Oz The Great & Powerful (2013)
Ever since Tim Burton successfully suffocated the Alice In Wonderland tale with a 21st century digital lacquer a new Hollywood production mould was cast for the young century – popular children’s classics being revisited in alignment with the essential three R’s of celluloid kindergarten – reconstruction, reimagining and remake. Wonderland’s was soon amongst the most profitable films ever made and nothing excites studio executives more than the potential to extract pocket-money from the purses and wallets of gullible young cinefans and their henpecked parents, thus a new brood of films have been delinquently hanging around the multiplex, kicking their heels and generally getting into trouble. It’s probably just a phase they’re going through but this new product line is either aimed at the post Twilight, Young Adult reading teen demographic – see Snow White & The Hunstman, Red Riding Hood and Mirror Mirror - or as the Red Letter Media gang recently paraphrased those films that are no longer aimed at wussy little girls but Grimm tales marketed squarely at overweight men with beards who love extreme violence and gunplay – think Hansel & Gretel or the imminent Jack The Giant Slayer. These projects pander to the same audience who enjoyed Jane Austen’s avatars decapitating zombies or Abraham Lincoln elegantly exfoliating vampires, and with retreads of Cinderella, Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty en-route more allegorical antics are sure to dominate screens for months to come. In whichever post-modern guise fantasy clearly still sells and some filmmakers have skipped down an even more sacrilegious route, plundering the unimpeachable classics from the vaults for imaginative ammunition, with all 24 of Frank L Baum’s illusory realm novels set in the wonderful land of Oz being the latest victim of pilfering producers. If you ever wondered what a prequel to The Wizard Of Oz might look like then wonder no more, as franchise force Sam Raimi’s Oz The Great & Powerful finally blows onto screens…..
The Dust Bowl mid West, 1905, and in a constrained 1:33 academy ratio sized, black & white hued and monoaurally scored screen we are introduced to Oscar Diggs (James Franco) a stage magician with a grimy and grainy travelling circus who seems to be suffering severe delusions of grandeur. With his nameless loyal assistant Frank at his side (Zach Braff) Oscar hoodwinks curious farmers and their doe-eyed daughters with equal indifference, baffling them all with his sleight of hand, silver tongue and prestidigitatous parlour tricks, but his bluster shields a deep sense of frustration at his lowly lot, his financial fragility and reputational ravine. When one of the cuckold husbands of Oscar’s amorous achievements comes seeking vengeance he makes a frantic escape on a hot air balloon, a poorly timed evacuation as an incoming twister sweeps him and his bag of tricks into a voluminous vortex before depositing him in a magical parallel dimension – clearly we’re not in Kansas anymore – as this is a dominion populated with colourful beasts, talking animals, screeching sorcerers and animated automatons. Oscar’s wish it seems has finally come true if only he can continue his charade, as he is deemed the chosen one of an ancient prophecy, a magician from a distant land who will defeat the Wicked Witch and usurp the Emerald throne for his own lucrative gain. It’s not long before our con-man champion becomes the attendant attention of a trio of Hollywood hags – Rachael Weitz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams – as the Witches of these phantasmagorical plateaus , each with their own concealed or chiral motives. As Oscar traverses the wonderful world, inadvertently recruiting his fallacious conspirators the stage is set for an epic battle of wills which prologues the future arrival of a certain auburn haired, silver throated teenager…..
