Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
March 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful

The curtain calls

Miscasting and an underdeveloped story derail Sam Raimi's otherwise charming, eye-popping spectacle, 'Oz the Great and Powerful'

Oz the Great and Powerful
Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenplay: Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the works of L. Frank Baum
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox and Joey King
Rated PG / 2 hours, 10 minutes
Opened March 8, 2013
(out of four)

What Oz the Great and Powerful lacks in purpose, it makes up for in imagination. And what it lacks in imagination, it makes up for in color. Lots and lots of color. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more colorful movie - and that's just as well, given that this is an offshoot from (or unofficial prequel to) one of the landmarks of early Technicolor.

Indeed, this Oz is a production designer's showcase as much as anything else, and it's in the details of the sets, backgrounds and special effects that the film is at its most . . . well, its most. There's a bombardment of visual information on display, much of it playful and inventive, and all of it bursting with the brightest colors of the rainbow. (Six months from now when you're at Best Buy looking to pick up a new TV, this is the Blu-ray they'll use to show you how much the colors "pop.")

But for all the fantastical extravagance on display, there's a conspicuous lack of energy in the storytelling department. The basis for the film is the story of how the infamous man behind the curtain - as well as various witches, both good and wicked - came to be. But the way it handles the characters suggests there was never much more than a shell of an idea. All the pretty colors are meant to distract us, I suppose, from noticing how colorlessly each character was written.

The titular Oz (James Franco) is a two-bit huckster, lothario and magician in a traveling circus, a man who longs for some ambiguous idea of greatness, and who gets the chance to achieve that greatness when he's swept away to the land of Oz. Throughout his journey, he is surrounded by mostly female characters, almost all of whom practically swoon every time he smiles at them. Right there, we can see the screenplay's laziness. Is Oz really that charming? Hardly. But that doesn't stop the film from insisting nearly every woman he meets falls head-over-heels for him. Sometimes, an exceptionally charismatic performance can largely make up for a superficially written character, but Franco doesn't possess that kind of dominant screen presence or force of personality. (More on that later.)

The most interesting thing about the construction of the story - though one that could have still been expanded much further - is how Oz's experiences in Oz serve as a metaphor for his failures in Kansas, and provide a chance to redeem himself for them. During the early sequences in the circus (shot in black and white in the old standard 1.33:1 Academy ratio), we see moment after moment of his shortcomings as a man. He treats his assistant Frank (Zach Braff) like garbage, referring to him as merely a trained monkey. He has an old flame, Annie (Michelle Williams), who visits him whenever the circus rolls into her town; but despite his obvious affection, he turns his back on her in pursuit of his dreams. And then there's the wheelchair-bound little girl (Joey King) at the circus, who believes in Oz's abilities so deeply that she begs him to make her walk, a request that doesn't end well for anyone.

As it turns out, those scenarios repeat themselves in Oz. He saves the life of a flying monkey named Finley (voiced by Braff), who swears his lifelong allegiance to him as his personal servant. Later on, he happens upon the China Girl, a porcelain doll (voiced by King) whose home has been destroyed and whose fragile legs have been shattered. This time, Oz can save the little girl, gluing her legs back together and helping her walk again. It is the best scene in the movie by a mile. (Incidentally, several of the best scenes involve the China Girl, including the single funniest moment, a shocking, bravura line reading by King after she convinces Oz to let her come along on his dangerous journey to destroy the Wicked Witch.)

And finally he meets up with Glinda the Good Witch (Williams), who is just as good and pure as her Kansas doppelgänger, and who commissions Oz to help defeat the Wicked Witch(es) with the help of all the good-hearted, non-violent souls (Tinkers, farmers and Munchkins among them) in her little Utopian town. In Glinda, Oz gets a second chance with the one who got away.

Back in the Emerald City are the sisters Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who have promised him the kingdom and its endless riches if he proves he indeed is the Wizard prophesied to kill the Wicked Witch and restore order and happiness to Oz. And so his quest begins.

I don't think it can be considered too much of a spoiler to say that, of the three central female roles (Glinda, Theodora and Evanora), at least one of them has to be wicked. I won't get into specifics, but let's at least get that on the table. But what we can discuss is how well each witch, good or wicked, comes across as embodied by these three actresses. It should come as no surprise that the two best performances - indeed, the two best in the film as a whole - come from Weisz and Williams. But the disappointment is Kunis, who is awful and emotionless in a vitally important role. It's hard to imagine anyone bringing less to a performance.

Of course, most of the heavy lifting is left to Franco, who continues to be a puzzlement. He's been excellent in certain roles throughout his career - Freaks and Geeks, Milk, Pineapple Express, Spider-Man - but other times he does nothing to distinguish himself. This is one of those times. It's not that he's bad as Oz - he's fine - but "fine" when you're meant to carry an entire movie is not good enough. There's a potentially interesting character arc here, but not much of a character emerges at all.

In retrospect, that seems to be the biggest misfire of all. You get the feeling that Oz has enough going for it that a truly memorable, idiosyncratic lead performance could have brought all the other elements to life. As it stands, Oz the Great and Powerful and its titular character do a fine job looking the part, but not much else.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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