it all also seems to make the film feel a bit soulless. The cast is very strong and their great performances and energy brings a lot of the heart back into the film, and with Raimi’s direction saves the film from feeling overly cold and emotionally detached (Disney’s misguided need to create their fantastical live-action worlds digitally puts presentation over substance, which is never good – Alice in Wonderland had the same problem – they might as well just make these films as fully animated). That said, it is interesting to note that two of the best characters in the film are animated, but that is due to the great voice acting and character moments given to them.

These fantastic supporting characters are Finley and China Girl (who does not have a proper name), Oz’s two traveling companions. They bring humor and compassion to the film and Oz (as they allow him to right some of the wrongs he left behind in Kansas – at least thematically), and their character moments are almost always superb tonally. They are very much a vital part of the film’s overall success.

While the characters are mostly well done, the narrative and characterizations sort of feel a bit outdated as well. Specifically, why do the three Witches need the Wizard at all? They seem all very capable of handling things within the Land of Oz without any help, yet they appear somewhat lost without the aid of a male character. Though, the story can be taken (and maybe should be) as a journey in which Oz is to become a good person – a hero – rather than the selfish, greedy, cowardly, and shallow con-man he is. Thus, the narrative is seen through his perspective. And, since he sees woman as somewhat weak-willed (as seen in his manipulation of May in Kansas), it is only right that the women in the Land of Oz would be projections of his own opinion of women.  Plus, it seems as if Glinda could fight her own battles, but is taking a conscious backseat to Oz so that he can learn from his journey and become the man he needs to be (and maybe she does need his help a little too). Evanora never feels like she needs or even respects the Wizard, and is merely playing along (like Glinda to an extent) to get what she wants. However, Theodora comes off the worst. She is completely naïve and easily falls victim to the Wizard’s false charms (but again, in doing so she helps teach him a lesson he needs to learn). Thus, the female leads do feel outdated, but this serves a specific role in the narrative (good or bad). But, the whole affair has sort of ‘it’s a man’s world’ vibe to it.

Oz the Great and Powerful, despite a few minor issues, is a great film for kids – it mixes all its elements with the right balance. It also works for adults (I found myself smiling quite a bit while watching the film – pesky adventure film nostalgia and love of Sam Raimi’s style and past work), as it has good characters and a tonally adept sense of humor making it very entertaining.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: As said in the review, Sam Raimi may have been the best choice to helm this project. His sort of classic sense of how an adventure film should be made fits this film very well (and his natural goofy humor worked really well here too). Plus, his background in horror, made the scary moments much more effective than they probably would have been in lesser hands adding to the overall power of the emotional connection that the audience has with the characters and narrative. I am interested to see where Disney takes the story from here in their proposed sequel (Raimi has said he is not interested yet in doing it) – will they remake Dorothy’s story? How will that work? And, I look forward to Raimi’s next project.

Danny Elfman’s score both fits the tone and style of the film very well and also feels and sounds like a typical Elfman score (which is great too – for fans of his). Here is his theme for the film (I think it is one of his better scores in a while). Like Elfman, cinematographer Peter Deming is also a frequent collaborator of Raimi’s. With this film, his work is very good. While the overall look is very clean with bright solid colors, Deming’s work amplifies the dark moments wonderfully. Production designer Robert Stromberg also designed the Disney’s live-action Alice in Wonderland and brought a similar feel and look to this film (only without the added Tim Burton stylistic elements). On a side note this is his third film as production designer, and he won Oscars for the first two. His work here is very good, but again it also feels very soulless which ultimately hurts the film (though, he may indeed be nominated for yet another Oscar).

The performances are very good throughout the film, and one of its strongest attributes. Joey King and Zach Braff’s voice work for China Girl and Finley respectively is exceptional creating maybe the two best characters in the film. Rachel Weisz is good as Evanora. She plays the part as almost the polar opposite to Mila Kunis’s Theodora. Weisz keeps her emotions and schemes hidden while Kunis is completely all-in and exposed emotionally. Michelle Williams’s Glinda is wholeheartedly good, but a bit mischievous as well. All three actresses bring their witches to life charmingly for the tone of the narrative (and seem to be having fun with them too). James Franco is excellent as well playing Oz. He is completely cheesy skating by on charm, which works marvelously because he is a two-bit sleazy con-man and carnival magician (of course he is cheesy), but it works so well because under all the showmanship and façade is a lost soul. Franco plays this remarkably well.

Summary & score: Oz the Great and Powerful is an adventure film rich with style, great characters, and fantastic moments – and best of all, it is enjoyable for both kids and adults. 7/10 

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