Friday, March 15, 2013

Disney takes a worthy trip to 'Oz'

Disney, with the help of director Sam Raimi, is off to see if the wizard can grant the wish of box office gold in "Oz the Great and Powerful," a prequel to the "The Wizard of Oz."

This is not Disney's first attempt to visit Oz. That would be 1985's "Return to Oz," a distinctly darker vision than the brightly colored musical interpretation of Oz that everyone has come to know and love.

"Return to Oz" has its charms, but like this latest film, has the distinct disadvantage of being compared to one of the most beloved films of all time. No film can possibly live up to those expectations. Any new Oz film needs to be accepted on its own merits.

Despite there being 17 books by L. Frank Baum exploring the land of Oz, this new film creates a largely original story and introduces several new characters. Screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire have decided to tell the story of how traveling circus magician Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco) arrives in the land Oz and becomes the infamous wizard.

The film also shows the origins of the green-skinned, broom-riding Wicked Witch of the West, which have been explored in the book "Wicked." Kapner and Lindsay-Abaire offer up their own take on how the witch becomes so wicked.

Oz, the man, is portrayed as an egotistical shyster and charlatan with dreams of being a great man. His ambitions have caused him to give up on love and friendship, which we see in the wonderful black and white opening scenes.

In Kansas, Oz is needlessly cruel to his assistant (Zach Braff) and pretends to be unhurt when Annie (Michelle Williams), the love of his life, tells him she is marrying another man. As was true of "The Wizard of Oz," these characters have counterparts in the land of Oz.

Franco may seem like an odd choice for the role of Oz. He gives a grinning, sometimes off-putting performance. At times, he seems to be trying too hard. This may well be the point, though.

This Oz is not supposed to be particularly likable at first, but, to Franco's credit, he makes Oz just human enough that we are willing to follow him. Toward the end of the film, when Franco has Oz drop the smarminess, he is quite endearing.

Once Oz arrives in Oz, he is mistaken as a powerful wizard and he is told if he defeats the Wicked Witch he'll become the wealthy ruler of Oz. This begins Oz's journey away from being a selfish man toward being a good, caring man and in the process becomes the great man he so yearns to be.

The first person he meets in Oz is Theodora (Mila Kunis), one of three witches in Oz. She is sweet and naive and falls hard for Oz's reckless charms. The other witches of Oz are Glinda (Williams) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz). Naturally, some witches are good and some are bad, but to get into where allegiances fall would spoil the film of its surprises.

All three women give solid performances, but Kunis makes the most lasting impression. Theodora is the witch with the most depth and a compelling story arc. Kunis projects an childlike innocence mixed with a poignant melancholy that is effective.

Just as Dorothy gathered companions in her trip down the Yellow Brick Road, so does Oz in the form of Finley (voiced by Braff), a kindly flying monkey, and China Girl (voiced by Joey King), a fragile, but feisty porcelain doll.

While not as memorable as the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, Finley and China Girl are good foils for Franco's Oz and are essential to him becoming a better man. Braff's Finley provides nice comic relief and China Girl is the heart of the film. Both characters are computer generated but Franco develops a believable, and even tender, relationship with both characters.

Speaking of computer-generated visuals, as is too often true with big budget films of late, "Oz the Great Powerful" relies too heavily on CG effects. At times the visuals in the film are stunningly beautiful, other times they feel hollow, impersonal and lack the magic that "The Wizard of Oz" captured more than 70 years ago.

That being said, Raimi's direction does help in making the visual fabric of the film work, particularly with his penchant for unexpected camera angles. Raimi got his start in the horror genre with the playfully subversive "Evil Dead" series. Some of that mischievousness to scare makes it into "Oz" most explicitly in the truly frightening upgrade to the flying monkeys and in Oz's time in the twister that sends him to the land of Oz.

"Oz the Great and Powerful," while not a new classic, fares well at both honoring the 1939 while also attempting to create a new vision. It is a fun, brightly colored adventure with a good deal of humor and a surprising amount of heart.

1 comment:

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