Thursday, March 7, 2013

Review: "Oz the Great and Powerful"


"Oz the Great and Powerful" is one of those movie projects that likely began in earnestness, progressed with craftsmanship and joy, and was completely doomed from the outset.

And not because it's some sort of cinematic travesty to make a prequel to "The Wizard of Oz," one of the most iconic films ever made. The writings of L. Frank Baum (and his descendents) have been translated many times before and after 1939, including two "official" sequels, one of them animated, neither of which anyone remembers.

This "Oz," alas, is destined to join them.

Director Sam Raimi, his cast and crew started from a place of puzzlement rather than wonderment, which is what this material should be all about. Their film never quite decides if it wants to be parody, comedy or fantasy. The result is a smug, overly ornamented amalgam of all three.

James Franco as the titular character, a charlatan magician turned wizard savior, feels like he belongs to another movie. Screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire construct him as a self-deluding dreamer, a man with an outsized conception of himself. Franco and Raimi, though, keep nudging him toward charming rapscallion.

This Oz is too full of himself to be sympathetic, and too smarmy to be endearing. Franco's omnipresent grin is somewhere between the Cheshire cat's smile and a discomfiting leer. Oz knows he's fraud, and isn't bothered about it, other than it keeps him from attaining the greatness he feels he deserves. This character is missing a key ingredient of self-loathing.

Not only is this wizard not wonderful, he's not even particularly likeable.

Like the original, "Oz the Great and Powerful" begins in Kansas in the early 20th century, rendered in murky black-and-white. Oz is a carnival huckster plying his trade before unschooled hayseeds, teasing the simple-minded women with gifts and flattery. When a crippled girl asks him to use his "magic" to make her walk, he seems affronted that she would demand any substantial feat of him.

One balloon ride through a tornado later, Oz descends into the multi-colored world that bears his name, and also carries his prophecy: a mighty wizard will defeat the evil witches who have killed the king and usurped his land.

A charming young lass named Theodora (Mila Kunis) presents herself as his guide and, she announces, his future queen once Oz has slain the witches and assumed the throne. Kunis' transparent lack of basic thespian skills, and the fact that she keeps getting cast in movies that require them, is one of Hollywood's most enduring peculiarities.

She introduces him to her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who dispatches Oz off to slay the villainous witch. But when he finally encounters her (played by Michelle Williams), things are not all as they seem.

Much like Dorothy before him, Oz collects companions along the way. A flying monkey in a bellhop costume (voiced by Zach Braff) becomes his sworn servant, while a little doll girl made literally out of delicate china (Joey King) is saved by some of his technological magic.

There are also the prerequisite Munchkins, who are basically trotted out for one aborted musical bit, plus helpful townsfolk and some industrious tinkers (led by Bill Cobbs).

The computer-generated imagery is spectacular, and it's meant to be. Rather than making the CGI subservient to the narrative, Raimi often goes in for long, lingering shots of landscapes, flora and fauna -- sheer spectacle for its own sake.

Like its supposed wizard, "Oz the Great and Powerful" is too enamored with itself to stir up any real magic.

2 stars out of four

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