Monday, March 25, 2013

In Theatres: Oz the Great and Powerful

When you make a prequel of a strong movie that’s become embedded in culture, there are two things you really need to look at.  One is the thematic nature of that piece.  Certain stories have either powerful themes, or a very tropic nature.  Star Trek stories are all about exploring new places with a group of friends.  Star Wars is heavily about the choice between the easy, destructive way, and the struggle to build up.  Frankenstein is about the dangers of playing God and of taking things at face value.  If you don’t take into account these things, you fail the original piece.
The second group of things you need to take into account in a prequel are the solid facts.  A Firefly prequel that ignored the war between the Independents and the Alliance or an X-Men prequel that didn’t show the lifelong friendship between Professor X and Magneto would be completely missing the point.

It is on these grounds that Oz, the Great and Powerful must be judged, in addition to the simpler yet even more important grounds of a good film.  Oz is a prequel to the classic story Wizard of Oz, better known as the first live action colored film.  Unlike its predecessor, The Great and Powerful is not a snuff film, which I suppose ought to be celebrated; if anybody hung themselves in the making of this picture, the editing team seems to have caught it.

Now that you’ve chuckled awkwardly at the morbid humor of a twisted individual, let’s look at the film.  I considered starting with the script, but ultimately, that’s not the first thing you see here.  No, the first thing you see is the actors, and the visuals.  In terms of the acting, while I agree it’s not exactly Oscar-worthy, I do think the acting is exactly what you would expect given that exact cast.  Zach Braff plays JD, a role he’s played in a different setting for years.  I would find it perfectly acceptable if someone stated that Frank’s last name was Dorian, because in fiction both personality and appearance have a strong chance of carrying almost unaltered down a family line.  Rachel Weisz as Evanora and James Franco as Oz were brilliant.  As for Kunis and Williams, I’ll discuss them a bit later, when I talk about the script.

As for the visual style of this film, I’m not a fan.  There’s something to be said about prequels that were obviously made decades after the original.  Sometimes you can overlook it; if the visual style of Star Trek was the primary way in which it deviated from the original, the vast majority of fans would have forgiven that.  Similarly for Star Wars.  That said, the only times where I feel the CGI in this film succeeds is in things that Victor Fleming could never have accomplished in  1939.  Essentially this boils down to things like the magic force field that protects Glinda’s territory, and of course Joey King (another terrific acting job)’s China Girl.

A lot of this has to do specifically with the fact that this is a prequel- or at least, that it’s part of a series.  Wizard of Oz was a film that you could really immerse yourself in the environment, a surreal world in all interpretations, but still one that was solid and real enough to be fantastical and disturbing at the same time.   In other words, it was what even the best CGI would find a real struggle to accomplish.  While the first film was so impossible, yet real at the same time that it drew you in, the way this film kicks off  in the real world with CGI wood pulls you right out, just in time for effects that you need to be drawn in.

As we arrive in Oz, we’re shown to a CGI spectacle.  This is something that would have been far better done decades ago, probably at a higher cost, so it would be passable.  Except that, again, you’re already pulled out by the CGI wood, so your suspension of disbelief is  not ready to find these CGI plants amazing in any way.   Because of this, the first truly awe-inspiring visual of the film is Mila Kunis’s in those pants- but then, her behind is so flat that the scene’s not as awe-inspiring as it could be.

I’ve gotten off topic.  My point is, ground-breaking practical effects were a large part of what made the original Wizard of Oz so magical, it was a major part of the power of the film, and standard CGI that is in no way ground-beaking has no chance at recreating that magic.  There are great visuals in the film, yes, but they’re all later on and they’re all very different from anything the original movie had.  That’s perfectly fine for scenes that aren’t like the scenes in the original, such as the big gathering that makes up the climax of the film.   But when you first appear in Oz, this is a fairly important  issue.

This might be a good time to talk about the atmospheric similarities between these two films.  The Wizard of Oz is a film about a person who is accidentally transported to the mysterious land of Oz, challenged by an evil witch, meets a group of companions, and they travel to a final destination, all the while growing as a person and defeating  the evil witch.   In  this vein, Oz the Great and Powerful gets it.  I’ll say that again: Mitchell Kapner’s story really gets the feeling of the story down.

There’s another part to this, and one that the story’s hands were tied on, a little bit.  While L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and other novels are in the public domain, MGM owns the rights to the well-known  film.  This means that  there can’t be ruby slippers, and the Wicked Witch of the West can’t be green-skinned or have two eyes.  Except that this film clearly features the witch as being green-skinned and having two eyes, and she also wears a red outfit, so why she can’t have the red shoes that the audience is clamoring for with that  red outfit is beyond me.

What this comes down to is a conundrum all prequels must face: what questions should be asked, and which ones should be answered.  Since Wizard of Oz didn’t exactly have a ton of mysteries other than maybe how Oz became the wizard (the premise of this film, in case you missed that), it more boils down to keeping things consistent.  You know, the Witch of the East wears ruby slippers and rides a bicycle, the Witch of the  West likes to cackle and owns a broom, flying monkeys.  Several of these are hit, but with how much the Witch of the East is focused on here, ignoring all of these plot points regarding her kind of hurts the value as a prequel.  If Kyoryu Sentai Zyurranger was able to feature a Wicked Witch flying around on a bicycle, I see no reason why Disney couldn’t.

