I did not enjoy this Oz prequel.
When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I was fairly hyped up. The colors and visuals looked outstanding, the idea for the story, while done to death, seemed like it would be a faithful and consistent prequel to the 1939 classic, while providing us a fun experience despite knowing what the ultimate fate of Oz is going to be going into the cinema.
But, while viewing the film tonight (yes I know it's already been out for like 3 weeks; been busy), I realized there's something else I didn't notice before (and probably should have before I chose to watch it). This is a G rated film, which means it is meant for kids. So I cannot really assess this film the same way I normally do with other adult-oriented films...or can I?
Sam Raimi, 1939 and Elphaba
The director of this film is Sam Raimi, who also directed the earlier Spiderman trilogy (not the current reboot). He also managed to drag along James Franco which, in my opinion, was a fairly good casting choice as the deceptive charmer that is Oscar Diggs. I find that Raimi's sense of humor has been hit and miss when it comes to blockbusters, and in this film he's wisely toned it down. If he didn't I would have really hated this film.
Now the reason I only partly hate this film is because there is content in this film which pays respect to its most famous predecessor, The 1939 Wizard of Oz. I imagine most children would never have had the privilege to be introduced this cinematic classic, except maybe occasionally hear someone sing "somewhere over the rainbow" at
When Oscar actually arrives in the land of Oz, his hot-air balloon does briefly fly over a rainbow, which I'm hoping is a subtle wink to the adult audience, who at least a percentage would've taken a glance of the 1939 film this film precedes and understood the reference. There are also a few gentle references littered throughout the movie of the origin of the tin man, the scarecrows and the cowardly lion (and apparently even Dorothy's mum makes a cameo).
Unfortunately, this origin story of Oz and the witches does undo some recent efforts in expanding the story and world of Oz, specifically the musical Wicked. If you have watched this musical you would have experienced a very different back story to the witches in Oz as well as the character of Oz himself. There is no Elphaba in this origin story, yet there is a Glinda, and based on this story Glinda knew Oz before he established himself as the Wizard, as opposed to having met Oz post-ordination.
Keeping in mind that there are dozens more adaptations of Wizard of Oz, including prequels, sequels, midquels and spin-offs, I guess I can't be too harsh when this doesn't fit nicely with the other two aforementioned productions. But it means that I need to throw away any prior knowledge of Oz and its inhabitants if I am to embrace the world this film introduces, which is hard when they do reference at least one other film related to this setting.
At least they're not abandoning this film to a dead-end?
I've never really been sold that Hollywood movies should be filmed with stereoscopy in mind, which from the opening sequence I could already tell they were planning to reward the parents who paid the extra $3 to go see this in 3D. I did not see this in 3D, and I never do the first time I watch a film (unless it's a big group of friends and I'm not wearing my review hat). The last 3D film I watched was Wreck-It Ralph and surprise, the 3D added nothing to my experience of the film (it was a good film nonetheless).
When watching the 'visual' sequences in 2D, especially the hurricane into Oz, it was really hard to digest because of the overt clarity of each frame, which actually undermines the visually entrancing world the programmers worked hard in. Our brains can process 24 frames per second but not 24 photos per second. Evidently this wasn't an issue in the 3D version, but in 2D I found myself looking away from time to time to give my eyes a break from the overwhelming sharpness and surprisingly intense movement. The camera is just panning around the scenery but when those purple butterflies scatter on the screen it's more like having a thousand butterflies flying in front of my face pointing led lights at me.
I wouldn't say this causes major problems to following the story, because during the drama and dialogue scenes it's filmed normally. It is however disappointing because if we cut out those sequences only made for kids to enjoy in 3D, the film could be 30 minutes shorter.
You can also tell that they've designed the characters with visual association in mind. Why do the witches have elemental powers? Theodora with Fire, Evanora with Lightning and Glinda with Water I presume (since she can create mist, wind and bubbles). Are they like Pokemon? Then Evanora should be weak against Glinda, but then again she is in an evolved form so I guess she has a level advantage.
This decision to give each witch unique powers does not contribute much to the story. It is strictly a way to manipulate our emotions about each witch to more firmly associate them with a moral faction. Fire and Lightning are 'bad' powers, while Fog and Bubble are 'good' powers. Are they tied to the true nature of that person? Do the witches have to select their element when they first start training like you pick Bulbasaur, Squirtle or Charmander before leaving Pellet Town?
