Saturday, June 8, 2013

Oz: The Great And Powerful

Theory: Producer Joe Roth decided he could make a Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie without either Tim Burton or Johnny Depp and it would be just as good.

Conclusion: Tragically, he was right.

Neither The Boy nor The Flower wanted to see this, but The Barb, being seven, was primarily concerned about whether the flying monkeys would be too scary. The Flower wobbled, almost heading out with us at the last second, but got cold feet and bailed.

The Boy yelled "YOLO!" and ended realizing the shortcomings of that philosophy. I said no fewer than six times afterwards "You didn't have to come with us!"

The Barb declared it the greatest movie EVER!

Oz is directed by Sam Raimi, which is why I wanted to go see it. Raimi's movies are almost always interesting. The Quick and the Dead, for example, is highly watchable for all its flaws. Spiderman 3 is the only movie of his which I would dread watching again. I figured it would be a plodding fantasy like, say, Jack The Giant Slayer or Roth's Alice In Wonderland, but Snow White and the Huntsman is more on the mark.

It's not that it's plodding; it has that going for it. It's just that some of the artistic choices are so staggeringly bad, the movie never fully recovers.

James Franco is no Johnny Depp. I generally like Franco, whether he's trapped under a rock or being assassinated by a hitman, but while handsome, he doesn't have the raw charisma needed for the part. He's a carnival magician who flits from town-to-town and woman-to-woman, and while he's believable enough as a womanizer (is there any chance he could not be in real life?), he just doesn't have the raw charisma, stage presence or the voice to play a great huckster.

He always seems like a decent guy, which may be the problem. Honestly, I'd have a hard time thinking of who could do this role these days. Johnny Depp's a little old. That would make him 70 when Dorothy Shows up. (Frank Morgan was around 50 in the original.) Jack Black, too. Actually, even Franco's a bit old.

I dunno. Channing Tatum? Seriously, I have no clue what 30-ish male actor has the necessary stage presence. Depp 20 years ago was just developing that presence. In fact, Depp's portrayal of Ed Wood is closer to the mark than Franco here.

Sorry to harp on it but in a movie about Oz, the portrayal of Oz himself is pretty important.

Even so, the opening black-and-white in Kansas is one of the stronger parts of the movie. The backstory was okay, even if a bit eye-roll inducing. The story introduces Dorothy's mother as Annie, the love of Oz's life, whom he can't commit to because he's got greater ambitions...that...uh...she wants him to live up to but he can't. Or something.

The need to connect the stories struck me as cheesy, but I'm not 100% sure that's not from the books. L. Frank Baum was the honey badger of retconning. First book? The Emerald City isn't emerald at all. It's a normal city where everyone is required to wear green lenses. Second book? It's emerald.

When we get to Oz, the second staggering artistic failure emerges: The Whimsy Woods (I think) are a garish nightmare of CGI, completely devoid of any verisimilitude. The Boy pointed out astutely that this kind of splashy, garish, and completely unnecessary sequence is akin to the mandatory sex scene in movies of the '70s/'80s.

It's really and truly awful. And the 3D is irritating. (We saw it 2D, so it was stupid as well as irritating.)

Then we're hit with the next big casting disaster: Mila Kunis. We generally receive Miss Kunis favorably here at the 'strom, having occupied the niche of "World's Coolest Girlfriend" in a number of movies, but when we first hear her (offscreen), she sounds like she's off the set of "That '70s Show". The makeup is troweled on so thick (or maybe it's CGI), she looks completely artificial. She does a little better later on.

Then we're introduced to Frank, a friendly flying monkey (Zach Braff) who becomes Oz's companion. I was cringing at this point but...this actually works out okay. It's not great, but given the capacity for "Frank" to turn into another Jar Jar or Ewok or other cutesy irritating sidekick, it's sort of amazing that I didn't want to "Fluffy and Uranus" Frank by the end.

Similarly, China Girl (a girl literally made of china) should've been both creepy and cloying, but Raimi very deftly handles this.

Apparently, he eschewed motion capture and had the actors do their parts, which were filmed and then rendered independently by real-live animators. This was a solid choice.

Next we get Rachel Weisz who's been growing on me of late. She's all right.

The cast is rounded out with Michelle Williams, who is the brightest spot in the cast. I was not a huge fan of her Marilyn, you may recall, but she imbues her portrayal of Glinda with a purity that recalls Billie Burke (who was 56 at the time of the 1939 flick!) without a trace of camp or irony.

After the initial shocks, the movie actually works pretty well because of its absolute sincerity. Raimi is a true believer and his earnestness is precisely what pulls iffy premises like The Quick and the Dead into the watchable category, and comic book flicks like Spider-Man 2 into greatness.

The Oz books are dubious in a lot of ways: They're not surreal, like Wonderland, but they're not fantasy-realist, like Middle Earth or Narnia. I can't recall if they were actually violent—violence in kidlit being a non-issue back then—but if memory serves there were occasional outbursts, with the overall inclination being to resolve things via absurdity and bluff rather than actual conflict.

Raimi deftly handles The Battle for Emerald City without turning it into Minas Tirith, although the resemblances to Army of Darkness are unavoidable. Oz in Oz is much like Ash in the 13th century. Still there's less violence and more chicanery, which is really keeping with Baum.

Yeah, we hated it. We really couldn't get over the initial awfulness. The Boy was really turned off by Kunis, though he was somewhat more favorable toward Franco than I. We both conceded that we didn't not care at the end, which is an accomplishment, really.

And, again the seven-year-old thought it was the greatest movie ever! (And wasn't scared, which has been a real issue for her.)

Music by Danny Elfman. In case the Burton-y-ness of it wasn't obvious enough.

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