Meanwhile, questions like “how did the witch become green?” are ones that I don’t think anybody ever asked.   Seriously, that was probably the furthest question from anybody’s mind watching the film.  Which isn’t always a problem, but answering that in the gimmicky Disney way that this film does draws other questions nobody asked to mind.   For example, why  do some witches need wands (Glinda) and some don’t (the others)?    Or why is Theodora the only witch that has a natural affinity for one element and a weakness for another?  Again, these are questions that don’t necessarily need to be answered  in a fantasy setting, but by answering other questions that don’t need an answer, you draw attention to these questions.  And nothing hurts your suspension of disbelief like seeing that the most powerful witch’s powers rely on an artifact that she apparently somehow created, even though destroying it saps her powers and reveals the fact that somebody apparently fed her an evil Bible-apple and... why?

I promised I’d talk about Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis (other than her pants and what they contain, anyway).  Both of them do a passable job, but neither are anything really spectacular.   Kunis does her best early on, when Theodora is alone with Oz.  Once Evanora starts tricking her to bring on the “lover scorned” side of her personality, she starts to fall flat.  Even her bursts of rage don’t really fit her.  Considering that one of the biggest roles in Kunis’s career was Jackie on That ‘70s Show, it’s pretty clear that she’s fully capable of both of these.  My inclination is to focus my scrutiny here on the script: the lines are jarring and abrupt, and events don’t naturally lead into one another.  Focusing a little bit more on the character of Theodora and her reactions could really have improved the second Act, as well as getting rid of that godawful apple idea.

Michelle Williams is a little harder to place.  Some of her lines seem almost as though they belong to the original Glinda, but more often she just seems to be a Leia-style Rebel Princess, a young woman who speaks like one.  The juxtaposition of this with “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” Glinda is just awkward, and I’m not sure what they could have done to fix this.  Casting an older actress might have helped (although Williams looks younger in the film than she does in her IMDb portrait, so it might have been an intentional youthening), and simply writing her lines to be a bit more consistent might have made the difference.  I could deal with a Glinda who was nothing like the character in the original due to decades’ difference of experience, but this Glinda seems a bit more established, with hints of what’s to come, yet other personality traits that seem to have trouble co-existing with the more regal side of her character.  I’m going to ignore the budding romance she has with Oz at the end of mere principle.

As a film on its own, Oz stands, but doesn’t astound.  The real strength of this film is the climax.  The last Act of this film establishes Magic vs Science as a conflict, something that is hinted at in Act I but never really realized until the end.  Given the nature of certain discussions on the internet, I find it worth noting that Oz, a man who is admittedly not good-natured, idolizes Thomas Edison for his accomplishments, yet it’s not until he discovers a way to be more like Edison that he (and those around him) truly sees himself as a good person.  Tesla fans must hate this movie.

Oz the Great and Powerful is an average film.  It has its strengths and its weaknesses, and in the end they leave something that is worth seeing at times and a little awkward at other times.  I watched this film because it had two actors that I don’t see as great, but do enjoy seeing on-screen, and it delivered on that promise.  If you’re looking for a film that follows many of the rules of the Oz universe without being completely faithful to the little details (though not contradicting them either), you should enjoy this film.  If you’re a casual movie-goer that’s not necessarily in love with Wizard of Oz, then I recommend you leave this film for a rental.


Charles Gramlich said...

I do want to see this. Sorry it wasn't better. It sure had the potential. But I will probably get it from the library in time.

SQT said...

We almost took our kids to see this when my daughter was invited by a friend. I'm so glad we skipped it. My daughter could not tell us often enough how long and boring it was.

RD Williams said...

One or two of your points are right on, but I have to disagree on one or two. One for instance, Glinda's character and way of speaking, if you noticed she spoke regally when she was trying to appear more regal, and then at other times let the regal pretense slip, I don't see how that was awkward. Remember she is younger by many years than the Glinda from the original movie, so over the years she probably just mellows and stops showing that less "formal" side in public. That I think explains that. To me the obvious romance between herself and Oz at the end was more of a problem.

You ask about the ruby slippers and why Theodora(Witch of the West) wasn't wearing them with the red outfit she had on...wrong witch, those would have belonged to her sister Evanora(Witch of the East), though I'm not sure why she would wear them with all the green she obviously preferred in her outfit. :)

All in all, I am very glad I watched it, very entertaining and enjoyable. And THAT is what a movie is suppose to be after all.

Melissa (My words and pages) said...

Someone else mentioned this was a prequel. I didn't know that until I read it there. And you mention as well. Huh. Some how I missed that. Thank you for sharing all your thoughts on this one. It looks like a movie to kick back and enjoy, but I think I'll wait until its on DVD. :)

William Silvia said...

@SQT - Boring is one thing I would not say this movie was. While I wouldn't say I loved every moment, I definitely found myself engaged the entire time.

@RDW - Good observation on Glinda. I was mainly observing how she was speaking based on how she was appearing to Oz himself, which seemed a bit more inconsistent. If I watch this again, I'll keep an eye out for the distinction there and see if it changes my feelings of the way she was portrayed.

I knew the slippers would have been Evanora's, but I think once you make the leap that red shoes can be worn with a red outfit, it's not that big of a leap to do anything the film makers want with them. That, and Evanora's main reason for wearing green was so that she can be as much Voldemort as she was Palpatine. Though I suppose one could make an argument for her as ruler of the Emerald City... honestly, I wish the color symbolism had been played up a bit more so that those kinds of debates could be had without being pedantic.