Thursday, March 14, 2013

Kansas Flatlands: Oz the Great and Powerful

James Franco stars in Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful, now in theaters

There is no good reason why a fresh movie spinoff of The Wizard of Oz shouldn’t be an eminently doable proposition. The new Disney film Oz the Great and Powerful – a “prequel” directed by Sam Raimi and starring James Franco as a two-bit carny magician who is whisked away to the magical land of Oz and, after proving himself through a series of heroic challenges, installs himself as the Wizard – has inspired a fair amount of anticipatory derision, and even some horrified shudders, as if it could only be an act of sacrilege, ever since it was announced. While the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland is rightly considered a classic, its status as a holy relic, like that of It’s a Wonderful Life and A Charlie Brown Christmas, has less to do with its inherent virtues than with the saintly reverence a lot of people seem inclined to feel towards anything they watched on TV ten times when they were kids. Years ago, this kind of living room repeat-viewing exposure was a rare phenomenon, but now that cable movie channels and home video have been a fixture of American life for so long that people who grew up on them are reaching maturity and getting jobs writing about movies, we’re seeing beloved-classic status automatically assigned to some real pieces of shit: movies from Top Gun, Caddyshack, Three Amigos, and even Sneakers

How would L. Frank Baum, the author of the original Oz books, feel about the idea that his masterwork was something more fragile and delicate than another potential franchise tent pole? He’d probably feel that he worked his hands to the bone to grow that tree and he didn’t need anyone getting in the way of it being properly sapped. Baum was an aspiring actor and playwright whose dreams of the stage had ruined him financially before he finally sat down and started writing children’s books. He wrote fourteen Oz books in all – the first great, long-running modern franchise of children’s fiction.  Baum charmed readers partly by using a theatrical ham’s instinct for showmanship as a substitute for the “mythic” qualities of European fairy tales. (Once Baum struck gold, he was quick to adapt his own work to the stage, and toured with a show that utilized film, slides, and live performers that promised a “travelogue” of Oz.) 

Judy Garland and Ray Bolger, off to see the Wizard in 1939
Pauline Kael wrote of the 1939 movie that Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger were so memorable as the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow because they understood “that the roles are vaudeville-comedy turns." The characters, and what the right kind of performers can bring to them, are at the core of Oz’s appeal, but every screen attempt to recapture that appeal – the 1978 movie of the Broadway musical The Wiz, Disney’s previous attempt to reboot the franchise with the 1985 Return to Oz, and the 2007 TV miniseries Tin Manhave gone big on concept at the expense of the characters. Much the same thing happens in Oz the Great and Powerful, but where some of the previous Oz films at least counted as honest failures by talented people committed to something they’d overthought, this movie doesn’t really have a concept so much as a marketing plan. It has a flat, defeated, half-hearted feeling that’s a little reminiscent of David Lynch’s Duneanother case of a gifted, idiosyncratic director “adapting” unusual material for a film that he has been made to understand isn’t really his project.

It ought to be. Raimi got his start with the homemade, grindhouse horror of The Evil Dead which, thanks to its scrappy, D.I.Y. vibe, remains one of the most charming movies you will ever see in which a woman is basically raped by a tree – and fans of that movie, or his more recent Drag Me to Hell, may remember the genuine shivers of terror they felt when they saw Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West set the hourglass before Dorothy, and look forward to seeing Raimi’s twists on the Witch and her winged monkeys. But the same people who, as a kid, loved the rollercoaster endurance test of a “family” movie with real scares built into it, now call the cops, or least take to the Internet or the phone-in shows to complain if a movie actually gives their own kids a thrill, so the horror effects in this Oz are soft-pedaled and decidedly unthrilling. The opening sequence, set in Kansas and shot in black-and-white, is disappointing in its flattened-out look, but a viewer may still cling to hopes that the movie will get going –  at least until James Franco lands in a river in Oz and is attacked by nasty little buggers called river fairies. He holds one up to the camera for a few seconds, so we can bask in its CGI awfulness, and you can tell that the reason these things survived the final cut is that the toys based on them must already be on their way to the stores.

Mila Kunis and James Franco in Oz the Great and Powerful
Oz was produced by Joe Roth, who was chairman of Disney for half a dozen years in the ‘90s, and although it looks chintzy and disposable, in that way that CGI-heavy films made by people with no real vision for them tend to, it cost $200 million. Nobody working on this picture had any intention of risking that investment on something that might have enough imagination or individual personality to alienate or upset anyone, and if Raimi didn’t know exactly what level of safety would keep his bosses sleeping soundly at night, rest assured there were plenty of people keeping any eye on him who would have been happy to explain it to him. It would be a compliment to call the script, credited to David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchel Kapner, merely uninspired, and it’s decorated with the traces of the work of people – from Raimi to the composer Danny Elfman to the production team – who might have been perfectly well-suited to launching a new Oz movie but whose hearts died and whose eyes went straight to the clock on the wall when they realized what they were mixed up in. 

