Saturday, March 16, 2013

Movie Review: Oz The Great and Powerful

Disney just loves their tent poles.  Their live action films that can make tons of money if handled just right.  It has become a grand tradition for the company to take a well known property, such as a theme park ride or a beloved story, and create big budget blockbuster films out of them.  It's kind of what they do now.  Those movies are also usually not so great.

But every now and then, you catch lightning in a bottle and end up with something like Pirates of the Caribbean, a film that is loathed by critics but loved by audiences.  And when that success hits, it hits big.  Such was the case with 2010's Alice in Wonderland, which ended up making just over a billion dollars.  Success like that is hard to ignore so it's only natural that Disney would try to apply a similar formula to another classic tale and try to get the same result.

The result?  Oz The Great and Powerful, a prequel to classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz and, to a lesser degree, the book it was based on.  Not to be confused with the musical Wicked, this film tells a very different back story of how the stage was set for Dorothy's adventures in the land of Oz.  Oscar Diggs, known better by his stage name of Oz, is a circus magician and con man.  He knows he's not the most upstanding individual in Kansas, but he dreams of one day achieving greatness rivaling or even surpassing his idols Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison.  One tornado later, Oz finds himself in a whimsical and widescreen world like he's never seen before.  This land is also known as Oz, and according to a witch named Theodora, they've been waiting for a mystical wizard to appear and save the day.  Before he knows it, Oscar is caught up in an adventure much bigger than he bargained for...

Oz's origin story is surprisingly clever.  Not only does it provide a back story for many of our favorite characters, such as the Wizard, Glinda, and the Wicked Witch, but it also mirrors the original story in many ways, both in terms of plot structure and even visuals at times.  Despite telling a rather different tale than the original film, many of the same plot devices are employed here, creating a strong sense of continuity.  Despite the fact that Disney does not own the original Wizard of Oz, and therefore had to avoid direct references for copyright reasons, there are many nods to the 1939 film scattered throughout Oz The Great and Powerful, some subtle and some surprisingly overt.

However, Oz does have it's fair share of new ideas and characters to meet.  Oscar picks up a pair of traveling companions during his adventures.  First, there's Finley, a flying monkey bellhop who ends up owing Oscar a life debt.  Voiced by Zach Braff, Finley's brand of humor will likely come off as love it/hate it to most viewers though, for what it's worth, I found him to be pretty entertaining.

Also along for the ride is China Girl, a young china doll voiced by Joey King.  China Girl proves to be one of the more memorable characters in the film, switching between sweet and fragile in one scene to fierce and determined the next.  While Finley is mostly reduced to comic relief, China Girl's character develops throughout the film, making her a standout among the cast.  As the obvious parallels for the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, both Finley and China Girl hold their own nicely.  Several other characters join the mix later in the film as well, and also provide some clues to the origins of characters like the Tin Man and the Scarecrow.

And, indeed, Oz does serve as a fine prequel to the original film.  If there is one major fault I noticed, it's that the plot twists and developments do tend to happen rather abruptly.  Oz takes a while to get going, but once the plot does kick into gear, it suddenly makes a beeline for the climax, which is a little jarring.  Outside of Oscar's journey to become the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, character arcs for the familiar Oz characters are also rather underdeveloped.  A few major plot twists happen rather suddenly and with little explanation.  The movie assumes familiarity with these characters' personalities and motives and doesn't always explain things clearly. It gets away with it for the most part but the pacing suffers at times.

Oz does manage to impress from a visual standpoint.  The Land of Oz presented here is massive, colorful, beautiful, whimsical, but also a little dark and threatening at times.  The visual effects are largely top notch throughout the film.  There were a few more jump scares and flashy 3D sequences than I would prefer, but not too many.  There are a few obvious moments where objects or characters are thrown at the screen just for the sake of the 3D effect, but it never feels too gimmicky.  The score, composed by Danny Elfman, fits the world of Oz perfectly, and is a treat to listen to throughout the movie.

In the film, Oscar struggles between wanting to be a good man or a great one.  Oz The Great and Powerful may not be a great film, but it most certainly is a good film.  It's exactly what one would hope for from a origin story to the 1939 film, and it also tells a compelling narrative of its own.  And, in my opinion, it's a much better origin story than Wicked, as it connects much more closely to The Wizard of Oz.  The characters are likable and fun, the villains are wicked and scary, and the visuals and audio never disappoint.  It's probably not going to be Disney's next Pirates or Caribbean nor will it achieve the same classic status as its 1939 sequel, but Oz The Great and Powerful is still definitely worth a look.