Last week I wrote that the opening credits of Oz The Great and Powerful, presented in black-and-white 3D within a 1.33 aspect ratio, are inventive and beautiful and altogether quite masterful. I also noted that the subsequent 15 minutes, also in the same format, are quite good also and in fact deliver more allure than the rest of Sam Raimi‘s film, which is in widescreen color and loaded down with more emphatic, eye-soaking CG than Raimi or the audience know what to do with.
The film runs another 110 minutes after the black-and-white section, and at great cost. A recent N.Y. Times story reported that the total Oz tab is $325 million, including marketing. I wonder how much Raimi made?
The opener is more involving than the eye-candy stuff because it’s mainly about (a) echoing the beginning of Victor Fleming‘s 1939 The Wizard of Oz, which began in black-and-white sepia-tone, and (b) is all about character set-up. The shakedown on James Franco‘s Oscar Diggs, a low-rent magician performing in a travelling carnival in 1905, is that he’s a reckless flim-flam man who feels unfulfilled (he wants to be a Harry Houdini or Thomas Edison-level achiever) and can’t recognize or express love. So we’re presuming, naturally, knowing the original backwards and forwards, that Diggs will gradually recognize and solve these issues once he air-balloons into the fairytale land of Oz and all the “whee!” stuff with the shreaking witches and flying baboons and whatnot kick in.
A resolution happens at the finale, I suppose, but not in a way that felt particularly satisfying or whole or fused together in just the right way. Not for me, at least.
But you’re thinking early on that the newbie just might come together like the 1939 original, particularly after watching a black-and-white Franco get lifted up and whipped around by a huge, snarly, wild-ass tornado, which also propelled Judy Garland‘s Dorothy Gale into The Land Beyond Kansas. But then Franco lands in Oz and the color kicks in and before you know it a cute little CG hummingbird shows up and then some piranha-like fish with razor teeth and it’s like “oh, Jesus God…here we go with the cute family crap.”
The screenplay for the old Wizard of Oz — written by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf with uncredited rewrites by Herman J. Mankiewicz, Arthur Freed, George Cukor, King Vidor, Richard Thorpe, Jack Mintz, Victor Fleming, John Lee Mahin, Ogden Nash, Irving Brecher, Samuel Hoffenstein, Herbert Fields, Sid Silvers, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, E.Y. Harburg and William H. Cannon — was a personal tale about 12 year-old Dorothy’s angst and imagination. The movie is basically a dream she has after being knocked out by a flying window frame. The fanciful characters are all from Dorothy’s actual life (Margaret Hamilton‘s Wicked Witch, Frank Morgan‘s Wizard, Ray Bolger‘s Scarecrow, Bert Lahr‘s Cowardly Lion, Jack Haley‘s Tinman) and the issues are all about what Dorothy and her three comrades want in a personal vein, but which they try to solve, futilely, by asking for help from others. They had the power all along but they didn’t know it. All they needed to do was reach in instead of out.
Oz The Great and Powerful, written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, is only occasionally or incidentally about Digg’s character issues. It’s more precisely and often oppressively about excuses to turn loose the CG crew so they can go to town with this or that mindblowing digital landscape or magical effect or eye-candy fireball or waterfall or what-have-you. It’s about the same old game, the same old “let’s try and whip the easily impressed into a CG lather!”
You could use your imagination and say it’s about commercial pressures (or some phantom or claw-footed gargoyle created by these pressures) standing behind poor Raimi and constantly nudging him in the ribs and going, “Sam…Sam! You’re a family man and you live in Brentwood and you’ve contributed to Republican politicians so you need to get paid the really big bucks, right? Which is why you’re making a relatively empty-headed CG-covered family-trade movie like this. And you know, or should know, that successful movies are not story- and character-driven any more, Sam…not really and not for years. They’re driven by wow effects, and so you really have to keep ‘em dazzled, Sam…okay? Keep lathering on those FX, keep playing to the four year-olds.
“C’mon, Sam…we let you have your pain-in-the-ass black-and-white opening so do the right thing and make us the kind of soul-smothering, moron-level family flick that makes big money!”
Oz The Great and Powerful doesn’t really fit together or make a lot of sense. There are two witches…okay, one witch and a sister who’s under her influence (Rachel Wiesz, Mila Kunis)…who are seen as oppressors by the citizens of Oz, whose lives, they claim, are not “free,” whatever the hell that means. Believe me, these people are as free as you and me or Sam Raimi or any Anaheim Disneyland employee. They’re well-dressed and jolly and they sings songs and blah blah. And Glynda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams) is kind of half-assed in that she doesn’t seem to have much power. And the finale doesn’t involve Franco’s finding some kind of fulfillment (although he does, sort of) as much as it involves a kind of people’s revolution…you don’t want to hear this.
I know that if you’re going to include singing in a film, as in a singing or half-singing “musical,” you have to introduce it early on, certainly before the end of Act One. You sure as hell can’t can’t wait until the end of Act Two, I can tell you that.
“There’s neither a subversive nor even a gleeful bone in this film’s body,” wrote Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy, “which means there can be no fun in the evil or in villains being vanquished. Similarly missing is any zest to the storytelling. Quite the opposite of the great earlier film, the Oz here is a dull place to be. Given the choice, you might even consider going back to Kansas.”
It’s strange that Oz The Great and Powerful has a 63% Rotten Tomatoes rating among the general population. This obviously indicates trouble, but a film as bad and unfulfilling as this one deserves a negative rating in the 30s or 20s even. I don’t get why so many people who should know better have given it a pass. The top critic rating is 29%.
Repeating from last week: “Handsome naturalistic black-and-white 3D hasn’t been seen since…what?…The Creature From The Black Lagoon? (Tim Burton‘s Frankenweenie was animated.) “This is amazing…delightful,” I was saying to myself. “I haven’t watched anything like this ever on a big screen…the first time in my life!”