19/11/2013

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

Film: Oz the Great and Powerful
Release: 2013, theatrical
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams
Directed by: Sam Raimi
IMDB page: Link opens in a new window
Description: A stage-magician and conman is transported to the magical kingdom of Oz, where he's believed to be the prophesied great wizard that will rescue the land from an evil wicked witch that murdered the king.

Hans' thoughts:

Functioning as a prequel to one of the greatest childrens stories of all time, Oz the Great and Powerful give us the backstory of the man known as Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs - Oz to friends and audiences. He's played in this film as a fast talking womanizing fortune-seeker by James Franco, whom audiences might recognize as Harry Osborn in the Spider-Man trilogy also directed by Raimi. I have to admit I was not a fan of his performance in the Spider-Man movies, but that is mostly because I felt they were "too mopey", focused too much on drama than on actual superhero stuff. Which is why Franco really surprised me by his performance in this film, although he carried over one or two elements he is generally a lot more energic and animated in this than he was in the Spider-Man films - then again, Oz and Harry Osborn are two radically different characters in many ways. The other main actors in the film are all female, each of them stunning in their own right I have to admit the one out the three I felt did the best job was Mila Kunis. While she is very reserved throughout most of the film, when she finally steps into character you can tell that she tries to give it her all in her performance. Mila Kunis plays the role of the withdrawn and naive Theodora, and her arc in the movie serves as the origin story for yet another of the big name Wizard of Oz characters. Her and Franco's character arcs almost mirrors one another in a way, and when you consider the big weight that's put on their shoulders they do a pretty good job with what they're handed. As good as any of the performances in the film may be though, Weisz is a good schemer, Williams makes for a good pureheart and Franco is a fun hero to follow, Kunis completely steals every scene. The film obviously has a lot of key moments it wants to present to the audience, and unfortunately that means it rushes from moment to moment in an attempt to get as much "stuff" in the film as possible. This means that aside from being archetypes, none of the characters are given the time they deserve to be fleshed out more. We certainly end up rooting for the good guys and wanting the bad guys to fail, but I feel that it really could have helped if the audience was given a breather to actually get to know the characters before moving on the the next big story-changing moment. 

Why they decided to do it like this is anyones guess, this film while a prequel to the Oz tales is not based on any of the original books, much in the same vein of the popular musical Wicked, which also gave it's own take on giving us an origin story for the state of affairs in Oz before Dorothy arrives. Reusing the method from the MGM picture, The Wizard of Oz, the film starts off as black and white and then turns vibrant and colorful when we get to the magical land. This is a very nice nod in the direction of the classic, but the large amount of "okay, we gotta get through all this stuff" made it so we don't spend so much time in Kansas meaning the method is kind of squandered on the piece. In the film which it mimics, Kansas is shown with a pretty somber tone and it becomes a huge contrast to all the lively stuff that happens in Oz. However in this, the mood change is practically non-existent, it seems like even in Kansas, Oscar Diggs was a energetic conman on the run from one situation to another and as such there is not much new under the sun when he comes to Oz and continues his behaviour. Visually, the film is absolutely beautiful. While I'll rally the call for more practical effects just as soon as the next guy, I simply cannot deny how much I loved the look of both the animated characters and environments. It is obvious however, when the audience was supposed to be wearing 3D glasses as there are several moments where the environment and characters "pops out" at the audience. I watched it in 2D, but the film still remains beautiful all the same. The color green (representing the Emerald City, no doubt) is a recurring factor in much of the films visuals and it works to great effect. The most beautiful part of the film however is the character known as The Little China Girl. A small living porcelain doll that makes for one of our main characters required sidekicks - this is an Oz tale after all. She is an incredibly sweet character and she is stunningly animated, perhaps even better than that of Gollum from Peter Jackson's Lord of The Rings films.

The film is much more of a classic fantasy tale - with Oz being the "chosen one" fighting against an evil army only armed with his ingenuity. It's been done to a children's tale before, many will probably remember the Tim Burton movie "Alice in Wonderland" where the titular Alice character would end up fighting The Jabberwocky. Thankfully however, this film doesn't try to make the story particularly dark or heavily stylised. Whereas the Burton picture almost revelled in the potential for using the directors knack for bizarre imagery, Instead it shows exactly why this film is an Oz tale and not an attempt to mimic the likes of The Lord of The Rings, much more like Raimi's other work it feels almost like a living comic book - the characters are all easily recognizable and the shots are akin to that of comic book panels. This feels like a live-action cartoon, and it very much makes a childrens story feel like it has very high stage without trying to cater to adults. This is childrens film in some regard, and one that follows the Don Bluth proverb "Children can be submitted to pretty much anything as long as there's a happy ending" and it really seems to that train of thought to heart. Our characters go through some very dark moments, without revelling in making the imagery dark as well. It is fully aware that it's possible to convey dark consequences and events without having to show horrifying imagery. When it needs to be sad, I genuinely felt it was up there with moments like the sinking of Artax in The Neverending Story, coincidentally also a childrens fantasy film with both dark and lighthearted moments. Honestly, being able to make things like the notion of a green-skinned witch and flying monkeys seem like a genuine threat again is a feat that I feel have scarcely been pulled off successfully since the original. Yes, as seen in the trailers The Wicked Witch of the West is indeed in this film and I was surprised by just how threatening Raimi was able to make her. Once she finally shows up on screen, you can feel a lot of atmosphere lifted fromhis love of horrors and from his Evil Dead roots.

A genuinely good fantasy film that both adults and children can enjoy and be thrilled by is becoming more and more of a rarity in a post-Harry Potter age and honestly I feel that this film manages to become one such movie. Sam Raimi's mix of serious moments, spectacle and genuine fun works so well for him in this particular case. Much like how he managed to update a 60's comic book character to the big screen without updating him to be far too dramatic in the original Spider-Man, here he manages to take a an early 20th century children's story and update it for modern audiences while keeping the spirit of the original intact. If you loved the original MGM picture I urge you to revisit the magical world with the yellow brick road once more as we're told the story of the greatest con in fantasy history. This is a fantasy adventure when told by a storyteller who doesn't deliberately attempt to recreate any of his former successes like it seemed was the case with Burton's "Alice in Wonderland". It's almost like Raimi sat down and saw Burtons picture, then went to work with the thought of "time to show them how it's done" - and man did he show.
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