Sam Raimi, the man behind the curtain

I was a preteen when Return to Oz was released, so my memory may be a less than reliable source. But I don’t remember a whole lot of anticipation for it. And when it opened, it flopped. I guess WAAAAAY back in 1985, the idea of Walt Disney adding an annex to a cinematic treasure like The Wizard of Oz was akin to throwing an Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirt on Michelangelo’s David.

How times have changed. The fact that Hollywood feels the need to “reboot” a series only ten years after it launched (I’m looking at you, Amazing Spider-Man), we don’t feel the need to handle certain movies with white gloves anymore, which may be a good thing. After all, they’re not sculpture, they’re only movies.

Which leads us to Sam Raimi, former indie horror movie trickster and the man at the helm of the original Spider-Man trilogy, to the newest prequel from Disney, Oz the Great and Powerful. And Raimi, who has some of that rascal Joe Dante in him, though less subversive, is a wonderful choice for a project like this.Image

Something that Raimi hasn’t lost, from the micro-budget The Evil Dead to the mega-budget Oz the Great and Powerful, is his love of artifice, particularly in the way he uses visual effects. There is a herky jerky quality to the way he uses them. It was there in The Evil Dead and its two sequels, but I thought that was a by-product of their low budgets. But with its $215,000,000 budget (according to IMBD), that herky jerkiness is still there! The way the camera and/or character physically whips through the physical space, be it Wicked Witch in Oz, or the gypsy in Drag Me to Hell, or a demon in The Evil Dead, it isn’t done smoothly or realistically. The way he uses shadow play in transformation scenes that is so obviously animated. Or what about the skeletons in the third Evil Dead movie, Army of Darkness? If Raimi could get away with it, he’d probably hire Ray Harryhausen to do his effects work.

But even though Raimi is the right man for a movie like Oz, the script he was given has a problem… it’s bloated. Oz is not only about how Oscar Diggs (James Franco) reluctantly becomes the prophesied Wizard of Oz. It’s also about the rivalry between Glenda the Good (Michelle Williams), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), the manipulative, and the sister caught in the middle, Theodora (Mila Kunis), the gullible.

An example of this movie’s bloat: there’s a sequence about Oscar and one of the companions he picks up during his quest, a china doll named China Girl. Her entire family, and village, for that matter, was wiped out by the flying monkeys (though in this movie, they’re flying baboons. I’m guessing Warner Bros (the owners of the original movie’s designs) wouldn’t allow the use of monkeys, which is fine, because baboons are scarier anyway.) And the scene just drags! Her porcelain legs are broken (a callback to Oscar’s sepia tone time in 1901 Kansas) and he glues her legs back together. And I think we have to wait as the glue sets before the plot moves along; it feels like real time. And she has to learn to walk again on her repaired legs. Thankfully there was no rehab involved; we probably would’ve had to sit through that as well.

As far as the performances, James Franco is miscast. Oscar Diggs is a con man trying to put one over on everybody, but Franco doesn’t seem like he has the energy to even want to try. He carries himself off as a pseudo-intellectual, beatific stoner. Which is why he was perfect in 127 Hours. Nothing shatters self-satisfaction like being trapped in a crevice by a giant rock. And Franco was magnificent at depicting the journey from self-amusement to self-preservation. Franco just doesn’t have that much to do here; he goes from an unethical flimflam man to an idealistic flimflam man.

I adore Michelle Williams. Her work in Blue Valentine was astonishing, her grace and dignity a solid front against Ryan Gosling’s Method histrionics. And she captured many of Marilyn Monroe’s contradictions in My Week with Marilyn. But she has nothing to do here. She’s Glenda the Good. And Good, when not endowed with sacrifice or struggle, is just boring.

Rachel Weisz easily has the most entertaining role in the movie. She gets to be everything we want in an evil witch. She’s conniving. She’s funny. And she gets to shoot bolts of electricity from her fingers, which apparently makes her a Sith lord as well.

Mila Kunis has the trickiest part in the movie. She just sort of goes from sweet and innocent to filled with hatred and revenge with little in between. She does menace well, but when she gets loud, her voice is more shrill than threatening.

But Sam Raimi does what he can to liven it up. He’s having fun with the 3D format, especially when indulging in penchant for shocking extreme closeups of really hideous creatures. But The Wizard of Oz is only 100 minutes long, thirty minutes shorter than this prequel. Oscar Diggs takes forever to get to the Emerald City. And he’s only going one way. Dorothy did it round trip.

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