Sunday, March 17, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful

After the generally unimpressive storytelling (and box office) of Jack the Giant Slayer, I wasn't sure if another retelling of a beloved fairy tale/fantasy was such a good idea. "Oz" is yet another movie where a successful director of a popular superhero movie franchise was handed the reigns to a big, fantasy story. My disappointment at Bryan Singer's (X-Men) inability to make a compelling and fun film out of the Jack and the Beanstalk mythos caused a bit of trepidation going into Oz, where Sam Raimi (Spider-man) was at the helm. I therefore tempered my expectations, hoping for merely an enjoyable time at the 3D IMAX theater.

Oz the Great and Powerful tells the story of a magician named Oscar Diggs (Oz for short), struggling to make ends meet at a travelling carnival and longing for a future of greatness. Each of his personal relationships are in shambles, as Oz uses them for his own benefit while giving them nothing in return. However, after engendering the wrath of the carnival strong man, Oz is forced to flee in a hot air balloon without realizing it is heading straight for a tornado. Pleading to the heavens for a second chance to be a better person in exchange for his life, Oz finds himself no longer in Kansas, but in a mystical land that seems to share his name. There he meets the witch Theodora, who believes him to be the fulfillment of an ancient prophesy foretelling a wizard that will come to destroy the wicked witch that has been terrorizing the defenseless inhabitants of Oz.

Thankfully, this was a much better film than Jack the Giant Slayer in virtually every way. Raimi has a great handle on the visual style of the film as well as the emotions of each character. I've actually been following this project since it was first being cast, and for a while the producers were attempting to hire Robert Downey Jr. as the titular Oz (clearly without success). A little of that kind of characterization is still at play in James Franco's performance, but I thought he did a good job of selling his selfishness while simultaneously hinting at the good man he could possibly become. Michelle Williams also does a great job of portraying the kind, yet surprisingly wise figure of Glinda, while Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis also turn in solid performances with their own in equally surprising ways.

The story plays out very similarly to the original 1939 Wizard of Oz, and is based on L. Frank Baum's novels set in the same universe. Fans of the original movie will be delighted at all the call-backs and homages made to the Judy Garland film, while others like myself will be enthralled at the character development and the visual style. While the movie looks great, it also comes across as a little cartoonish in certain places, which is actually somewhat fitting. Oz plays more as a family-friendly venture than one might ascertain from the trailers, which isn't a bad thing given the similar tone that was struck in the original Wizard of Oz. Overall, it does a good job of playing to both old and young audiences by offering impressive visual spectacle as well as relatable and intriguing character motivations and struggles.

One interesting piece of trivia that I found with this movie is that it marks the first collaboration between Sam Raimi and composer Danny Elfman since their infamous falling-out during Spider-man 2, at which time the composer said he would never work with Raimi again. While the reason for their burying of the hatchet remains unclear, Elfman's return does provide a fitting backdrop for the imaginative scenery. None of his work is necessarily ground-breaking, but it's nice to see this pairing working together again.

The story is well told and there are plenty of twists that I did not see coming, though they make perfect sense in retrospect. Character evolution occurs fairly organically throughout the film, and the growth of each relationship happens at just the right pace. This movie is a lot of fun, and it's surprisingly thought-provoking. The message being taught is interwoven into the narrative with great care, and I appreciated the simplicity of the title character's arc. Perhaps I'm being a bit generous, but Oz the Great and Powerful earns three and a half stars from me.

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language