Despite looking like a spiritual sequel to 2010's Alice in Wonderland and sending every punctuation stickler into a tizzy, the Wizard of Oz preboot Oz the Great and Powerful works magic on the big screen. Director Sam Raimi (Spider-Man) fixes all of Alice's mistakes, fluffing up the eye-popping CG decor with bright colors and fueling his fairy tale adventure with a good deal of soul. Like 2011's Hugo did with the early days of cinema, Raimi turns Oz into a love letter for old school magic, mesmerizingng Technicolor, and the fantastical approach that made the 1939 original a classic. Alice may have made a billion dollars at the box office, but Ozis the success — whimsical, silly, and totally transportive.
James Franco stars as Oscar Diggs, the man who eventually becomes "the Wizard" that we know. But first, he's a magician from the Dustbowl Era, willing to con even his closest friends to have life go his way. To help him learn a lesson, the Forces That Be ensnare him in a tornado — a one way ticket to the land of Oz. After quickly shaking off the fact that the alternative universe bares his same name, Oscar crosses paths with Theodora (Mila Kunis), a witch who believes him to be a prophetic Wizard sent to save Oz from the Wicked Witch of the West. So begins their cross-Oz journey — and Oscar's greatest con to date.
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As the "Wizard" learns the ropes, accepting the challenge to defeat the Wicked Witch after learning of Emerald City's vast treasures, he meets the real stars of Raimi's show. Rachel Weisz has a ball as Theodora's dastardly sister Evanora, who pulls strings in the Emerald City as the citizens await the Wizard. Continually sending into a Mommie Dearest-level rage is Glinda. Michelle Williams captures the innocence and elegance of the Glinda from the '39 film with an added snap of wit. She may be the nicest witch in all of Oz, but piss her off and she'll blast you with magic. Much of Oz the Great and Powerful is dedicated to exploring the expansive world Raimi has designed — The crystalline Emerald City, Munchkin City and its wholesome residents, the delicate "China Town" (made of actual China plates) ravaged by the Wicked Witch's flying monkeys — and it works thanks to the host of characters carrying it along. Even Zach Braff as a talking monkey works as comedic relief (providing a few of the surprisingly effective 3D gags).
The only thing that falls flat in Oz is Franco. And not just a little bit — like a house lifted up by a maelstrom and slammed back into the Earth kind of thwomp. Oscar is supposed to be a man in need of redemption, a self-obsessive who is destructive to the people around him. Franco fits the bill… but it doesn't feel like a character. The actor is self-aware of his non-existent surroundings. He's goofy instead of theatrical. His smug grin creates a disconnect between him and his costars, real or digital. At one point Oscar cradles a living porcelain doll he finds in the smoldering remains of China Town. It's a touching bit of sadness that Franco sells. But as Oscar begins to "change," Franco stays put, acting like the world of Oz is one big joke when we're waiting for him to wake up to the fact that it isn't.
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But not even Franco's laid back approach can sink Raimi's inspired vision, which unexpectedly expresses all of the director's quirks right down to the wild camera movements, bold canted angles, and an instinct that allows Oz to get a little scary (don't worry, children: not Evil Dead scary). Raimi's film pays its dues to past Oz incarnations, down to a riff on "Lollipop King" from composer Danny Elfman, but still feels innovative. The director contends with Franco around every turn of the yellow brick road, orchestrating action sequences, fantastical encounters, and even a musical number, around him in hopes of drowning Oscar in imagination. The combined powers of Weisz, Williams, and Kunis do the trick against the charisma-lacking leading man. Maybe just the three ladies for the sequel?
What do you think? Tell Matt Patches directly on Twitter @misterpatches and read more of his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes!
[Photo Credit: Merie Wallace/Disney]
Maintaining the fantastical but dropping any semblance of whimsy Snow White and the Huntsman transforms the classic fairy tale into a bleak Lord of the Rings-esque hero's tale full of sword fights monsters and forces of evil bent on wiping out humanity. Instead of creating a unique world or conflict for its revamped characters to explore SWATH plays it safe and sticks to the familiar beats coming off like an amalgamation of every fantasy film that's ever graced the silver screen. Director Rupert Sanders sticks to flashy special effects (some of which are truly stunning) over his greatest asset: the charismatic cast. Kristen Stewart Charlize Theron Chris Hemsworth and eight familiar-faced dwarves try their best to elevate the thin material on display but the film is under a sleeping spell — and no one steps in to wake it up.
Once again an evil queen manipulates her way into the castle and heart of a widower king only to cut his throat and throw his beautiful young daughter Snow into the tower to rot. Years later a magic mirror reveals to the wicked Ravenna (Theron) that the now-of-age Snow White (Stewart) is the answer to her waning magic and wrinkly skin. But as Ravenna's slimy brother Finn comes knocking at Snow's door the imprisoned princess pulls a fast one escaping and opening the door for a large-scale adventure through the forests mountains and swamps of the mystical kingdom.
SWATH's action feel particularly shoehorned in each set piece drifting by without any weight or purpose. After fleeing the tower Snow takes shelter in The Dark Forest (there wasn't a better name? or a name at all?) where she's tracked by the Queen's freelancer The Huntsman (Hemsworth). A few fleeting character moments later the two are on the run together duking it out with otherworldly trolls and joining forces with a group of pint-sized ex-gold miners who believe Snow White is "the one." The epic speak commonplace in fantasy films plagues SWATH — without any details as to how or why the world works the way it does most of the dialogue amounts to characters screaming about "destiny." The lack of specifics filters into the journey too: at one point Snow White stumbles upon a forbidden forest bustling with fairies moss-covered turtles and an antlered creature that's never been seen by humans. The beast is a sign that Snow is savior of their world. Why? Anyone's guess.
The generic quality brings down the talent on screen namely Theron's delightfully wicked Ravenna who goes full on Joan Crawford/Mommie Dearest as she pulls strings to entrap Snow White. Naysayers of Kristen Stewart will have plenty of fuel after SWATH but it's the material that fails to serve the actress in this case. The actors in the film barely get to smile — the drab overcast look of the movie clouding even the performances — but the moments when Stewart's Snow brightens up things suddenly come alive. Hemsworth lightens the mood too showing off a sliver of his comedic prowess from Thor. Between the movie's instance for doom and gloom the patchwork script and Sanders' overuse of up-close-and-personal shakycam there's rarely a moment for the actors to do their thing. It's barely worth mentioning the handful of British character actors who pop up as the Dwarves who hobble around mumbling unintelligible quips. They quickly form a bond with Snow White — or so the movie strong-arms us into believing.
Snow White and the Huntsman is stuffed with imaginative spectacle but the artistry is lost on a hollow story. Crystalline mirror shard warriors the Queen's youth-sucking powers or landscapes that look like live-action Miyazaki animation — it all looks amazing but they're never more than spiffy special effects. The movie wants to be above the visuals teasing a smart tough Snow White but the potential is squandered by never allowing the heroine to stride beyond the conventional world. If Snow White's tale is a shiny red apple then modern tropes of fantasy are the poison.