Saturday, March 09, 2013

Movie Review - Oz, the Great and Powerful

Through both the various new and reimagined stories of Oz as well as (finally) reading the original Wizard of Oz book, I've had a lot of refamiliarizing myself with the world of Oz over the past few years. When Disney initially announced that they were making a new Oz movie, it wasn't clear what to expect. Would it just be a remake of the popular Wizard of Oz film with Judy Garland? Would it be the speculated movie-musical for the popular Broadway show Wicked? Would it be based on some of the other Oz books? Or would it be something completely new similar to their reimagining of Alice in Wonderlandd from a few years back? The answer became obvious as more details were known and especially once the trailers were released. We were getting a new story in the form of a prequel explaining how the Wizard arrived in Oz and what happened once he was there.

As the title credits rolled, I enjoyed the art style and the music. The art around the credits was somewhere between pieced together whimsical carney work and an higher tech almost steampunk style. I've always been partial to Danny Elfman's music and the opening threads of the score definitely had sounds characteristic of his other work but it was also fresh and unique and had a fun and approachable style.

Once the credits finished, we were dropped into a circus/carnival scene presented in black-and-white. We remained in black-and-white through the entire opening sequence in the same way the Judy Garland film was in B&W throughout her Kansas scenes.

We quickly meet Oz, the Great and Powerful as he prepares for his show in one of the sideshow tents. In a few short scenes we get insight into his character and behavior. He's a selfish, self-centered, womanizing, egotistical swindler. At the same time, we see a hint of a conscience. There seems to be an internal struggle between his sense of what might be the "right thing" to do fighting against his sense of "what's in it for me". In spite of an apparent stream of women that he cares nothing about, we also meet a longer term love interest that he seems to truly care for. Even though it's clear that he has feelings for her, he can't seem to overcome his selfish nature enough to do what needs to be done to allow himself to be with her.

While this initial scene did a good job of helping us see into the character of the would-be-wizard, it didn't really set up the journey to Oz in the same way the Judy Garland film did. Suddenly Oz is running for his balloon and finds himself in a whirlwhind. In the Dorothy story, we got to see her longing for escape, for something more. We get to see the suspense and drama of the approaching storm and her fear as she is whisked away. In today's film, Oz is moderately content with his current life and is only running to avoid some trouble and save his skin. His fear is of dying but he's not worried about being missed by anyone. While he's charismatic and has a manipulative charm, he doesn't come off as endearing as Dorothy.

Once the he arrives in Oz, our wizard told of a prophecy and it's assumed that he is the great Wizard who is expected to drive the evil from the land and free and unite the people. His pride gets the better of him as he imagines himself as the powerful and beloved king of the land. His greed for the palace, the thrown and the promised royal treasure quickly blind him to any dangers or even to the responsibilities mentioned in the prophecy. He continues to be the same self-serving womanizer he was back in Kansas. Without spoiling the plot, I can tell you that, as you would expect, we see the continued conflict between the two sides of the Wizard's personality...the ongoing fight between his pride and greed and his underlying desire to do what he knows is right.

The storyline is entertaining and imaginitive. I'm only familiar with the first book in the Oz series, so I can't say how much this modern film draws from Baum's other works. At the very least, it does introduce a few other characters and locations from the first book that didn't make it into the Judy Garland film such as the little China doll figures from "China Town." Other elements were lost from the first book, such as the nature of the Emerald City itself and the witch's control of the winged monkeys. It seems that the movie was drawing more from the general feel and cultural knowledge of Oz than any specific definitive source. Whether this was due to legal copyright barriers or just a desire to be fresh and new, I'm not sure but I can say that these variations shouldn't be problematic for anyone but the most die hard fans of either the books or the famous film.

What may be a distraction would be the few places where the film felt a little flat or on auto-pilot. I felt like James Franco's Wizard was interesting at first and had a certain charming nature. But over time, he seemed to rely more on his larger than life cheesy grin and his greesy smooth carnival con-man behavior than on any legitimate convincing actions.

Similarly, the various witches of Oz had personalities and behaviors that were initially dazzling but quickly felt fairly superficial. Glinda felt a little stiff and staid. Theodora felt flighty and unconvincing. Evanora was the most compelling of the witches but her performance often felt confused and uncertain. Often I felt like the lead roles were overshadowed by the secondary characters such as Finley the monkey or the China Girl.

The visual and special effects were well done and over the top. Most of the time I felt like they were very well done and dazzling. The landscape of Oz was vibrant and breathtaking. During the Wizard's initial whirlwind ride into Oz and his adventurous crash landing it was readily obvious that this movie was filmed to be showcased in IMAX and 3D.

Throughout his wild balloon journey there are numerous objects bounding back and forth across the screen with the intent to take advantage of the 3D and shock the viewer with their stunning approach in and out of the screen. The camera lurches and sways taking in large swaths of scenery and zooming over, under and around the landscape. Even though we were watching the show in 2D on a standard screen, the intent was obvious. It was also a bit distracting and dizzying. While I'm sure it made for impressive larger-than-life 3D moments, the effects didn't feel necessary and didn't seem to add to my feelings for Oz.

Glancing back over my comments, it would seem that this is a rather negative review. My heaviest complaint is really only one on the overused attempts to exploit the 3D and IMAX. The camera manipulation was often distracting and occassionally nauseating. Apart from that, the film was entertaining. It's hard not to compare it to the charm and nostalgia of the original MGM film of decades ago.

Looking at this movie strictly as a 21st century fantasy adventure story, it is fun and entertaining and well worth the trip. The music is wonderful, the visuals (when not manipulating 3D/IMAX) are stunning, the plot and writing are fun and the acting is entertaining. The movie is entertaining and uplifting and a good wholesome treat for the whole family. There are a few scenes that would be frightening for younger viewers, but there wasn't anything that I would consider inappropriate or offensive.

Overall, it's great fun and a worthy source of enjoyment.

3.5 out of 5 stars


Brian Miller said...

nice...glad it was fun...and overall worth it...stinks it was a bit overdone...but that is where the money comes in...actually really looking forward to this one...i know it says scenes may be too much for some kids...and you point that out...any thought to age appropriateness?

Okie said...

Thanks Brian. It was a lot of fun.

As to age-appropriateness, as with a lot of things, the answer is "it depends."

The intensity isn't gruesome violence or gore or language or anything like that...nothing to push a PG-13 rating. Mostly there are a few "jump scares" where some hideous looking character or creature suddenly takes up the whole screen with a screech or a yell or something. The special effects on the flying baboons that the witch controls are kind of intense as are the images of the wicked witch when at her most wicked.

My youngest daughter is 9 and I'm sure she'd be fine. I would think somewhat younger kids would be fine as well. I probably wouldn't take a 5 or 6 year old unless they are up for the jump scares (some kids are...some aren't) and the scary makeup.

Kind of a nebulous answer, I know.