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Ozonesheet2screamsThe stars of Oz the Great and Powerful aren’t James Franco, Mila Kunis, or any of the other actors. They’re the digital effects people. The actors might as well be sock puppets, they’re so overshadowed by the digital scenery. Does it impress? At times, yes, but mostly  the movie throws a wall of color at you that swamps story, writing, acting, directing, and almost everything else. Less is more, movie-people.

I’m a James Franco fan, but he’s best as a mumbling, hunch-shouldered beat, not as a wholesome Disneyesque character (or an Oscar host). I mean, the broader he smiles, the more it looks as though he’s going to eat you. James, who’s making your career choices? If you’re not careful, you’ll end up like Nicholas Cage, the Vincent Price of our times.

Like most Hollywood movies these days, all the hard work here seems to have gone into the digital effects, not the casting, writing, acting, or directing. I mean, there are passages of dialogue so plain, I almost fell asleep, I, the guy who never sleeps at movies. Shouldn’t the writing be as exceptional as the special effects?

The best actor is Mila Kunis, whose character is written and played with a tasty ambiguity, adding an interesting reason for her character change. But otherwise the actors seem to play their parts with a wink and a nod, as if they don’t want us to think they actually take this stuff seriously. The result is something like middle-of-the-road fan fiction. We recognize the characters and the story but something seems to be missing (soul, art, nuance, etc).

Yes, those scary flying monkeys are back, though the digital monkeys are much less disturbing than the 1939 monkeys, who seemed to be no more than actual people in monkey suits, suspended on wires, and yet somehow they seemed all the more frightening despite–or because of–that. The Munchkins are back, too, but mostly as background. I’m disappointed there isn’t more music. Oz has always seemed to me to be a land of music, its residents breaking into song at the drop of a hat. The Munchkins start to sing at one point, but stop so quickly it seems as if the moviemakers are wagging a finger at us, telling us they’re not that kind of movie. They should be so lucky.

The story itself ties in nicely with the 1939 perennial that haunts our dreams, explaining how a Kansas huckster ends up as the leader of this mythical land. And the final battle is clever. Maybe the most interesting and disturbing visual is the China girl, a porcelain doll who’s been shattered by the witches’ soldiers and glued back together by the Wizard. She tinks with each step, and she’s covered with a fine mesh of hairline cracks. Creepy. Good creepy.

It’s a movie whose themes and dialogue are too pointed, its main theme being the need to choose between fame and virtue, between greatness and goodness. Oz, Oscar, goes from a blustering con man to a man who embraces his limitations, his mere humanness, and the need to put others before himself. It’s a hard-won lesson, but because Franco never seems to believe his own bluster–or to be very good at it–we never really believe he needed the transformation. The role should have gone to a Steve Carell or an Owen Wilson or a Will Ferrell, actors who can make it seem as though they believe in their own bluster. Franco is just too inward an actor to pull off a conniving con man. His face itself conveys thoughtfulness and self-doubt, not brash self-confidence.

I’m guessing here but I think people who like this movie may like it because of its connection to the great Judy Garland movie, not because in and of itself it’s any good.

In a tribute to the original, this movie starts out in black-and-white and in 4:3 aspect as we see Oz’s life in the carnival BT (Before Tornado). Then color seeps into the image and the image itself broadens into widescreen. Yet despite all the millions that must have gone into the Oz sequences, the sideshow world of the opening is the most inspired and engaging part of the movie. Oops! Another two hundred mil down the drain!

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