March 8. 2013

Oz-the-great-and-powerful, cinema-siren, movie-review

“I don’t want to be a good man, I want to be a great one!” This declaration by James Franco as the title character of Sam Raimi’s new Disney prequel could just as easily be a hope of the director’s as well.

Is the movie great? Is it even good? Oz the Great and Powerful is entertaining and you could do worse than to spend your time watching this interpretation of L. Frank Baum’s world flash flowers and toss monkey wings in your face.

But the weaknesses of it make me walk all the way to the dark edge between  recommendation and warning to ponder throwing my ruby shoes into the abyss. Uh oh. Cinema Siren is damning with faint praise here, especially if you know how much sparkly shoes mean to a girl…

This movie tells the story of how the wizard came to Oz and became the man behind the curtain, the wizard Dorothy and her friends seek to solve their problems. This wizard-to-be has his own problem when he arrives in Oz, where he claims to be the chosen one to save them from the wicked witch. He doesn’t have the real magic the good gullible people of Oz are expecting. What’s a charlatan to do?

Oz-The-Great-And-Powerful, James-Franco, cinema-siren

Give them something to believe in, even if it is all just flash and noise, without substance. And that is how James Franco, who plays the lead, leaves us feeling, as if his character Oscar Diggs, the magician and compulsive liar posing as great and powerful, is missing more than just a dependable moral compass. He’s too self aware, and skims too close to the surface to bring us with him on his emotional arc to finding goodness within himself.

It doesn’t help that the girls around him are like a witch’s harem, either fawning over him, or waiting for the big strong man described in a prophecy to save their kingdom. The shattered relationship between the three sibling sisters would have been fascinating to examine, but we find out little of what motivates them or keeps them at odds. The youngest, Mila Kunis as Theodora, immediately and naively falls for Oscar. Her older sister Evanora schemes back in the emerald city.

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Rachel Weisz chews enough scenery to crack a tooth, but she has enough charisma to get our interest. Is she the wickedest witch? It surely isn’t Glinda, the tiara-sporting blonde played earnestly by Michelle Williams. She’s so good she believes Oscar can be both a good man and a great one. The girls could have been given, with a meaty script, some depth of character. Not so, but they sure look good in their various witchy duds!

Some of you fans of the original 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz have read the books on which it was based. If so, you might also know author L. Frank Baum had positive feminist ideals sprinkled throughout his books, in part from the influence of his mother-in-law, pioneering feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage. His worlds were matriarchal, and full of powerful women.

How disappointing that these bickering girls fight like cats over just some guy.  And the guy being portrayed by James Franco, only seems believable as a tool.  We can’t quite go with him when he shows a man choosing to be more.  Consequently we aren’t invested in how he succeeds, beyond saving those in peril.

cinema-siren, oz-the-great-and-powerful, witches

That being said, the visuals are lovely. From the first moment when the opening credits roll, we are delighted with inventive yet nostalgic images. These credits are like watching an ever-changing penny arcade mutoscope, one of those wind-up movie machines from the turn of the last century. The 3D is used creatively and is well integrated with the story, giving an interesting upgrade to sets designed as an ode to the Victor Fleming original.

Oz-The-Great-And-Powerful, cinema-siren

Purists and folks over 30 might cry foul, feeling nothing can replace or outdo the production design of old Hollywood. With that attitude, they shouldn’t have entered the theatre in the first place. Though the film is uneven, it does offer a diverse representation of all the latest 3D and visual effects to make Oz both magical and real.

The china girl character (she doesn’t even have her own name…) and Finley the flying monkey sidekick aren’t nearly as fatal additions as I’d have expected in terms of the CGI of it. The girl has a creepily tragic yet wistful quality that makes her interesting. The monkey seems to be playing part of Oscar’s conscience, which works to a point, but he delivers most of the jokes (such as they are), and that makes him seem like he’s in the wrong movie, or at the very least, out of place.

james-franco, oz-the-great-and-powerful, flying-monkey

I’m so sad that Robert Downey Jr. didn’t take on this role. Even with the missing element of womanly empowerment, it would have been a far better journey to take with him, and in the end we would have believed Oscar to have been moved from chicanery to sincerity. One miscasting isn’t the downfall of this movie, but it very nearly could have been.

Add to it the sisters’ blandness and sycophancy, and you have only the connected memory of a 1939 classic and some great visuals to grasp for comfort. As the original is one of the greatest classics of all time, it makes appreciating this film all the more of a challenge unless you block memory of the original and all knowledge of L Frank Baum’s works.

There are effects and action and fun enough for those on the search, especially in early March….Although it can qualify as solid entertainment for the effects and production design alone, there’s not enough to make a new classic to match the old.  This movie may be mildly diverting, but for that you’ll have to keep looking somewhere over the rainbow. It ain’t here.