Starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Tony Cox, Stephen R. Hart, Abigail Spencer
Directed by Sam Raimi
Expectations: None. I would never willingly choose to watch this, even if Sam Raimi made it.
A Sam Raimi fan would hope that if he actually wanted to remake Army of Darkness, he’d at least do so interestingly. It’s a bit of a stretch to call Oz: The Great and Powerful an Army of Darkness remake, but there are way too many parallels between the stories to ignore. I have to wonder if these elements existed in the script prior to Raimi getting the job, or if they tailored the film to his perceived strengths; I imagine some executive yelling at a cowering assistant, “Get me Raimi! He knows fish-out-of-water stories!” Raimi’s strengths, if you were going by this movie, are first-person shots of stuff flying directly into the camera, coaxing horrible performances out of his actors, an ability to craft fun “getting stuff ready for the battle” montages, and short snap zooms (as opposed to the more prevalent long snap zoom that you might see in a Shaw Brothers movie, or more recently Django Unchained). That’s about all the Raimi directorial stamp there is on this bombastic, overstuffed mainstream offering. And yeah, I realize that this is for kids, but that doesn’t excuse it from being horrible.
Oz: The Great and Powerful is not based on any previous work, instead drawing elements and inspiration from the books of L. Frank Baum to create something of a prequel that never existed to The Wizard of Oz. We follow Oscar as he rides a tornado into Oz, finding himself smack dab in the midst of the fantastic world of Oz. Aspects of this story sort of fly in the face of what happened in the original film too, so purists will want to turn their brains off completely (or better yet, watch something else). Also, Disney doesn’t own the rights to the iconic 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz, so they are legally forbidden from directly referencing the events of that movie or using any similar designs. This is arguably a moot point, as the designs they ended up with for the Emerald City looked close enough for me to believe that they were the same city. The rest of Oz… not so much, but when you’re making an over-the-top fantasy film in 2013, that is to be expected.
Visually, this modern interpretation of Oz is like a combination of Avatar and Tim Burton’s horrid Alice in Wonderland remake. It’s not a good mixture of these elements either, so if you were repulsed by what you saw in the trailer (like me), then there’s nothing for you here. I will admit that certain scenes look fine for what they are, like the ones clearly inspired by NES-style platform games, but I personally object to my movies looking or feeling like video games. They’re movies so they should be cinematic, no?
I wrote about the realism of the backgrounds in Brave in my review of that film, and I mentioned how modern live-action films were actually heading the opposite way in my opinion. And then — ALAKAZAM! — Oz: The Great and Powerful literally proves my point right before my eyes. The world is so over the top that it often looks like a cartoon, with the actors clearly not mixing well with their surroundings. At times, moments like these even resembled old school rear-projection, which may or may not be a deliberate nod to old techniques (as the entire intro is), but I have a hard time believing Disney would OK homages to techniques that mainstream audiences have always laughed at, especially during the showy Oz portion of the movie. Nope, it’s just that the backgrounds are so far into the realm of animation that humans would never look natural when placed in them. We’ve gone beyond special FX and landed firmly in the realm of animation.
Besides the visuals and my hang-ups with them, the acting is atrocious from literally everyone. I know every member of the cast is capable of better, but when you’re getting paid millions of dollars I guess that sort of kills your artistic drive. Or maybe Sam Raimi was pulling a late-period Lo Wei and sleeping on the set while the actors directed themselves. Who’s to say, all I know is that James Franco teetered between two basic emotions through the film: his “I’m trying to be a witty, con-man magician” serious face, or his “dOoD, i’M So HiGh RiGhT nOw” smile. I literally got excited when the film shifted away from his character for a few minutes, only to cry out, “Fuckin’ A, he’s back!” when he returned.
Oz: The Great and Powerful is on the same level as the Star Wars prequels in my eyes, dispelling much of the mystery that made the series’ original entries iconic and great. How do you make a prequel to a movie from the 1930s anyway? Apparently you ret-con the story to remove the original main character, you make it super colorful, and you inject a lot of epic struggles into a world originally based on simple morals (because Lord of the Rings is popular). Perfect, guys, real bang-up job you did here. I can’t decide if mainstream entertainment is actively dumbing down our culture, or if the entertainment industry is simply adjusting their products to fit the decline of society. Either way, everyone loses. Idiocracy seems closer and closer every day.