Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Cult-Movie Review: Oz The Great and Powerful (2013)

“Nobody working seems to love the movie-ness of movies more than he does, reveling in the fun stunts that can be pulled with cranes and dolly tracks and wide-angle lenses. From the flying eyeball POV shot in The Evil Dead to the shaft of sunlight beaming through a perforated torso in The Quick and the Dead, he’s happily assumed the role of everybody’s movie-mad kid brother, tinkled pink at his own baroque ingenuity.”

-          David Chute writes about director Sam Raimi (Film Comment, November/December 1998.)

The quote printed above accurately describes Sam Raimi’s style as a director of genre films.  In terms of the aforementioned brand of ingenuity, the baroque art form is one of exaggerated motion, and crisp detail in the service of drama, suspense, grandeur, and, essentially, emotion.  

Oz The Great and Powerful is one of the finer epic movie fantasies of recent years owing mostly to these qualities.  In other words, Raimi’s aesthetic personality infuses almost every moment with that trademark ingenuity and larger-than-life brand of emotionalism.  He goes big and wide and deep to plumb the heart-strings, and isn’t afraid to clutch at sentimentality or schmaltzy humor on his quest. 

In fact, Raimi deliberately nudges scenes over-the-top to generate laughs, terror, and pathos in Oz.  As always, he recognizes the line between horror and comedy, and then trespasses it relentlessly…and with inordinate pleasure.

The second and perhaps equally crucial element of Raimi’s aesthetic approach involves the fact that he is -- for all intents and purposes -- a showman, or a magician.  As such, he loves and cherishes the idea of film as a brand of magic. 

He desires to trick and wow audiences, and more than that, understands how to trick and wow audiences.

Raimi grew up performing magic shows in Michigan -- with Bruce Campbell as his assistant, no less -- and  during that span he came to to see the art of movie-making as an extension of the art of illusion.  Tim Philo, cinematographer on The Evil Dead (1983) told me about Raimi in 2004 (for my book, The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi), that: “sometimes [on The Evil Dead] he would say ‘I want to do this because it is a twist on a magic trick’ or ‘I just want to do this because they’ll wonder how we did it.’”

Likewise, one must consider Raimi’s fondness for the movie-going experience, and how he has mused about it in terms of both the technology and emotional impact of that technology.  He says:

When you sit in a theater, there’s a great deal of expectation as you wait for the film to begin.  You’re in the darkness and the screen clears and that arc lamp comes on the projector and the screen is flooded with light.  Then the logo comes up and it’s brilliant.  It calls to mind all the great classics that have come before.” (Laurence Lerman. “Killer of Dreams,” Video Business, August 28, 2000.)

To fully understand Oz The Great and Powerful, it’s necessary to remember and understand Raimi’s creative approach, and this enduring fascination he boasts for the nuts-and-bolts aspects of the moviemaking experiencing, the technology that makes mass entertainment of this sort possible in the first place. 

In short, the film’s central character, Oscar (James Franco), the wizard of Oz, is in fact, a mirror image of Raimi.

Both men create what appears to be magic through the auspices of technology.  Another way to put it is that they are both technological wizards, the kind who work wonders with light, smoke, gears and cogs, not to mention misdirection and sleight-of-hand. And, both the film and its director stand at the same unhappy career cross-roads.  Oscar’s latest show in 1905 Kansas meets with cat-calls and tomato-throwing from unhappy audience members, and if you think back to Raimi’s last mainstream picture, Spider-Man 3 (2007), he’s roughly in the same boat (despite the fact that Drag Me to Hell rocked).

So, this is a case where the journey of the filmmaker and the journey of the film’s protagonist intersect.  And the answer that resolves both crises rests in the “magic” of technology, the magic of the movies.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the epic fantasy of Oz is, finally, familiar material for Raimi.  He once told another cinematic story about a con-man defending a kingdom from evil via the “magical” auspices of science.  That film was titled Army of Darkness (1992). 

By returning to this theme, and by doing so in his trademark baroque-ingenious fashion, Raimi transforms Oz The Great and Powerful from generic CGI blockbuster into an emotionally-resonant fantasy about the place for science in a world ruled by mysticism, and one man’s journey from scorn and self-loathing to redemption. 

The latter element, the closely observed human journey, enables Oz The Great and the Powerful to rise above largely-soulless, recent CGI cinematic fantasies such as Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and Wrath of the Titans (2012), two films so devoid of human interest and human emotion that they literally seemed to turn to ashes as you watched them.

