Thursday, March 7, 2013

Not So Wonderful Wizard of Oz

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This Yellow Brick Road Loses Its Way

By Skip Sheffield

The original 1939 MGM musical film version of “The Wizard of Oz” was a perfect storm of creativity and inspiration. Filmmakers have been trying to top this most-watched film ever since, to no avail.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” is the latest attempt. To put it kindly, it falls short.
This is a non-musical prequel to the MGM classic, produced by the Disney conglomerate. Okay, it has incidental music by the ubiquitous Danny Elfman.
James Franco stars as the title character Oscar Diggs, a third-rate magician and serial heartbreaker also known as Oz. Like the 1939 film it starts out in Kansas in black-and-white. Also like the original some actors play dual roles in Kansas and the colorful, magical Land of Oz.
Screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire make a lot of references to the 1939 film, but there are some things they could not use, such as the famous ruby slippers and the specific design of the Emerald City. Happily there are plenty of Munchkins.
What “Oz the Great and Powerful” lacks in originality it makes up in special effects, including 3-D, computer-generated imagery, IMAX in limited release and a thundering soundtrack. Director Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man 3”) also pours on the blood and gory effects. The Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys look like they could have flown in from Raimi’s earlier horror flick, “Evil Dead.”
A basic problem with this re-imagining is that the character of the Wizard of Oz is one of its least interesting. Sure he’s a cad, a fraud and a con man, but so what? We see a lot of them in real life.
Franco, who was the third choice to play Oz, does his level best to make his character relatable, but Oscar Diggs just is not very magnetic.
Far more interesting are the three witches, which are the best thing about the movie.
Mila Kunis makes the most arresting transformation; from the alluring, beautiful Theodora to the green-skinned, pointy-nosed cackling hag we remember tormenting Judy Garland.
Rachel Weisz also gets her bad girl on as Theodora’s even more evil sister, Evanora. Weisz clearly enjoys playing her unredeemable villain, and it is fun, if fleeting, for us.
Over on the goody-goody side, we have Michelle Williams, playing the virginal Annie in Kansas and “Glinda the Good” in Oz. Williams has never looked lovelier, but that is her one dimension.
James Franco gets a computer-generated sidekick; a flying monkey called Finley, who was a human called Frank back in Kansas. Zach Braff voices both characters most sympathetically.
A real head-scratcher is the character of China Girl, a tiny porcelain doll voiced by Joey King. I suppose the character is designed to show Oz’s compassionate side, but she is of little use otherwise.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” has a rather open ending which hints of a sequel, but I don’t think so. If you want a really involving prequel and tribute to both the 1939 movie and writer L. Frank Baum’s original 1900 tale, go see the stage musical “Wicked” when it comes to town again, or better yet, catch it at New York’s Gershwin Theatre.

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