March 20, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful

The first and last thirty minutes of Oz the Great and Powerful are funny and clever, and James Franco's deliberately corny performance works well for the movie. The middle section sags, as Franco, playing Oz, the con man from Kansas who is magically transported--via tornado--from Kansas to Oz, is sent out by two good witches to destroy a wicked one.

James Franco is just the man for this kind of movie. With his wide-eyed stoner look, Franco is amiable but also tongue-in-cheek. He turns Oz into an endearing snake oil salesman who has dreams of emulating Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison, but feels constrained by the cynical frontier-people of the Midwest. Once in Oz, he encounters people who have real magic powers, but are so trusting that they're easily conned into believing his yarns.

The problem is that the story feels too much like a rehash of The Wizard of Oz. Only it's not nearly efficient enough to retread such familiar turf. Worse, the film is full of cutesy characters, including Franco's flying monkey sidekick and a tug-at-your-heartstrings china girl. (I kept hoping someone would smash her, and groaned inwardly when I realized she was to be a major character.)

It's surprising to see a director like Sam Raimi churning out such commercial material, except that he's spent the last decade making the Spider-Man movies. Probably it would have been even less fun with a more conventional director. Raimi is trying to out-Tim Burton Tim Burton. But he also takes the material more seriously than Burton has done in some of his recent work (like the abysmal Dark Shadows). There's a mixture of reverence and deliberate artifice at work here, only the two fail to connect the movie. It's a bit disjointed. Is it a silly kid's movie? A wide-eyed adventure/homage to a classic American fable? A parody? It wants to be all of them, perhaps, but never really makes up its mind what it's going to do with such ambitions.

At the same time, there are bits of humor that manage to find their way into the script, and these help loosen up some of the dry spots in Oz, which has visual opulence to spare, but often finds itself lacking in true imagination. (Also, I really enjoyed the finale, in which Oz uses his tricks to fool the witches. It was a fun way to end the movie and breathe some life into it.)

[Spoilers in next paragraph]

The witches are interesting: Michele Williams looks a little like Kim Basinger. She plays Glinda: the exceedingly good and somewhat naive witch. Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz play the bad witches. Kunis is hard to take in anything because she constantly reminds me of her character from Family Guy, and she's not very intimidating when she transforms into the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West. I kept wishing for Margaret Hamilton (the original Wicked Witch), so terrifyingly good. But Weisz is an absolute delight. I felt that she relished her part, and she's so gorgeous that it makes her a very enjoyable villain.

With Zach Braff, in a small role as Franco's assistant back in Kansas (and the voice of the annoying monkey), Joey King, Tim Holmes, Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox, Abigail Spencer, and Bruce Campbell in a cameo as one of the guards in the Emerald City. Culled together from L. Frank Baum's various Oz books by screenwriters David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner. 127 min.

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