Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Oz: The Great and Powerful

Funny thing; before a few years ago, I would have really been down on this movie before seeing it, in a "why the heck is Peter Jackson spending so much valuable career time on those freaking midget movies" way. I love Sam Raimi but was never particularly fond of The Wizard of Oz. It's weird; the family watched a large chunk of it most Thanksgivings (CBS would play it every year), but for some reason, the scary parts didn't make the lasting impression on me that they did others. The songs, either, for that matter.

Then Marvel released some art from the comic book adaptations they were doing, written by Eric Shanower and drawn by Skottie Young. They're gorgeous, sort of why Young is in the comic-drawing business. It was great fun to see them go back to the source material and adapt the stories without being especially influenced by the famous movie. It's a comic worth getting in hardcover, and while I haven't become a hardcore Oz fan, I've gained some affinity for the world.

And while I don't particularly love The Wizard of Oz, my nieces apparently do. The part of me that hates the Lord of the Rings stories for how they represent Tolkein's disdain for modernity and technology similarly reads too much into Wizard, thinking "there's no place like home" is a terrible message for that story to give kids - you get transported from the Kansas dustbowl to a magical land where you make amazing friends and have grand adventures, and all you can think of is getting back to your boring farm?

Anyway, the girls love it, so I'm naturally even more curious than I usually am when I go to see a family-friendly movie at how they'd react to it. I don't know about recommending it - I don't see them enough to know what would scare them for one thing, and there's some scary bits in it, though I don't think anything worse than the 1939 movie.

It's kind of neat that my six-year-old niece and I might both be excited for this movie, though, albeit from different directions (I'm guessing she's not a big Sam Raimi fan, what with being six).

Oz: The Great and Powerful

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 March 2013 in Regal Fenway #13 (first-run, RPX)

I must admit, I groaned upon finding out that one of my favorite filmmakers would be making a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. Not just because I'm not a particularly big fan of the original, but because it seemed like kind of a dumb idea: Why do this exercise in putting things into place when L. Frank Baum built so much more? Of course, that question ignores how Oz has thrived for a hundred years in part because many beyond Baum have made fine contributions, with this group being just the latest.

Still, it can't be denied that director Sam Raimi and writers Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire aim to recreate as much as expand: The movie starts in black-and-white, with circus magician Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco) stopped near where he grew up in Kansas before a tornado transports him to the magical land of Oz. There, he meets friendly witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who tells him of a prophecy that that a great and powerful wizard would fall from the sky and defeat the wicked witch who poisoned the king of the Emerald City, becoming King himself. Well, this Oz isn't exactly a wizard, but being King sounds nice, so he heads off down the yellow brick road, picking up a couple of fantastical companions - Finley the flying monkey (voice of Zach Braff) and a China Girl (voice of Joey King) from a teapot village - along the way.

Yes, the filmmakers take every visual and storytelling cue they can from the MGM musical that won't lead to legal action from its current owners, but they create enough of their own and update it with enough modern special effects to grab the attention of those who don't appreciate what 1939 had to offer. The landscape Oz finds when arriving in this new world is big, colorful, and beautiful, and while the visuals don't always look fully real, they always look like something that could spring from a child's imagination. New sights like the China Girl's village are fun discoveries, and there's always just enough going on in the background so that the fantasy world doesn't seem to stop at the edges of the screen but not enough to distract.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

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