Saturday, December 16

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL: HUMANS VS. CGI

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The latest product in a century old brand, Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful serves as a prequel to L. Frank Baum’s century old book series and perhaps, most notably, MGM’s 1939 mega-classic, The Wizard Of Oz. Sam Raimi’s new film, playing on both 2-D and 3-D screens, capitalizes on the technological advancements of the 21st century, but lacks the warmth and humanity typically expected of Oz endeavors. However, the movie manages to entertain as an routine 2013 spectacle, while providing moments of engaging storytelling—as long as you can temporarily forget the legendary magic of Judy Garland and her iconic friends.

Baum published the first of his 14 Oz novels in 1900.  In 1939, after spawning numerous silent screen adaptations, the book was turned into a smash MGM musical. The film, starring Garland, became a quintessential American classic and the embodiment of romanticized youth. Since then, there have been many incarnations of Oz: musicals, animated sequels, revisionist novels, etc. Raimi’s new film uses the Baum books as a launching pad, but features an entirely new pre-The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz story.

Oz the Great and Powerful tells the story of Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a hack magician who lands in Oz by hot air balloon while escaping a jealous husband during a Kansas cyclone. There he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), a smitten young witch determined to believe that Diggs is the Wizard. Prophesized to save the kingdom from an evil Wicked Witch, Diggs has no choice but to go along with the charade by convincing Theodora’s skeptical sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz) of his powers. She orders that he must hunt down and kill their evil sister, Glinda (Michelle Williams).

Along the way, Diggs is accompanied by a gregarious flying monkey (voiced by Zack Braff) and an orphaned china doll (voiced by Joey King), each desperate for companionship. But Diggs soon realizes that Glinda is good and Evanora is wicked. When romantic sparks fly between Diggs and Glinda, Evanora preys upon Theodora’s jealousy and turns her into the familiar green-faced Wicked Witch of the West. As Glinda and an army of Ozians prepare to defeat the two evil witches,  the Kansas magician struggles with the knowledge that he is, in fact, not the Wizard they hope him to be. Or is he…? 

The story is fairly easy to follow, and if the plot twists fail to excite, Raimi (director of Evil Dead and Spiderman), litters the screen with a feast of computer-generated spectacles. As the first major screen adaptation of the Oz universe since 1939, comparisons to the beloved classic are inevitable. Unfortunately, this is where the new film suffers most. 1939’s featured a cast entirely of humans—save Toto—while the 2013 adaptation features whole characters created by technicians at a computer. While Dorothy’s pals were three humans in disguise, Diggs travels with a human and two computer-generated images. As a result, moments of necessary emotion are here rendered artificial—in stark contrast to the simple human genuineness of the MGM film. In its place are soaring landscapes, larger-than-life battles, and, as to be expected, occasionally trite dialogue.

However, comparing the two films does this one an injustice. Any picture up against The Wizard of Oz would fall short. And to Raimi’s credit, he has gathered a relatively solid ensemble. Franco brings the right combination of charm and sleaze to his role as the reluctant protagonist. Though not inherently likable, he still manages to get the audience in his corner. Williams’ Glinda looks radiant and delivers the film’s most satisfying performance—with real heart. The cold Weisz does well in her role as the Wicked Witch of the East, but it’s Kunis’s performance as the iconic Wicked Witch of the West that leaves the picture wanting.

At the start of the film, Kunis fails to bring the necessary vivacity to Theodora, instead turning in a performance that is as dull and wooden.  After her transformation into the Wicked Witch of the West, Kunis pushes too hard and disrupts the viewer’s willing suspension-of-disbelief. It is the most disappointing performance of the picture. However, in the occasional flashes of honesty, found primarily between Williams and Franco, the performances work in tandem with the story’s fantasy to make a picture that works. 

This is an Oz film and will appeal to audiences of all ages. While comparisons to the classic are inevitable, this film has its own style and its own set of merits—even if most of them are computer-generated. But since this is the 21st century’s M.O., is there really anyone here we can blame? Instead, all we can do is sit back and enjoy what we are given—faint glimpses of the once-upon-a-time magic of Dorothy Gale’s trip over the rainbow.

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