Monday, March 11, 2013

Oz The Great And Powerful (Movie Review)

Like most people, I grew up watching "The Wizard Of Oz", singing the Munchkin songs and being scared of the Wicked Witch Of The West. I also read most of the original Frank Baum books when I was younger, though my memories of them are pretty hazy.

More than anything, however, I'm a fantasy nerd, and have been looking forward to Oz The Great And Powerful for its potential to scratch my fantasy nerd itch. I'm happy to say it scratched the itch and then some.

Based on the lore of the Oz books, though not on any book in particular, Oz The Great And Powerful tells the story of an early 20th century stage magician and con-man nicknamed Oz (shortened from him lengthy given name) who is swept into a magical land of the same name and is believed to be the prophesied wizard from another land who would save Oz and its people from the evil of the Wicked Witch.

Although at first Oz is flattered by his new-found status, and eager for it to make him rich, he soon realizes he's bitten off way more than he can chew. The magic of this new world is very real and very dangerous, while his own "magic" is merely a collection of illusions at best and cheap tricks at worst.
Nevertheless, Oz (played with charm, humor and vulnerability by James Franco) stumbles and smooth-talks his way through various pitfalls and adventures and manages to make me genuinely care about him along the way.

This movie does very little wrong and a whole lot right. It's light in tone much of the time, matching audience's expectations of an Oz movie. But fromthe beginning it is also character driven, and not afraid to get serious and present real personalities (if not always real "people") that we can relate to and care about.

James Franco is the stand-out performer, as he carries scenes in which he is along "talking to tennis balls" in a generous way that makes me believe maybe, just maybe, that little porcelein girl really was on the set with him. What the CGI character effects lack in their ambition (and the bellhop monkey CGI especially lacks in ambition) Franco makes up for in the way in which he interacts with his supporting cast of animated characters.

Oz injects some wonderful "fish out of water" humor into this world that feels modern and American without taking it too far. The humor is of the universal kind that will age very well.

Although Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams all did fine as well, in most cases they played their roles as straight, simplistic stereotypes. Kunis claims some of her opportunities for complexity, but didn't seem up to the task of bringing the full potential of her character to the table, especially in the second half of the movie, which made me feel that she may not have been the best choice for her role.

There are some wonderful character moments in the film that may only be fully appreciated by those who catch the parallels between characters in Kansas and characters in the Land of Oz. The Wizard has a number of relationships that fail in Kansas because of his pursuit of greatness over goodness, but he is given a second chance to do right by these people with their parallels in Oz, making for some very moving and meaningful moments.

The visual effects started out being a bit too "cartoony" for me, but improved once The Wizard settled into Oz. (I think my expectations also adjusted as the surreal nature of the world sank in.)
There are some great "sorcery duels" in this movie that up the geek-factor considerably, including a "second climax" of the movie in which two witches go head to head. Great stuff that I've been waiting to see ever since Peter Jackson dropped the ball with his "invisible magic" duel between Gandalf and Saruman. (Lame.)

Despite knowing how the story must end (in order for Dorothy's story to be told) I was hit by some great surprises in the climax that, in hindsight, seem obvious and perfectly fitting, but at the time came out of left field. The victory that the Wizard pulls out of his hat at the end of this movie was so satisfying and enjoyable I laughed out loud in delight.

The movie also isn't without a worthwhile theme to think over or talk about after watching. Oz turns away a woman who loves him at the beginning of the movie, explaining that he is not good enough for her, and doesn't want to be. He says that there are lots of good, church-going men. He holds them in high regard but doesn't think he could ever be like them. So instead he aspires to be a "great man", who does larger than life deeds for which he is famous and admired.

Near the end of the film, in a fairly touching moment, The Wizard's developing goodness is affirmed over his "greatness".

A wonderfully made fantasy movie that will have broad appeal and likely give Disney the "Harry Potter" franchise that everyone in Hollywood is chasing.

Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language

Quality: 9.0/10

Relevance: 8.0/10

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