Posted on 9/07/13 03:13 PM
It is almost always annoying when some curmudgeon attempts to exclaim 'They don't make 'em like they used to,' when referring to cinema. The aforementioned phrase highlights people's natural tendency to resist change. However, as with any art-form, change is essential to ensure the continued survival and evolution of our beloved medium and is closely linked to our cultural development. Whether that change is for the better continually fuels the debate machine.
From a technical perspective, film has evolved to transport us to myriads of strange new computer generated worlds, imagery and subject matter has become more sophisticated, grown up or just extreme, whilst the domination of the post-modern/meta culture has led to cynicism and irony replacing innocence and wonder. Attempting to produce entertainment that is innocent, pure and lacking in cynicism risks being branded as trite, kitsch, overly sentimental and - heaven forfend - uncool. That's not to say that there are no more attempts to hark back to what is referred to through rose-tinted nostalgia goggles as 'The Golden Age of Hollywood', but it requires a truly talented film maker confident in their own abilities, along with an innate knowledge of cinematic culture to traverse that road, and the results are not always entirely successful.
A case in point is Sam Raimi's brave attempt to recapture that cinematic magic with a prequel to one of the most beloved films of all time. 'The Wizard of Oz' is over 70 years old, but still retains that indefinable movie magic that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. It's clever, sweet, warm-hearted and good natured. Despite all the alleged dodgy behind-the-scenes shenanigans regarding Judy Garland's exploitation, munchkin orgies and on-set suicides, Hollywood's finest managed to produce one of the greatest cinematic fairy tales ever made, a film that surpasses L(ascivious). Frank Baum's original source material, packed with iconic visuals, memorable tunes and characters you actually care about, all made with the intention of putting a great big smile on your face and brightening up your day (as well as making gimassive amounts of cash).
Over the intervening years Hollywood's attempts to recapture that Oz magic inevitably ended in failure. 1978 saw Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and, inexplicably, Richard Pryor attempting an African American musical version called 'The Wiz'. Unsurprisingly, the film tanked at the box office - although the legendary deleted scene of a freebasing Richard Pryor accidentally setting fire to a group of munchkins is worth the price of the DVD alone. Predictably, the 80s saw a sequel, 'Return to Oz', which again barely made an impact, as trying to recapture the indefinable charm of the original would have been a seemingly impossible task during the soulless decade that brought us the Filofax, 'Dynasty' and the collection of beeps and whistles more commonly known as synth pop.
So now it is the space year 2013 and utilising the latest 3D special effects, Sam Raimi brings us 'Oz the Great and Powerful', which charts the story of the young Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a philandering con artist and small-time circus magician whisked from dusty old black and white Kansas to the vibrant technicolour Land of Oz. Initially thinking he's landed the jackpot of fame and fortune as the various inhabitants mistake him for a great and powerful wizard, he soon finds himself locked in the middle of an increasingly perilous power struggle between three witches; Glinda (Michelle Williams), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Theodora (Mila Kunis), which threatens to destabilise the land and destroy its people. Oscar reluctantly takes up the mantle of the wizard of Oz in order to find the depths of courage to redeem himself as well as save the kingdom.
It's evident that Raimi has a great reverence for the original film, as well as the series of books it was based on. Cleverly using black and white pan and scan ratios for the scenes set in Kansas before exploding into widescreen colour once we are whisked to Oz, a great deal of care and attention has been taken into providing some of the most colourful and vibrant 3D visuals yet seen in order to bring the Land of Oz bursting to life. There's also fun to be had in witnessing some of Raimi's trademark wacky directorial flourishes alongside spotting the references and links to the original film and books (the burgeoning relationship between the little porcelain girl and Oz; the tragedy behind the manipulation of Theodora into becoming the Wicked Witch of the West). It's just a shame that other aspects of the film don't match the quality of the visuals. The talented James Franco is OK as the roguish Oz, but is perhaps a little too young and handsome to convince in the role (the ghost of original Oz Frank Morgan looming a little too large). Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis almost convince as the dastardly witches of East and West, but Michelle Williams makes little impact as an insipid Glinda the Good Witch (although a thankless task given the blandness of the writing of her character) and neither does Zac Braff as Oz's monkey friend Finley. So it's left to the bit players to provide a few flashes of interest, including 'Bad Santa' alumnus Tony Cox as grumpy munchkin Knuck, Joey King is touching as the porcelain girl and it's always great to see Bruce Campbell in his usual Raimi-requested cameo as the disturbingly named Winkie Gate Keeper.
But despite all the care and attention to detail, the plot is a bit...well...humdrum, its execution decidedly average and the whole enterprise feels like the world's most expensive pantomime. Being a prequel, most of the audience will know the eventual fate of the main characters, so the telling of the story needs to work extra hard to inject dramatic impetus and tension into proceedings to make us care. But scribes Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire forgot to pack those syringes, and instead mistakenly injected the plot with those marked 'mediocre' and 'run-of-the-mill' which only serves to highlight that the film may well be a victim of the time in which it was born. 'Oz The Great and Powerful' lacks the magic and wonder of the original, lacks the songs, lacks a truly iconic Hollywood star in Judy Garland and just goes to emphasise what a true classic 'The Wizard of Oz' actually is.
Whilst Sam Raimi is talented enough to make a watchable couple of hours, and it is a brave film maker who attempts to take on such a cinematic legacy, it is very difficult to recapture that lightning-in-a-bottle quality that made the original so special because it is so tied to the culture of the times in which it was made. In the case of 'Oz the Great and Powerful' it may well be a case of 'they don't make 'em like they used to'. Times move on, both audience's and film maker's sensibilities change, and cultures evolve (for better or worse). If the new film encourages children and adults to seek out the original film and/or books, then at least it has served some purpose. But as a worthy entry into the Oz canon it is unfortunately less Great and Powerful and more 'pfffft' and 'meh'. But 'Oz the Sorta...y'know...OK...I Guess' just doesn't have the same ring to it.