Monday, March 11, 2013


When Dorothy slowly cracked open the door of her farmhouse and entered into the world of Oz for the first time, something magical happened.  Not only did Dorothy's quivering, youthful jaw go a bit slack but for audiences, no matter the decade, it was also like seeing in color for the first time.  Saturated Technicolor drowned the screen in the beautiful hues of Munchkinland, a town whose swirling brick pathways converged in a hypnotic spiral below Dorothy's spinning feet.

It’s a memorable moment in all of cinema for several reasons but primarily because it so perfectly visualized the transformative power that film had and would continue to have with the newest of technologies, in this case Technicolor.  It is an incredibly hopeful moment and reminds audiences that with the power of imagination we can all go to some place "over the rainbow," where dreams do come true after-all.

Sam Riami's Oz: The Great and Powerful has an equally revealing look into the potential future of studio filmmaking and it is just as shocking and audacious. 

Mirroring the events of The Wizard of Oz, the film starts in black-and-white and follows the 1905 adventures of a troubled hero.  This time the film focuses on that of the womanizing, small-time, magician/con-man Oz (James Franco) whose magic acts, while impressive, haven't managed to launch him out of his role in a troubled, traveling circus.  Like the previous film, audiences are introduced to a number of characters in Oz's life that will reappear in another form later in the land of Oz, these include a stagehand (Zach Braff), love-interest (Michelle Williams), and crippled audience member (Joey King).

In classic fashion, Oz finds himself in a bit of trouble and is caught in his infamous hot-air balloon during a tornado that transports him to the land of Oz.  Riami's (The Spider-man Trilogy, Evil Dead, Drag Me to Hell) direction up to this point is assured and genuinely exciting.  There is just the right amount of his patented creepy visual flair while Oz performs some delightful magic tricks with the help of his assistant.  It has a campy old-school style, amplified by the 4:3 aspect ratio, which feels right in line with the subject matter.  Franco feeds off the energy of the direction and camera for a fun, if not hammy, performance as the larger than life Oz.

However, the second that the film transports its audience to Oz, by literally stretching the screen, the film shatters.  Instead of the beautifully colored sets and Technicolor of the original, audiences are treated with contemporary digital effects that stretch as far as the eye can see.  Just like in the carnival that Oz: The Great and Powerful starts out in, it is merely a fun-house mirror version of the 1939 classic, twisted and distorted.

This Oz isn't believable for a second, what with its garishly colored digital backgrounds, over-animated characters, and appalling overuse of green screen.  If The Wizard of Oz was optimistic about the future of film, Oz: The Great and Powerful represents everything that has gone horribly wrong with that future.

When characters like Oz and Finley, the unfunny, flying Monkey, walk on the yellow-brick road, one of the worst sequences in the film, it is easy to differentiate exactly where the "real world" ends and the digital one begins.  Nothing feels handcrafted or that it could actually exist.  In Avatar there was a sense that the digital world of Pandora could and did actually exist and that its ecosystem made sense.  While that might be a lot to expect from a dreamland like Oz, what isn't too much to expect is that the characters feel like they operate in the same fantasy world.

Weak/lazy visual effects and over-the-top colors, that feel digitally corrected to ugly perfection, could easily be forgiven if the characters and story were interesting, or at least competent.  Instead, Oz: The Great and Powerful is a film full of Hollywood clichĂ©s and trite/phony moralities.  There is no compelling conflict that can be easily identified.  The film presents the idea that there is a growing evil in the land, accelerated by the appearance of a wicked witch, that Oz is destined to defeat.  Destiny is an interesting idea, but it is hardly compelling and removes any power or control over the story from the protagonists.

Not to mention that the problem hardly needs Oz to solve it as the other witches clearly have more than enough power to handle the situation themselves.  Glenda (Michelle Willaims), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Theodora (Mila Kunis) take on the roles of the iconic Oz witches and turn in the most plastic and socially regressive performances this year.  Where The Wizard of Oz allowed an innocent, young woman to drive the action; Oz: The Great and Powerful subjugates its women into babbling idiots that completely rely on a male figure to accomplish anything, even rewarding him for lying to them by turning themselves into sex objects that he can replace whenever he sees fit.  Its gender politics are so regressive that it makes the original film appear, in hindsight, as a women's suffrage classic.

There is no succinct way to begin to sum up all the problems that plaque Oz: The Great and Powerful.  It is a bloated corpse of a film that cynically pillages audiences' fond remembrance of The Wizard of Oz while replacing every element -- endearing characters, beautiful visuals, hand-crafted effects, progressive storytelling, and genuine heart -- that allows that film to live on as a timeless classic. 

The studio-heads at Disney might as well replace Dorothy’s iconic line, upon first witnessing Oz, with:

"Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore... I don't even think we are in Oz anymore.  We must be in some kind of digital nightmare."

She would be correct but, unlike Dorothy, audiences can’t just click their heels together and go home.

1 / 4 Reels


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