When Walt Disney was adapting fairy tales and children’s stories as animated features, beginning with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937, audiences and critics generally embraced them: “Pinocchio,” “Dumbo,” “Bambi,” “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad,” “Cinderella,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan,” “Sleeping Beauty,” etc. Whatever your generation, you’ve watched them all, right?
But detractors who saw them as watered-down and overly cutesy referred to them as “The Disney Version,” using the phrase as a pejorative term meaning formulaic and sugary — especially after the publication of Richard Schickel’s critical 1968 book of that title.
Today, instead of cutesy or sugary, adaptations of beloved children’s stories are frenzied and loud and so in your face they might be referred to as “the video-game version,” since that seems to be a direct influence.
Disney has jumped into the fray with both “Oz the Great and Powerful” and, a few years ago, Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” but it’s equally true of other studios’ efforts. And these frenetic fairy tales seem to be coming at a fast-and-furious rate. It’s only March, and in addition to “Oz,” 2013 has already brought us “Jack the Giant Slayer” and “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.”
At least the “Hansel and Gretel” film is rated R, so it clearly isn’t for kids, despite its literary origin.
Such is not the case with “Jack the Giant Slayer.” Although the film carries a cautionary PG-13 as it combines the stories of “Jack the Giant Killer” and “Jack and the Beanstalk,” this one is very much aimed at children, apparently with little regard for kids being exposed to its surprising level of violence. Many, many deaths are depicted of both the live-action humans and the animated giants, some in rather gruesome ways, such as the giant that is squished, causing his eyeball to pop out at the screen, an obvious made-for-3-D moment. In addition, the film is dark and dingy, clamorous and bombastic, dirty and crude and generally unpleasant.
As a side note, it is surprising to see a plot point that lays blame on local clergymen for the catastrophe that befalls this British kingdom when the giants are unleashed. In a brief origin story that precedes the film’s main action, a cloister of monks uses magic beans to grow an impossibly tall stalk to climb to heaven and see God. Instead, it leads to a lair of giants in the clouds, allowing the monsters to climb down and wreak havoc. Generations pass and that tale gradually falls into legend.
As “Jack the Giant Slayer” begins in earnest, a monk passes the beans to young Jack and eventually another stalk grows, allowing those rampaging giants to once again descend on the kingdom. A curious moment late in the film has a few monks gathered in prayer at the foot of the stalk when a giant falls out of the sky and apparently crushes them. The camera cuts away too quickly to tell for sure, but the monks are never seen again, and the focus shifts from onlookers to the dead giant on the ground. (A form of retribution, perhaps, for the sins of the monks who started it all?)
Box-office returns for “Hansel and Gretel” and “Jack” have been disappointing, but “Oz the Great and Powerful” was a huge hit last weekend, which, of course, means a sequel is on the way, although it’s anyone’s guess as to whether this prospective franchise will begin to adhere to the original book series by L. Frank Baum (14 volumes, followed by many later sequels from different authors).
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.