James Franco may be one of them. All movie buffs know that Frank Morgan, the Wizard of the 1939 film, was stepping in for W. C. Fields, who priced himself out of the role after the screenwriters had shaped it specifically for him.  At least back then, before the Internet and Entertainment Weekly, Morgan could do his job without the indignity of knowing that every ticket buyer in the English-speaking world would know he wasn’t the producers’ first choice. For poor Franco, it’s not enough for him to put his stamp on the role of Oz: he has to do it while preventing you from thinking about either Robert Downey, Jr. or Johnny Depp, both of whom were reported to have turned it down. However Downey or Depp might have played it, it seems unlikely that either of them would have been accused of not going big enough, or not giving a committed performance, which has been the go-to complaint aimed at Franco since he co-hosted, sort of, the Academy Awards show in 2011.  With his matinee-idol good looks set off by a trim mustache, he has the right look for a seductive charlatan who has the makings of a true Wizard, and he’s likable, but in the end he’s defeated by the rotten dialogue and the worse company. Once he lands in Oz, the hero hooks up with a charmless, talking winged monkey and a living porcelain-china girl. All of the friends Dorothy made in Oz were physically larger than her; if it’s by some conscious design that the Wizard’s traveling companions are all pocket-sized, it’s a bad design – it makes him look less like a hero making friends and assembling a team than a collector of knick-knacks. (He also joins forces with a Munchkin played by Tony Cox, who can’t help but carry his role in Bad Santa with him. The more wholesome the setting he’s in, the more you except him to suddenly let loose with streams of inappropriate language.) It doesn’t help that the picture is inconsistent about Oz’s talents. He seems meant to be a second-rater who talks big, but what we see of his stage act is a wow, and even alone in his tent, he casually does amazing-looking things, such as reaching into his jacket pocket and pulling out a flaming dish. Presumably the filmmakers couldn’t resist lending some movie magic to Oz’s stage magic; in the process, they missed their chance to re-create the charm of something old-school and amateurish, like the stage production at the beginning of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Muchausen, that the hero would then transcend when he reached beyond his usual capabilities and triumphed over his enemies in Oz.

Michelle Williams as Glinda
It also turns out that Oz doesn’t have the most compelling character arc in the movie. That belongs to Theodora (Mila Kunis), a “good witch” who is on her way to becoming the Wicked Witch of the West. Naïve and sweet-hearted (and sumptuously costumed, by Gary Jones and Michael Kutsche), Theodora has been deceived by her sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz) – the one who will end up under Dorothy’s house – into believing that it is Glinda, the Good Witch (Michelle Williams), who is the menace that Oz has been sent by providence to defeat. Unfortunately, she has, as her sister points out, a lot of suppressed anger in her, and when the Wizard breaks her heart, she explodes, shooting fireballs from her fingertips, growing a bigger nose and turning green, and becoming instantly, irretrievably evil. In the context of a fairy-tale movie I’m not sure this approach to character development should be thought about too hard, though parents, especially of little girls, might want to have a little talk about it after the film. A bigger problem is that Kunis simply can’t bring off the transition; in the second half of the movie, she has a misplaced little-girl quality of her own, as if she were a disappointed kid acting out, while feeling visibly sorry for herself. There’s no glee in the performance; it’s going to be a long time before this Wicked Witch learns to cackle, and it’s hard to imagine her ever turning into the glorious nightmare fuel that is Margaret Hamilton’s witch. But the idea is probably more that, maybe after some voice lessons, she can turn into the heroine of the psycho-babbling, phony-meta Broadway musical Wicked.

It says a lot about the aims of this Oz that Glinda, the living dead spot of the 1939 movie (and the villainous of Wicked) is the best thing here, thanks to the fact that Michelle Williams is that rare pretty young actress who can make niceness not-boring. She has some fiber, a toughness, under her shiny exterior, and unlike Billie Burke back in 1939, she doesn’t address everyone she meets as if she were visiting royalty touring a special-needs classroom. But even she suffers from a typical inconsistency in the movie’s overall scheme: Williams also plays the love of Oz’s life back in Kansas, so we’re set up to expect other doppelgängers from his past life to turn up, the way they did for Dorothy, and that doesn’t happen. (Well, Zach Braff, who plays Oz’s sidekick in the circus, does provide the voice for his talking monkey friend, but Oz never seems to notice, and I don’t know that anyone in the theater does either, Zach Braff not exactly being Morgan Freeman, or even Arnold Stang, in the instant-vocal-recognition sweepstakes.)

As for Rachel Weisz, she looks great and enjoys her character’s silken duplicity and viciousness, but even when she and Glinda are having their face-off, the dominatrix undertones of her witchy sadism are underplayed, and when things start to turn against her, she folds disappointingly fast. The most depressing thing you can say about this movie is that everything bland and toothless about it is probably a deliberate choice, made in the name of maximum, non-threatening commercial security. (It’s probably not even meant as a sick joke when, during the siege of the Emerald City at the end, there’s an overheard shot of fireworks exploding in the fantasy kingdom that looks exactly like a commercial for Disneyland.) This movie will probably make its money back, but nobody is going to mistake it for a classic – at least, not for another twenty-five or thirty years, when all the people who are going to grow up watching it on TV have started getting jobs as movie critics.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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