Oz The Great and Powerful is a family movie and a blockbuster, but within the considerable strictures associated with those formats, Raimi again finds the space to be playful and big, experimental and, simultaneously, comforting.  As an audience member, you'll get everything you expect, and then quite a bit of the unexpected too.

In Oz The Great and Powerful, a small-time carnival con man and magician, Oscar (James Franco) is pulled via a hot air balloon and a tornado funnel into the colorful and fantastic world of Oz.  There he is greeted as “the wizard,” a messiah who can save the Emerald City and other Kingdoms from the hands of the Wicked Witch, who has murdered and deposed the rightful king.

At first, Oscar allies himself with Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and her lovely, innocent sister, Theodora (Mila Kunis).  But when Oscar meets Glinda (Michelle Williams), he realizes that Evanora is the wicked witch herself, and that she possesses the powers to turn Theodora’s good heart against itself, to the ruination of everyone. 

With the help of a little China Girl (Joey King) he has rescued from China Town, as well as a flying monkey, Finley (Zach Braff) who owes him a life-debt, Oscar sets about saving Oz, and his own human soul from the forces of evil (and greed, in particular). 

To succeed, Oscar will have to bring his own unique brand of magic to this troubled wonderland…

Itself based on Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), Raimi’s Army of Darkness contains several parallels with Oz the Great and Powerful.  In Army of Darkness, Bruce Campbell plays a modern day hero in King Arthur’s court, Ash. He is not terribly bright, nor terribly brave, but Ash is a hero because he devises a strategy, using science, to defeat the advancing army of the Deadites.

The key to that strategy is the book in the back of his death coaster Delta 88: a modern science textbook.  Armed with science and the pre-existing belief/prophecy that he is somehow the people’s “Promised One,” Ash leads Arthur’s kingdom to victory over the Medieval Dead.

Notice how closely Oz The Great and Powerful tracks with Army.  The lead character, Oscar, is not a traditional hero either, but rather a con-man and money-grubber.  Furthermore, he is prophesized to bring freedom to the land, not as “The Promised One,” but as “The Wizard.”  And finally, he leads the troops to battle by learning the lessons of another  book, this time one called “Mastering Magic.”  He brings 20th century “magic” -- meaning the tricks of Thomas Edison, in particular -- to a land without such technology.  And he is victorious.

Both stories concern, to a very large degree, how science and rationality – that which appears “magic” to those who don’t understand it -- can usurp the role of traditional religion/mysticism in a society controlled by tyrants or under threat from them.  In both situations, mysticism only raises evil, whether via the Deadites or the Wicked Witches.  Science and technology, by contrast, are the stabilizing factors which restore order in both tales.  In both stories, 20th century “magic” -- science -- makes life better.

In an age when some congressmen loudly proclaim that science and evolution are from “the pits of hell,” this is a message that bears repeating, and which is welcome in our mass entertainment. 

In terms of their lead characters, both Army of Darkness and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court remind the audience that you don’t need to be a burly muscle-man or even a marksman to be a hero.  Instead, you need to have passed your high school science class.  And again, given the anti-intellectual strain which pervades certain elements of our culture, this is a value worth championing.

Raimi re-purposes the Wizard of Oz's black-and-white/color, Kansas/Oz duality to make many of his thematic points.  Oscar isn’t a very good person in “real life.”  In cold, austere black-and-white, he can’t help a girl in a wheelchair walk again.  He can’t even succeed with magic show audiences.  In this world, people don’t want his science and gadgetry, they want miracles. And he can’t give them miracles. He feels bad about himself for lying to them about the nature of what he does. 

But in colorful Oz, that dynamic is flipped. 

The girl in the wheelchair becomes the China Girl, an individual who can be fixed via the auspices of science (which gave us glue). Finally, Oscar realizes that this world already has miracles – the miracles of magic – but what it needs to prosper and grow is science and showmanship.  So he performs the greatest show of all time, tricking the Wicked Witches out of Oz with fireworks, scarecrows, motors, and the magic of filmmaking.  He never has to fire a shot, and he is beloved by an adoring crowd for showing them something they have never seen before. 

As is often the case of late, several critics have missed the boat about Oz, failing to connect Raimi’s aesthetic approach to the material either in terms of specific shots, or the film’s self-reflexive quality.  But a crucial thing to remember about Raimi’s approach to filmmaking is that, like Oscar, he wants to wow you.

