Saturday, March 9, 2013

Behind the Curtain: OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL


It can’t be easy to set out to make a film dancing around in the iconography of one of the greatest films of all time. Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful, a film that may not be great and powerful, but is certainly good and entertaining, uses memorable aspects The Wizard of Oz both big and small in inventive and surprising ways without embarrassing itself or seeming a diminishment of a beloved cultural masterpiece. That is some kind of wonderment. The film itself, which is set decades before the 1939 classic and follows a Kansas con man magician into Oz, is an earnest work of sturdy craftsmanship and showmanship, sparkling with a zippy sense of fun. Though it seems to wobble here and there, threatening to fall flat on its face, it rallies for a rousing ending. Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire’s script constantly walks up to convention only to back away in delightful flourishes.

James Franco plays the magician who will become the Wizard of Oz. He’s not quite believable, which is in some ways the point. (Just don’t imagine what Raimi’s regular character actor Bruce Campbell, who appears late in the film in a cameo, could have done with the role.) He’s a huckster with sparkling charisma hidden behind a desperate layer of slimy smarm. The prologue, set in a classically square aspect ratio and filmed in jaw-droppingly gorgeous black and white, finds his magic act at a county fair dying painfully when a sweet girl in a wheelchair begs him to make her walk again. The crowd turns on him (“He’s not a real magician!”) and on Oz’s face is written both the pain of a performer facing a hostile crowd and a man torn up by the fact that there’s nothing he can do to help someone in need. He feels like an unhelpful man without a purpose, unable to scam more than a few coins from people he considers country bumpkins.

His personality problems don’t go away, but take on larger phantasmagorical stakes when circumstances conspire to send him over the rainbow. When he’s sucked into a tornado, he’s terrified that he’s about to die, a natural reaction I’d say. When he lands in Oz, the screen expanding, filling with color and obvious digital fakery, he’s befuddled and amused, but tries to hide behind an opaque confidence that slips a bit when the real magic starts sparking around him. It’s an interesting role that calls for a leading man to fall into the background, confused and adrift in a sea of colorful spectacle, while, thrillingly, the women around him hold all the real power in this land and, whatever emotions romantic or otherwise they feel towards him, view him as a pawn in their game of thrones. He meets three witches (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams). At least one is a good witch. One’s a bad witch who, by film’s end, becomes awfully wicked. The third will probably have a house dropped on her head at some point in her future.

The man who would be Wizard is told he’s fulfilling a prophecy by showing up in Oz. To claim the Emerald City’s throne – and all the riches the position supplies – all he must do is kill a wicked witch. Seems easy enough, so off he shuffles down the yellow brick road where, along the way, an ingratiating flying monkey (Zach Braff) and a broken China Doll (Joey King) join the quest. Raimi draws upon his directorial skill sets from both his horror background (The Evil Dead, Drag Me to Hell) and his big budget spectacles (Spider-man, Spider-man 2), staging sequences like a tantalizingly creepy/funny walk through a gloomy forest with ominous crows, snapping plants with glowing eyes, and a hooded figure gliding out of the fog of a graveyard, modulating tension and relief in supremely entertaining ways, cut together in a variety of pop art frames with smartly varied pace. Later, he’ll stage a dazzling witch-on-witch battle that follows a supreme visual and narrative pleasure in the reveal of the surprising way the fraudulent Wizard claims him throne. It’s all of a piece with Raimi’s skill with mixing humor and thrills, creating playful spectacle that’s always aware of its own fiction without lessening the impact of its storytelling.

And what storytelling! It’s lumpy in spots and the character arcs are obvious, but the film is wrapped up in an old-fashioned, hyper-earnest sense of theatrical flourish. By the time the curtain (quite literally) falls, there’s a sense of a master showman shouting “ta-da!” To the tunes of one of Danny Elfman’s best scores in recent memory, the screen is filled with colorful CGI landscapes and charming creature work that’s gloriously fake, approaching the Technicolor perfection of The Wizard of Oz’s painted backdrops. But that’s not to say the effects are wholly unconvincing. On the contrary, they’re often quite spectacular when they need to be. Franco’s travelling companions are effects that work incredibly well. The monkey, for instance, sells some nonverbal punchlines through nothing more than the shifting expressions on his face. The look of the film is appealing through and through. The Land of Oz itself is a glittering jewel of manufactured whimsy and the witches’ elegant wardrobes look like they were cut from the same cloth as MGM’s 1930’s costume department. To top it all off, the 3D is as dazzling as any I’ve seen. (Put it on the short list with Avatar, Hugo, and Life of Pi as essential live action 3D.) Oz is a funny, surprising magic music box of sturdy childlike wonder.

Note: Although I like this film a bit less than the unfairly maligned and forgotten John Carter, it’s interesting to note that two years in a row Disney has released in March an expensive live action film inspired by turn-of-the-20th-century genre fiction about a man in the early 1900s who is whisked away to a different world where he’s just the variable needed to tip the balance in a struggle between competing factions.


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