by Rob Gonsalves
As the release of "Oz the Great and Powerful" drew closer, I had the nagging feeling that I should curl up with L. Frank Baum’s original "Oz" books before catching the film. Instead, it turns out I accidentally re-read another book far more relevant to the movie: Bruce Campbell’s riotous 2002 memoir "If Chins Could Kill."Much of Campbell’s book talks about how he, director Sam Raimi, and a few other cash-strapped lunatics moved heaven and earth to make the first Evil Dead — talk about humble beginnings. These days Raimi’s a big shot with three insanely lucrative Spider-Man films under his belt, and Disney has handed him $200 million to make Oz the Great and Powerful, which, as a few commentators have pointed out, has essentially the same structure as Raimi’s third Evil Dead entry Army of Darkness. (Campbell’s in it too, as an arrogant guard at the Emerald City gates.)
"Big-studio bloat kills another once-creative wizard."
The first half hour or so of this new Oz is basically Sam Raimi’s love of movie magic writ large — very large. Like the sainted 1939 Wizard of Oz, it starts out in black and white, in the boxy “Academy ratio” used by most movies until the ’50s. Cheapjack carny magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) rides a hot-air balloon into a tornado, which whisks him away to the land of Oz, and the screen widens and, like Kool-Aid pouring into a clear glass, everything fills up with dazzling color. Most everything we see from then on, too, was concocted in computers, and for a while the obviousness of the green-screen backdrops works for Raimi’s consciously artificial approach. After a while, though, the visuals become irritating white noise; the movie overdoses on relentless prettiness.
The people of Oz receive Oscar as a savior, the “wizard” they’ve been promised. He meets three witches: Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams) and two sisters, Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz). Soon enough, Oscar pegs Evanora and her easily manipulated sister — who will become the Wicked Witches of the East and West — as the primary threats to Oz, but he knows he isn’t a real wizard — he’s just a flimflam artist, and Glinda knows it too. Far too much time is devoted to Oscar’s self-doubts, and the script hangs a lot of weight on bromides about believing in oneself, in ideals of goodness, and so on. We seem to pass a lot of time watching James Franco and Michelle Williams, sometimes accompanied by a talking monkey, strolling in front of fake backdrops.
As John Waters knows (and has written), the real meat of The Wizard of Oz is the Wicked Witch, who, it turns out, became the fearsome green-skinned villain because she was jealous of Oscar strolling in front of too many fake backdrops with Glinda. This motive is disappointing to say the least, but any scenes Raimi hands over to Kunis and especially Weisz as they spit venom and scheme are terrific fun. If nothing else, pop culture’s current swing towards fantasy and fairy tales gives actresses a chance to doll up in outlandish drag-queen ornamentation and vamp six ways to Sunday. Franco, grinning and smirking his way through his performance, can’t compete with the witches — including Glinda, whom Williams invests with a steely inner strength.
Eventually we’re treated to the spectacle of an Oscar-winning actress and an Oscar-nominated actress throwing balls of energy at each other, while Oscar and his new posse of tinkers, farmers and Munchkins jerry-rig various illusions to hoodwink the Wicked Witches’ evil flying baboons and restore Oz to its people. Oz the Great and Powerful is supposed to be about how Oscar the hokum artist grew into his role as the Wizard, but he just seems like a bystander a lot of the time. So does Sam Raimi. He sneaks in a few time-honored Raimi shots, like the ram-o-cam, but longtime fans of the director may wish they were re-watching Army of Darkness instead. Raimi said all he could, and brilliantly, with the story of a stranger in a strange fantasyland in that film.Movie buffs sometimes like to wonder what their favorite z-budget cult directors could do with some serious money, but on the evidence here, the answer is, not much that anyone else with $200 million of Disney’s money couldn’t do. When you can afford to do anything, you have no restrictions to push against, no sand to produce the pearl of creativity.
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originally posted: 03/10/13 23:11:27