After that promising prologue the film expands on a literal and figurative level as Oscar alights in Oz, the screen receding back to a voluminous 2:35 ratio as the photography bursts into colourful and vivacious life, the 3D concertinaing depth betwixting the brain as the bellowing SurroundSound© seduces the ears, it’s quite the purely cinematic moment which should herald a spellbinding movie. Alas this fairy tale is not happy ever after as whilst the visual dimensions of the film scintillate on-screen like the gleaming spires of the Emerald city the film soon begins to deflate like Franco’s altitude shedding balloon, the visual plasticity matched with a tedious and predictable stomp through a modern quest narrative which is neither satisfying nor amusing. There are simply only so many times you can be presented with the same panoramic, multi-trillion byte rendered eye gloating candy caned vistas aligned with Danny Elfman’s hallelujah chanting choirs before one gets tired, and more crucially you start to wonder what other fractures in the crust of the movie these repeated spells of hypnosis Raimi and his crew may be attempting to obscure. The film is truant when it comes to any sense of peril or journey, of sympathy or empathy with Oscar or any of his digitally rendered retinue, and the overarching flagging and meandering plot doesn’t so much follow the yellow brick road as clearly stumble around a San Fernando Valley green screen studio facility – like Oscar’s profession the falsity of the film permeates almost every scene.
Normally a fairly engaging and charismatic sort of chap all of Franco’s charm was unfortunately blown away in that tumultuous twister, he wonders through scenes with a glassy-eyed demeanour so one almost yearns for the good old days of ‘hilarious’ contemporary references embedded in these modern day updates to our shared cultural anxieties, you pray for anything to alleviate the accruing boredom which hounds the films lumbering procession of holographic hallucinations – bring back Shrek, all is (well, almost) forgiven. The three witches play as confused, incongruous and saintly to a tee, with a rather insulting post feminist subtext which claims that a woman scorned is a woman perverted, and all that Oz needs is a good man as its figurehead to prosper, even if that patriarch just happens to be a lecherous, avaricious fraud but y’know, whatever. Fans of Raimi’s cartoon cruelty will be disappointed as with one or two manic glimpses aside any irreverent humour or gushing violence is sublimated to the demands of this four quadrant, $200 million behemoth, like a homeopathic dilution of his talents into the ocean of Disney we don’t get insane dutch angles but slightly cantilevered framing, we don’t get screeching POV visual assaults but exciting inversions of 3D attuned implements. I know its churlish to suggest that anyone above 0.1% of moviegoers will attend this film knowing whom directed it nor did I (or should you) expect anything but a broad family attuned super-production which appeals to the widest possible audience, but I just thought I’d make the position clear as we are a ‘cult’ movie blog and Raimi’s position in the directors chair prompts such commentary. If you really must know then frequent screaming collaborator Bruce Campbell does got a cameo and yes, he get thwacked in the head. Repeatedly.
I did like the China Girl, discovered admidst the surreal destruction of (wait for it) Chinatown that was quite an impressive piece of CGI rendering, her porcelain appearance was actually quite eerie but this fragment of promise shatters as the tedious tale really plunged down the rabbit hole never to return, there is also some rather inelegant allusions between characters in the real and imaginary worlds, just as the Lion, Tin-Man and Scarecrow could be seen in both Dorothy’s Kansas and her Technicolor embossed dreams of 1939. I dunno, throwing all the hyperbole and my pretentious vocabulary aside this was just boring, initial mutters of ‘ooo’ and ahhh’ at the visuals soon wore thin as all the principals sleptwalked through their poorly constructed roles, as it all builds toward the inevitable conflict strewn resolution as in the wake of LOTR etc. you obviously can’t conclude a movie without a fuck-off scrap. Never one to miss a track the BFI have scrubbed up a print of the ‘sequel’ to coincide with the release and so Dorothy and her scruffy little rat have been dancing down the yellow brick lanes of the Southbank, I must admit in the interests of ticking the box on another classic I was tempted to catch The Wizard Of Oz on the big screen, although frankly I very much doubt I’ll make it over there considering some other priorities I have lined up. I’m no fan of the books nor a massive admirer of the movie as an emotional artefact but it is a great film to watch purely from a craft and historical perspective, although my generations nightmares were fuelled much more by Return To Oz alongside the Dark Crystal’s Skeksis or the chittering talons of poor old Danny Glick. Speaking of terror, the early screams emanating from early SXSW screenings of the Evil Dead remake have elected as brutally ferocious, so that sounds like a more entertaining trip to a nightmarish alternative world…..