Friday, February 15, 2013

Three Years Later, Disney Repackages Its Last Weird Success With Oz The Great And Powerful

The Good: Decent special effects, Good pacing
The Bad: Predictable plot, character arcs, and themes, Relies far too much on spectacle over effect.
The Basics: Cinephiles and actual witches will have plenty to complain about when Disney repackages its 2010 film Alice In Wonderland as the astonishingly similar and familiar special effects-driven Oz The Great And Powerful.

Coming out of the yearly cinematic doldrums of February (one of two times of the year where movie releases go to die), March inevitably kicks off the big-budget films that the studios release early so they will not have to compete with the ultra-blockbusters released during Summer Blockbuster Season. Unfortunately, March is not known for releasing truly great films, just big films that are in a better market position than the February releases. This year is, of course, no different. However, it is hard not to feel like audiences are being taken as suckers this particular March with the release of Oz The Great And Powerful. Disney is releasing Oz The Great And Powerful to be the first big blockbuster of the year and it is a tactic in 2010 when they released Tim Burton’s vision of Alice In Wonderland (reviewed here!).

Disney is, no doubt, hoping that people will not notice the similarities in release date (Alice In Wonderland was released on March 5, 2010, Oz The Great And Powerful will break to the public on March 8, 2013), merchandising push and attempts to tap the virtually identical fan-bases. No doubt, Disney publicists are pushing talking points for all of the talent should any of them be asked about Oz The Great And Powerful and Alice In Wonderland (you can pretty much bet that within the first five interviews of actors/directors/producers/etc. someone will very pointedly note that Alice In Wonderland was a reimagined sequel, while Oz The Great And Powerful is a prequel to the previously-established The Wizard Of Oz. It is important for the producers to make that distinction; they need the audience to believe they will be watching a different movie.

It is, alas, all window-dressing. Oz The Great And Powerful is essentially Disney’s Alice In Wonderland set in Oz, where the protagonist is not struggling to remember herself and her past, but rather to grow into a man who will lead a very different future. Both are very obvious stories about a hero in the process of becoming, both rely heavily on spectacle over strong storytelling and both made reviews utterly pointless to 90% of the potential audience. Oz The Great And Powerful will be a smash success for Disney, just like Alice In Wonderland was, not because of any inherent quality of its own, but rather because it comes with such a massive fanbase that it cannot be anything but a success.

That said, Oz The Great And Powerful is not unenjoyable, but it is thoroughly obvious and it is, at best, a popcorn movie that seeks to entertain and overwhelm as opposed to telling a story that is worthwhile or compelling.

Starting in Kansas, Oscar Diggs is a simple illusionist. He entertains at the carnival, but he is a magician who is engaged in slight-of-hand and simple science, not one who calls upon any magical forces. So, when his balloon is whisked off in a funnel cloud, he is shocked to awaken in a world where magic is very real. After quickly determining that he is not, in fact, dreaming, Oscar is told where he is by Theodora, a woman who treats the magical Land of Oz as mundane. Theodora takes Oscar to her sister, Evanora, who believes she can use Oscar against her enemies.

Quickly seduced by the potential of the vast wealth of gold, gems, and treasures found in Oz, Oscar slowly comes to realize that Theodora and Evanora are not exactly who they claim to be. When he learns of the plight of most of the citizens of Oz through Glinda, Oscar must choose a side and raise an army to stop the oppression of the people of Oz, in the process becoming the great man – and a man of substance – that he never was before.

First, the good: Oz The Great And Powerful is as visually amazing as fans and cinephiles would hope it could be. Disney has, apparently, used the last three years exceptionally well. While Alice In Wonderland had moments that looked exceptionally like one was watching an awkward animated movie, Oz The Great And Powerful does not; it looks like a true, real setting. The 3-D is incredible and the creatures look like they match the real-world (which is mostly CG in Oz, though the actors are, largely, real). While some of the creatures look derivative – one of the earliest creatures seen in Oz bears a striking resemblance to the Tooth Fairies from Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (reviewed here!) - Oz The Great And Powerful tries hard to make the sense of magic and wonder match The Wizard Of Oz while employing the latest technology to push the envelope of what can be done.

As well, the pacing in Oz The Great And Powerful is good. The film is long, but it does not feel long, it moves at a decent pace, establishing wonder and reversal with a very steady sense of movement.

Unfortunately, where the movie is going is hardly original . . . on pretty much any front. One of the key battles between Glinda and the Wicked Witch was shot in a way that reminded me a great deal of the final battle in Dark City (reviewed here!). Everything else just seemed like it was plotted out from Alice In Wonderland, though Oz The Great And Powerful does not belabor Oscar whining about whether or not Oz is real (unlike Alice’s prolonged whining in the other film), which is nice. Heroes in the process of becoming are familiar stories and it is tough to do something new with that, especially in a single movie, but Oz The Great And Powerful does not even try; it goes with an obvious, formulaic progression as Oscar is tempted, learns the truth, learns a deeper truth, and digs into his soul to take the obvious high road. Hell, in true Disney form, he goes with the blonde!

The best we might say about the acting in Oz The Great And Powerful is that almost all the time, the performers interact with the virtual sets and characters flawlessly. Beyond that . . . James Franco is stiff and he plays Oscar as a man playing charming, as opposed to a character who is innately charming. This is, unfortunately, not the worst the film has to offer in terms of performances. Mila Kunis often seems like she is sleepwalking through the role of Theodora and Michelle Williams’s performance of Glinda is monotonous. Williams plays in a narrow sliver of emotional depth for the character – quickly illustrating deep pathos for the citizens of Oz, but opting for an optimism that seems utterly simplistic in this day in age. Rachel Weisz abandons all subtlety as Evanora the longer the film goes on and her performance lacks any genuine emotional depth.

Oz The Great And Powerful is a popcorn movie and for those who go for family-friendly, big-budget special effects films, the film will satisfy. It is solidly entertaining. Unfortunately, it is nothing beyond that; Disney aims for spectacle over meaning and they nail it perfectly for that with Oz The Great And Powerful.

For other Disney live-action works, please check out my reviews of:
The Odd Life Of Timothy Green
John Carter
Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Tron: Legacy
Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time
Old Dogs
Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End
Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe
Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl
The Princess Diaries 2: A Royal Engagement
The Princess Diaries

For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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