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Monday, June 17, 2013

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL Is Good and Visually Powerful

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: "Oz The Great and Powerful" on Blogcritics.org.

OzIt is extremely hard to bring the land of Oz to life, as Disney can attest, given the numerous unsuccessful attempts over the years the company has made to bring the specific, magical world to the screen. Some projects have gotten farther than others, but I think most will agree that the best effort by Disney yet is the film Oz The Great and Powerful, recently released on Blu-ray and DVD.

I’m not sure why Oz proves to be so challenging. It is a place with wickedness, but it’s also a place of wonderment and surprise. Fans of the book series know that even the characters who live their whole life in the realm can find something they’ve never heard of before around every corner. There’s a childlike wonderment inherent, and death is not something oft felt, as even those cut into tiny pieces survive.

Oz The Great and Powerful attempts to capture that tone in a variety of ways. The inhabitants in Oz are forbidden to kill. Kidnapping or chasing others away is more the norm, and even then, we don’t see anyone seriously hurt. The music is whimsical; the effects make the world seem just a little outside of reality, and the characters in this film are colorful, both literally and figuratively.

While Oz The Great and Powerful is not a good adaptation of the books, neither is the beloved MGM classic The Wizard of Oz, so that’s not the sole basis on which the movie should be judged. As much as I want to see a true version done that actually uses L. Frank Baum’s stories, and that has not been accomplished yet (to my knowledge). However, it is possible to create a enjoyable film without sticking to the source material.

This movie is fun, and does provide some nostalgia for fans of the original movie. The black and white beginning and reusing actors in both Kansas and Oz are both reminiscent of the 1939 classic Oz, and there are scarecrows, and flying monkeys, and munchkins that sing. Michelle Williams does a fantastic job as Glinda, not copying her predecessor, but catching just the right feeling for the role, something incredibly hard to do with such a strange, yet familiar, figure. And the China village, while sad not to see more of it or its people, is a nice addition.

There are a couple of issues I have with Oz The Great and Powerful. James Franco at times plays the Wizard too over-the-top, although there are glimpses of greatness in some of the smaller moments. It goes a little too dark, and some of the characters, Knuck (Tony Cox), in particular, are a little too abrasive to be from Oz. Dark characters are a hallmark of modern filmmaking, but they don’t really belong in this realm. Also, the pacing is a little too fast in Theodora’s (Mila Kunis) transformation, and we never return to Kansas, thereby wasting the double-casting device.

Most significantly, I think was a poor choice to make the Wizard as heroic as he is portrayed in the movie. We know that “after the credits roll” he sends a little girl to face the evil witch, but that action doesn’t jibe with how he’s written for this OzOz The Great and Powerful stands OK on its own, but when considering it as a prequel, it really doesn’t work.

Despite this, overall I liked it, especially once the wizard meets Glinda. The story is a bit predictable at times, but then it also goes in unexpected directions in other places. The clash of our world and the fantasy world is very well done, and the score is sweeping in just the right way. Most of the performances are at least serviceable, in particular Williams and Rachel Weisz, who are far better than the rest, and the effects are very well mixed with the physical sets and actors. I would give it a solid B-.

The computer imaging in Oz The Great and Powerful is amazing! I was disappointed not to be able to obtain a 3D copy of the film, but after watching, it strikes me that it may not be necessary. The landscapes and opening credits, especially, already feel like 3D because they are so rich and layered. Somehow, the effect is created to some extent without glasses, though now I wonder how awesome a true 3D version is.

Picture and sound are flawless. I detected no errors or popping or static of any kind, and was extremely impressed with the visual and auditory presentation. Blacks are deep, and the vibrant colors really come through. I’d go so far to say this was probably the best looking non-3D film I’ve watched on Blu-ray. Clearly, more effort was put into the look than the writing or casting itself, and I found myself forgiving some story missteps because it all looked so good. Plus, aided by Danny Elfman’s very appropriate music, which, delivered crispy, enhanced every scene, never taking away from dialogue or action, it soared in this arena.

I also enjoyed the special features. One tells the story of Walt Disney himself trying to get Oz to screens big and small. Others go into Kunis’ transformation, Elfman’s composition, filming techniques with the China Girl (Joey King) and Finley (Zach Braff), and the production design. Each of these were entertaining, informative, and brief, which is probably a good decision for a Disney release. I only wish there had been more featurettes.

There is also a “second screen experience,” but unfortunately this only works for iPads, and since I don’t own one, I can’t report on it. I think this will disappoint some who may own other devices, and wish this additional feature was more universal.

Included in the Blu-ray / DVD / Digital combo pack is a “free” ticket to The Lone Ranger. Unfortunately, this voucher only covers up to $8 for the ticket price, and the theaters in my area (and probably most others) charge more than that, even for a matinee. The ticket expires less than three weeks after release, so you can’t wait until it makes it to the cheaper theaters. So while it’s a nice coupon, the “free” tag is misleading and somewhat inaccurate.

I recommend Oz The Great and Powerful, despite my complaints, because the movie is a visual masterpiece. Keep your expectations in check, and you may be pleasantly surprised by a pleasing movie and some awesome effects. Oz The Great and Powerful is available online and in stores now.

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