Sunday, 24 March 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful Review

I should probably start by saying that I have not seen, or read, Wicked - or any of the original Oz books - so this film is the only Wizard of Oz prequel I've experienced. Quite what that means, or how much it matters, I don't know - I just feel it's probably important. If you're familiar with Wicked, your experience of Oz the Great and Powerful could be entirely different to mine. Mileage may vary.

Another admission is that I didn't see this in 3D. Normally I seek out 3D for films actually shot in the format (as opposed to digital post-conversion, which is never as good) but on this occasion the cinema was refurbishing their 3D screens, so it wasn't actually an option.
I've heard the 3D is very good, but the only thing I can say from my own 2D experience is that things get thrown at the screen more than I would normally like. Importantly, though, that's something director Sam Raimi does in all of his films anyway - coming, as he does, from a splatter-horror background - and he knows how to make it work. In his hands it's not just a gimmick, 3D or otherwise.

Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful is ostensibly a prequel to L. Frank Baum's 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - showing how Oscar Diggs, a circus magician from Kansas, came to become the titular Wizard. But it's not really. In truth it's both a prequel and a homage to 1939's classic film musical The Wizard of Oz - based on Baum's book, but different in many ways.
The reason Oz can't be honest about this is that the rights to the original film are owned by a different studio, so this one can't reference if directly. There are no ruby slippers, for instance, and Glinda the Good Witch is no longer the Witch of the North. But any references they can get away with, they do.
This is most obvious at the beginning, during a black-and-white opening that turns to colour when we reach the magical land of Oz, just as it did for Dorothy in the original. Likewise, there are characters here who will reappear in Oz in different forms. These are unmistakable references to the original film, proving already that this is not a prequel to the book.

That early section is great, and the film is actually at its strongest when it's revisiting the original like this. It's when it tries to distance itself that things go wrong. The movie tries to make Oz "magical" in a way that the original never could, with impossible CGI landscapes and creatures. The CGI is mostly great (some vicious river-fairies notwithstanding) - the problem is that it never feels like the Oz we know. When giant digital flowers begin to open as Oscar passes, within his first minute in Oz, it can't help but feel like Tim Burton's horrendous Alice in Wonderland. It's more constrained and controlled than that film, and infinitely better focused, but it still feels weird and hollow - and it definitely doesn't feel like Oz.
The focus on flashy visuals also means that, in the first half at least, the story is under-served and anaemic. It's also trying too hard. There are two twists just within the first half, where even one is unnecessary, and plot points and backstory are just rushed through in dialogue. The setups are minimal, so the payoffs feel cheap. It's all at the mercy of those visuals - why invest in the story when it can show us the sights?

It also struggles to invest us in the characters. James Franco's Oscar is selfish, pompous and smarmy - grinning as he cheats and lies and not caring about the fallout. Even at the end he doesn't seem remorseful or even reflective over some of the things he caused.
The witches don't fare any better. There are three - Evanora, Theodora and Glinda - and one of them, we are told, is wicked (a word that, in Oz, is seemingly used in place of "evil"). I won't spoil it, but here's a hint: there are three witches in The Wizard of Oz, too, and one of them is called Glinda. Early on, the witches are mostly exposition dispensers - which is awkward for all three, but particularly damaging for Mila Kunis' Theodora. Her story progresses at breakneck speed and really could have used more screentime.
Like Dorothy, Oscar also picks up a group of weird, magical creatures - here a flying monkey and a living china doll - as he travels a familiar yellow road. Where the movie tries, and fails, to make Oz a more magical place than the original, the same approach actually works well for these characters. Finley the monkey and especially the China Girl are brilliantly realised creations, rendered beautifully and believably, and actually capturing some of that elusive wonder where all of the digital vistas couldn't. It helps that these two are also better characterised than any of the actual actors - they are funny and charming and, for a long time, they're the only things keeping the movie afloat.

Luckily, there's a point where it all suddenly clicks and the film starts working. Not coincidentally, it's around the point that the story settles down in a location we already know. It's a town square, where the Yellow-Brick Road ends in a spiral. You know the one.
From this point on the film is more static, and the locations - this town, the Emerald City, a field of poppies - are more recognisably real, and more recognisably Oz. Settings established, the movie stops trying to impress us with visuals and actually begins to focus on its story.

Where The Wizard of Oz's strength is in the actual journey, with Dorothy's success eventually coming down to dumb luck and the same villainous weakness that later earnt Signs no end of ridicule, Oz is the opposite. The journey, except for a brief detour to China Town (where the China Girl is from), is not nearly as interesting as the eventual showdown.
Oscar faces off against the Wicked Witch's real magic with his own theatrical tricks. This battle of deception, and the preparations required to make it work, really are exciting and engaging in a way the first half wasn't. We see them building devices and making plans and, though we might not know what it's all for at the time, when the Wizard uses his "magic" we know exactly how it was done.
It's here that Oscar finds a kindred spirit in Glinda. Her witchy powers manifest as smoke and illusions and, though she can fly unaided, she chooses to travel in a giant bubble "just for show". She's as much a showman as he is, and seeing them come together over this and combine their skills really elevates both of them (we even start to like Oscar).
The ending more than makes up for the uninspiring first half - a battle of wits that focuses on character rather than spectacle. There is action, but it's all meaningful and necessary, and it resists the common urge to just become a giant fantasy warzone. There's more twists here, too - they're maybe a little obvious but, unlike the which-witch-is-which stuff, it really works well. Everything we've seen, in both this film and in the original, is artfully tied together, bringing new meanings to the things we saw in both. The stuff that didn't work is mostly forgotten.

The one weak link in these later, better stages is the Wicked Witch. It's partly the makeup, honestly! Margaret Hamilton, the original Wicked Witch, had a long, angular face already, and the pointed chin and nose prosthetics just accentuated her real features. Here, the actress in question (still not spoiling it) has a soft, round face, and adding angular features just looks ridiculous. But, worse, is that she plays it absolutely straight. Her Witch is nasty and spiteful but, unlike the original, isn't enjoying herself. She cackles maniacally because that's what the Wicked Witch does, but the laugh doesn't match anything else about her. There's no sadistic pleasure to her evil - she's just angry. She's meant to be a caricature (she certainly looks like one) but she doesn't seem to know it.
Possibly worst of all is that she's not scary. If nothing were scary, we probably wouldn't notice, but it's highlighted by Raimi's talent for this (again, from his Evil Dead horror background). Everything surrounding the Witch is suitably frightening - her slow reveal, her creepy creepy forest, and especially her nightmarish flying baboons (no mere monkeys in this one) - but the Witch herself, through silly makeup and weak performance, fails to leave the same impression. It's a terrible shame as this should really be the stand-out role of the movie!

But, despite a weak villain and a faltering start, the overall experience is surprisingly positive. When the film stops trying to impress the audience, it actually finds the power to impress. The characters come alive and the ideas start to blossom. There's enough here to make it all worthwhile.
Perhaps it's just nostalgia (a second viewing would certainly be interesting) but, when the Wizard gives the others symbolic little gifts at the end, it actually does feel a worthy companion to The Wizard of Oz

And the truth is, for a Sam Raimi movie with James Franco, there can only be one verdict.