Question for you: how do you know spring is here, warm weather and ground that is more green than white just around the corner? Is it crocuses blooming, or the groundhog seeing his shadow? Perhaps the streets of Durango filled with drunk people wearing pocket protectors and fake glasses? For me, it’s the arrival of a big, empty spectacle of a movie at the Stadium 9 (formerly Storyteller 9, formerly before that the Big 5.) In years past, flicks like “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Hunger Games” marked the end of the long, cold nights. So I was both glad and relieved to see “Oz the Great and Powerful” arrive this week. I’m sick of this cold white stuff.
Sam Raimi directs, and that had me hoping that “Oz” would be a sort-of remake of “Army of Darkness.” The plot similarities are already there: both are stories about a loser transported to a different world that he must save, primarily from calamities he himself causes. And who doesn’t think the cotton candy world of Oz could use a bit more blood and violence, a few more zombies? Raimi, of all directors, would be uniquely capable of bringing that kind of thing to L. Frank Baum’s Oz without sacrificing its sense of fun, wonder, and innocence. After all, that’s what made the “Evil Dead” series so great; they were gorey without being dark, violent but not disturbing or scary.
Unfortunately, that’s not the direction Raimi takes “Oz.” Really, it’s hard to discern if he takes it any direction at all. The story is so cliched, the characters so bland that there’s hardly a director’s presence about it at all. It’s all about eye-popping visuals. Clearly the whole point of revisiting “The Wizard of Oz” was because it would be fun to create the scenery, and fun to watch it. This is a movie where you might have more fun studying the background than paying attention to the talking monkeys in the foreground. (Sadly, those stupid 3D glasses make that almost impossible. This is one of my main beefs with 3D; if you’re not looking at the exact point you’re supposed to be looking at, everything gets all blurry and weird.)
James Franco plays Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs (Oz for short,) a small-time carnival magician, con-man and womanizer. After seducing the strong man’s girl, he flees into a hot air balloon to escape the angry door smasher, and gets caught up in a tornado, which transports him to Oz. The first person he meets there is Thenora the Good Witch (Mila Kunis), whom he seduces and promises to make Queen of Oz. When Thenora introduces him to her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who he attempts to seduce, but she sends him off to kill the Wicked Witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams) before she’ll succumb to his charms.
Along the way, Franco befriends a flying monkey (voiced by Zack Braff) who seems like he’d be much more comfortable in a “Shrek” movie and a china doll girl who has lost her family to an attack from the Wicked Witch, but not her spunk. Franco discovers that Glinda is actually a good witch (that’s not a spoiler; she’s in the Judy Garland version) and is cornered by the good will and belief of the people in Oz into helping them defeat Ev,anora. Meanwhile, when Kunis discovers she’s not Franco’s one and only soulmate, her anger and jealousy turn her green and make her nose and chin grow all long and warty. (Kunis is all but unrecognizable underneath the prosthetics and makeup.)
Of course, Franco is not the Wizard the land of Oz was expecting, but he might just be the Wizard they need. (Seriously – that’s almost word for word a line from the movie. Either these screenwriters have watched Batman too many times, or not at all.) He doesn’t have any magical powers; he can’t fly or shoot lightning bolts ouf of his fingers like his enemies; he can’t even make human-sized bubbles like Glinda can. But he knows a thing or two about illusion and misdirection, and he’s pretty good at putting together mechanical contraptions. He put those skills, and the talents of the Ozians, to their best use, and comes up with a plan to defeat the Witchy sisters, and claim the throne of Oz in sparkling Emerald City.
Taking a step back, it’s kind of amazing how much of this movie would never happen if a)Franco (to be fair, his character, Oscar Diggs) would learn to keep it in his pants, or alternately b)women in Oz would learn to resist the charms of a clearly insincere womanizer. “Oz” has gotten criticism already for its depiction of women, and it deserves every bit of it. When Franco arrives in Oz, its last king has been killed, and three women – one bad, one good, one neutral – aren’t fighting over the throne so much as waiting for a Man to show up and solve their problems for them. This kind of film hardly ever stands up to that kind of scrutiny, but “Oz” is a worse offender than most.
The climactic sequence is pretty satisfying; it’s certainly the most enjoyable twenty minutes of the movie. There were stretches earlier in the film when I wished out loud that characters would quit talking and DO something. And this is where “Oz the Great and Powerful” is strongest; when it’s all about spectacle and illusion. I guess that makes the film a lot like its protagonist. It has a lot of problems, but when it plays to its strengths, which are illusion, misdirection and spectacle, it’s a lot of fun. Like any kind of carnival or magic show, repeated viewing are likely to highlight the problems more than the strengths, but at first sight, it’s easy to get caught up in the smoke and lights and find yourself swept along on the ride.