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Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

March 9, 2013

MY CALL:  This film aims for greatness and has all the right tools for success, but it just turned out mediocre, if that.  The acting, CGI effects and writing all disappoint.  But it truly would be great for family night with the kids.

Borrowing from the effective style of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Oz the Great and Powerful opens in black and white and narrow-framed as we are introduced to Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco; Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 127 Hours), a magician with a traveling circus in Kansas.  Like any magician, he is trained in misdirection and illusion, however his selfish personality aims his talents away from being a great man and instead towards manipulating women’s emotions.  James Franco, being experienced in playing likable, charismatic and understated characters, serves as an obvious choice for the clean cut, “all talk and no walk” Oz. Unfortunately, this was not one of Franco’s better performances.

Escaping a confrontation with an angry carney, Oz sets off in a hot air balloon which meets a tornado and somehow transports him to Oz.  Cue widescreen and color!

Much as did (or would, this being a prequel) Dorothy, Oz finds many well-placed parallels between his life in Kansas and Oz.  These are challenges–from which he shied  due to fear or cowardice–represented by a porcelain China doll girl he is able to mend and an angry lion that he fends off.  Components like a fearful lion and scarecrows also harbinger Dorothy’s adventure.  These devices, with one rather forced exception, were tactfully delivered and greatly enhanced the film.

First we meet Theodora the good witch (Mila Kunis; Ted, Friends With Benefits), who explains that Oz has clearly come to Oz, a land of the same name, to fulfill a prophesy decreed by the past wizard and king of Oz.  He is to kill the Wicked Witch and claim the throne.  Being a man of little action and many words, he uses his comforting smile and showmanship to play the part–so he may claim the riches that come with the kingdom.

Another parallel, Oz meets a small anthropomorphic winged monkey (Finley) voiced by Zach Braff, who also plays Oz’s underappreciated assistant in the carnival.  Finley pledges his servitude to the great wizard.  As Finley, Zach Braff steals the show with great lines as he stands for the voice of over-cautious reason and guides Oz into discovering his latent leadership and goodness.  Braff is also the only actor who performs well throughout the film, although that may be more to the writers’ or director’s fault.  I was also very impressed by the young Joey King (the China doll girl, of The Dark Knight Rises and the upcoming haunter The Conjuring), who is responsible for the movie’s most touching moments.

Theodora and her sisters Evanora (Rachel Weisz; The Bourne Legacy) and Glinda (Michelle Williams; Win Win, My Week With Marilyn), flying monkeys, singing munchkins and especially the Wicked Witch all feel  forced upon us, and often awkward, as we watch an “agenda” being slowly unveiled.

The special effects were just as forced and ineffective as the bulk of the acting.  The tornado sequence was meant to be exciting and impressive–I couldn’t wait for it to end.  Our CGI introduction to Oz and its nature attempted to emulate Avatar but used close up shots with over-exposed bright colors which distracted rather than unveiling the grandiose world.  All scenes involving flying appeared stagnantly blue-screened and behind their time instead of exciting (like Avatar) or other-worldly (like Peter Pan). Worst of all were the effects attributed to the witches’ magic–painful (like Your Highness).

Somewhat redeeming was the music, the sentiment and the family-appropriateness. Danny Elfman, as always, does a fantastic job scoring the right moods into the film.  When endearing moments offered a break from wooden acting, the sincerity was tangible and I felt like a better person for witnessing it.  I was also shocked that Sam Raimi (the Spider-Man trilogy; Evil Dead; Drag Me to Hell) managed to make such a family-friendly movie while presenting the origin of wickedness in the Wicked Witch.

Most important was the ending.  That was done very well and was very touching.  The ending reminded me that this was just rated PG and while, for adults, I’d say skip this terrible movie at all costs, I’d go out of my way to sit down and watch this with kids.  It sends the right message even if it does it without Oscar-worthy performances.

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