A semi-wonderful wizard - Sam Raimi's Oz is big on visuals but short on magic
 

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posted Friday, March 8, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 10

A semi-wonderful wizard - Sam Raimi's Oz is big on visuals but short on magic
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL
Opens March 8


It's been a while since Hollywood attempted to bring the world of L. Frank Baum to the big screen. The last endeavor, Disney's 1985 fantasy Return to Oz, wasn't exactly a success, and while I personally find that rather straightforward, and admittedly dark, adventure something of an underrated treat, it can't be mentioned in the same breath as 1939's unquestioned classic The Wizard of Oz.

Almost three decades later, Disney returns to Baum's work in a big way, Oz the Great and Powerful a reported $325 million gamble. Directed by Evil Dead and Spider-Man auteur Sam Raimi, the movie is a visually ambitious eye-popping marvel filled with sights, sounds, and ideas befitting the author who originally imagined them. Looking at it is a candy-colored treat, and the moment selfish magician and uncertain hero Oscar (James Franco), working under the stage name Oz, floats into the realm is an unabashed marvel that held me suitably spellbound.

If only the movie itself held together nearly as well. Not without its plusses, among them an orphaned little girl (Joey King) made entirely of porcelain and a winged monkey named Finley (Zach Braff) who finds himself unintentionally Oz's confidant, the movie utilizes Baum's stories but not with full confidence. Writers Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Ten Yards) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole) have constructed a scenario that is never as fully formed as it needs to be. While a lot of time is spent on Oz, as it should be, other characters like the duplicitous and conniving witch Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and her younger, more powerful yet semi-clueless sister Theodora (Mila Kunis) are given a decidedly short shrift.

FAMILIAR TERRITORY
The central plot should be recognizable to anyone who knows either the 1939 musical or Baum's books. Raimi and company focus on Oz as he journeys through the strange, magical land to fulfill a prophecy that will bring peace and prosperity. Initially tricked into thinking the good witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) is evil, his eyes are quickly opened to the truth as he realizes that Evanora has been clandestinely pulling his and everyone else's strings right from the start. The Yellow Brick Road comes into play, as do legions of winged baboon soldiers and tall, big-hatted Winkies sworn to protect their evil leader.

Franco makes a fine Oz, never shying from the darker, more egocentric aspects of his personality even as his humanity is awakened by the chaos and turmoil surrounding him. He is a wonderful foil, his skills as a con artist and trickster put to great use as he learns to use his ingenuity against Evanora and, eventually, a broken-hearted Theodora. Franco has a magnetism that is undeniable, walking through the film with a cagy confidence that's unquestionably beguiling, and as heroes go he's a far more intriguingly complex one than I anticipated going into the screening.

Weisz and Williams make the most of their sketchily written characters, attempting to give them complexities and layers the script only hints at. At the same time, I can't help but wish these two Oscar nominees (Weisz of course a former winner) could face off without being forced to float in the air and throw sparkly streams of light and electricity at one another as if part of some curiously anemic live-action video game. Still, they are powerhouses - that goes without saying - and both have moments that couldn't help but make me broadly smile.

NOT WICKED ENOUGH
The weak link, unhappily, is Kunis. A solid actress, she's fine as the innocently naïve Theodora, excited to introduce the man she believes to be their savior to the land he will hopefully protect. It's her eventual transformation into the Wicked Witch of the East where problems lie - Kunis never achieves the level of gravitas that would make her embrace of evil as chilling or as unsettling as it needs to be. It's as if the actress can't connect to the darker aspects of her character, only brushing the surface of what is required making Theodora a rather toothless adversary whose eventual defeat is frustratingly never in doubt.

All the same, Raimi has constructed a family-friendly epic that is refreshing in a ton of ways. While the visuals are lavish and lush they never overwhelm the story at hand, working in tandem with what is going on instead of calling attention to themselves just for the sake of calling attention to themselves. There is a lightness to the story that is irrefutably wonderful, the filmmakers having an unquestioned affinity for the material and for Baum's world that I didn't think was ever in doubt.

But as great as the positives are, the minuses remain of issue. Raimi and company have gone out of their way to deliver on the massive budget that Disney has bestowed on them, working so diligently on the visual esthetics that they've (maybe unintentionally) given less attention to the secondary characters and to the resolution of the central plot. While I did like quite a bit of Oz the Great and Powerful, and while I can give it something of a begrudging recommendation, I do feel the movie itself never lives up to its potential, and while Baum's magic is still evident its power isn't nearly as strong as it by all rights should have been.



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