He can accomplish that goal by orchesrating a cliffhanging moment of alternating humor and terror entirely in silhouette and long-shot, for instance.  He can do it through the art of montage, with extreme, Dreyer-esque close-ups of Tinkerers hard at work on the eve of battle.  He can even do it with an almost sadistically intense scene of a “heart withering” in which the very film itself seems to pulse and quake as if enduring cardiac arrest.

So don’t believe the haters.  There is no “corporate cynicism” in this movie-making approach, only an earnest desire to please and enchant.  Those who have seen and claimed cynicism in Oz are reflecting not what occurs on screen.  Instead, they are reflecting their own cynicism, I would estimate.  Gaze across Raimi’s career and you’ll see for yourself: he doesn’t make cynical movies…because he is not a cynic.  He’s a guy in love with the art of movie-making and, facts-are-facts: cynics don’t generally make good showmen.

There’s also a weird self-hatred in many critics and viewers that seeks to diminish what is made “now” and champion what was made “then,” even in cases when what is made now is pretty good.  The Wizard of Oz (1939) is widely considered a classic and rightly-so, but again, facts are facts: Oz the Great and Wonderful, at least in terms of canny visualizations, suspense, and action, dwarfs the original film because Raimi possesses more resources with which to paint his canvas.

That’s okay.  They are two different films, and it’s permissible to like both, and see what “value” each film possesses.  In the case of the former, there are the immortal songs, the German expressionist forest, and other dazzling touches, most of which grow out of the Vaudeville experience in America. 

The glories in Oz The Great and Powerful by contrast grow out of the director’s understanding of the magic of film; of the way it can be used to misdirect, or create fear, or otherwise stoke and shape our emotions.  The tools Raimi utilizes are indeed largely the tools of today, but here’s the important thing: the effects, landscapes, and creatures of the film are seen through the eyes of a master magician, a man who knows from experience how to entertain, and how to achieve the maximum impact from the best application of film techniques.

Again, the same people who hated John Carter last summer want you to hate this movie in 2013.  They’ll tell you that James Franco is smarmy and blank.  I’ll tell you, instead, I’ve never seen him more engaged or animated than in Oz.  They’ll tell you the movie is without love, joy, or intensity.  I’ll tell you the exact opposite.  The moment of Thedora’s apotheosis -- her transformation into the Wicked Witch -- is so scary and intense on a purely emotional level that the scene sent my son, Joel, scrambling out of the theater (with his mom), despite the fact that he had already seen the valedictory shot of that sequence in previews:  the green claw with black fingernails emerging from darkness and scratching a wooden table.

In the moment, however, that image terrorizes because the emotions of the moment of have been expressed in that Raimi-esque baroque, or grand, style.

The truth is, Oz The Great and Powerful is a big, expensive summer entertainment, featuring everything that generic description entails.  But the movie goes beyond that description enough too, to warrant a positive recommendation. 

We’ve known for a long time that movies are a form of emotional manipulation.  And since that’s the case, you might as well see a mainstream film this summer in which you are manipulated by the most-skilled of magiciansIn the final analysis,  Oz the Great and Powerful, succeeds because of Sam Raimi The Baroque and Playful.


  1. Anonymous11:11 AM

    John your review of this 2013 prequel to the original 1939 film is very enlightening. Raimi has created a great film that other directors might have failed to do.


    1. Thank you, SGB. I agree with you. Raimi infuses Oz with all the characteristics of a great entertainment.

  2. Oh, I SO agree, John.

    1. Le0pard13:

      I'm glad we see the film in the same way. It's a big blockbuster "family" film, but one of the best of that brand we've gotten in some time, and I chalk the quality up to Raimi.

  3. This is exactly the type of review that attracted me to your writing in the first place John. Your propensity to see through what other critics so reflexively label cynicism and shallowness is a breath of fresh air, and far more accurately reflects the feelings of most movie-goers. We go to the movies to be dazzled and enthralled as you describe, not to afterwards engage in a self-congratulatory chest-thumping session where we name drop as many superior movies as we can and accuse everyone involved of 'selling out'.


    1. Jez,

      Thank you so much for those supportive words. I appreciate them very much.

      I just don't see why some critics are finding it necessary to project "cynicism" into Oz, when it isn't there. This is a wondrously entertaining film, with BIG emotions (thanks to Raimi's baroque approach), and also a heck of a lot of fun.

      I hope Raimi returns for the sequel...


  4. Just got back from seeing this. Really was a very entertaining film, and I'm afraid I just don't see any of this apparent cynicism at all.
    And on a side note, I was very pleased with the work on the china girl. Wonderfully done.


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