I'm probably reading into this a bit too much but drinking all that apple juice is making me want to crossover some of my childhood shows.
While I did say James Franco was a good casting choice for Oscar, I didn't like this portrayal of the character. His journey from despicable con man to good-natured con man was very clunky and even at the end when he decides saves Oz, it feels like his change of heart happened off screen. That scene with the China girl it seems like he already changed his mind about leaving even before tucking her into bed. So yeah, his character development is a fail in my books.
The witches were pretty one-dimensional. The bad witches you could tell immediately that they were bad, Glinda you could tell immediately that she were good.
The things I did like in this film were the two small guys: the winged monkey Finley and the China girl. Their character developments were had some scissor cutting and gluing, but Finley got a few chuckles out of me here and there (especially the banana joke), and the China girl did move me a bit when it was time for some drama.
Unfortunately, these moments were stripped of their power on us the audience too quickly. After the touching scene where the China girl gets fixed by Oscar while grieving the loss of her family, the next scene is the "annoying kids wants to follow along" cliche, which really takes you out of the film, almost like Sam Raimi said "okay, we can't make this movie too serious or the kids will get uncomfortable". I think there were a total of 4 scenes that had real emotions and stakes, but never lasted more than 1 minute each.
Well at least I did like the side characters. By the way, Finley to Oscar is eerily like Donkey to Shrek. Another theft from Dreamworks?
I haven't addressed the two biggest problems I had with this film, so lets talk about that for a bit.
Firstly, the lesson taught to kids is really messed up. While escaping the flying baboons in the middle of the movie, Oscar and Glinda fly in bubbles towards the 'safer' part of Oz, whereby they must pass through a wall which only those noble and good-natured will be able to pass through. That's basically God in the form of a bubble, and along with the ending of this movie, suggests that you are born to be good, or born to be evil, and that no matter what your current actions, thoughts and motives are, you are still what your underlying nature is. It is telling kids that "some people are just born to be evil". I thought the lesson should be "it's not what you are, but what you do that defines you".
In my opinion Oscar was a selfish, narcissistic, unethical and overall despicable womeniser in the first half of the film, and if he died during that hurricane he would've died an evil man. But he redeems himself by choosing to stay and do what he can to protect the people of Oz from the wicked witches, so that at the end of the film he becomes good, through his current actions and choices. Movies for kids need more effort than for adults because they have less experience in discerning what they are fed in films. I'm not saying they're sheep that will just believe anything given to them, but certainly they are more influenced by it. So in a way, filmmakers should put more effort and thought and heart into making children's films than for adult films, and so I think there wasn't enough effort in this one.
The other big problem for me was that freaking hot air balloon. I was going to save this for the nitpicks but it was too big a blunder for me. How in God's name did that balloon not be torn to shreds in that tornado, where debris is flying at speeds no less than 80kmph if it can lift up a carnival wagon. Statistically the balloon would've only survived maybe 15 seconds before popping and leaving Oscar helpless to an inevitable drop. Maybe magic from Oz protected it but it's never explained nor justified.
This is especially annoying because once he does land on a running stream in Oz, some rocks punches a hole in his basket pretty quickly, which if it's a 19th century hot air balloon, the balloon itself is probably made of sackcloth and paper, while the Basket is made of Wicker, which is many times stronger and more resilient to impact with other solid objects, especially sharp ones. Sackcloth and paper could easily be punctured by one splinter wood travelling at dart throwing speeds. I guess someone's magic must have protected the balloon, though no idea who was controlling it.
To my slight embarrassment I had to google this word. Oscar mentions it with grandeur at least twice in the film, and apparently it's just a fancy word for "sleight of hand". I think the marketing team pulled off a sleight of hand trick and made me go see this film.
I can see how kids would enjoy this film, but there is not much in it for me. The occasional jokes were insufficient to save the show. Too many times I had to look away, too easily I could predict how the story unfolds. There wasn't anything majorly bad, but also nothing majorly good. It's mediocre, and if it were one of those carnival sideshows I'd probably only put in my smallest change to commend them for the effort.
To paraphrase Theodora, like Oscar himself, the film is not so great or powerful.
4.0 / 10.0