Disney’s “Oz” is an “original” story, a prequel to the first book, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” which was adapted as the iconic 1939 musical classic with Judy Garland. In an obvious homage, the new film opens with black-and-white scenes framed in the square-ish style that was the standard until the mid-1950s, then switches to color and widescreen as the “wizard” arrives in Oz. For copyright reasons, no music or other specific elements unique to the MGM movie could be used, although there are allusions here and there with visual riffs and lines of dialogue.
Actually, the script for “Oz the Great and Powerful” isn’t bad, and there are a number of nicely captured sweet and funny moments, despite the occasional substitution of snark for wit. While it never avoids looking artificial, some of the visual design is nonetheless quite stunning, providing plenty of eye candy for both kids and adults. My favorite character is the delicate porcelain China Doll, which, like much of the movie, is a computer-animated wonder.
But that sense of wonder ebbs and flows as it succumbs to too many over-the-top “shock” moments, especially with sharp-toothed, vicious flying monkeys and some scenes with a wicked witch, following the cacophonous, inflated template of so many modern movies that gear the action more toward the use of 3-D than audience enjoyment. As a result, it also feels too long — and, at 130 minutes, it is.
The worst mistake, however, is in the casting, especially — but not exclusively — James Franco as the con artist who becomes the wizard. Franco’s smug, self-congratulatory take on this greedy womanizer is utterly charmless. And late in the film when he’s supposed to evolve into a warm, sincere liberator, the transition is never believable. (Johnny Depp, whom Franco seems to be aping, or Robert Downey Jr., who was once attached to this project, would have been much better choices.)
Mila Kunis is quite beguiling in the film’s first half, but she steps way out of her acting depth and devolves into parody in her efforts to convey jealousy, heartbreak and anger as her character gradually embraces the dark side of witchery and becomes evil.
There have also been other recent rough-and-tumble rewrites of our childhood stories in big, histrionic cinematic terms. Last year we had two versions of “Snow White” — “Mirror Mirror” and “Snow White and the Huntsman” — both of which emphasized the evil queen rather than the virtuous heroine. The latter film also turned Snow White into a warrior wielding a sword on horseback, which paralleled the trajectory of Alice in Disney’s 2010 “Alice in Wonderland,” and to a lesser degree, the heroine of 2011’s “Red Riding Hood.”
I know the original children’s stories are also quite violent, and one can argue that some of these books’ descriptions of ghastly deaths suggest worse things than the film versions show.
But whereas a book relies entirely on each reader’s imagination to a great degree, movies are literal in what they display, with everything exaggerated in size and sound, and filmmakers have a lot of choices as to how they depict such scenes.
So not only would it be nice to see some of these stories return to the source material, but it also wouldn’t be out of line to suggest to moviemakers that a bit of insinuation might prove more effective than a constant assault on the senses.
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