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When Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a small-time circus magician with dubious ethics, is hurled away from dusty Kansas to the vibrant Land of Oz, he thinks he’s hit the jackpot. Fame and fortune are his for the taking. That is until he meets three witches: Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams), who are not convinced he is the great wizard everyone’s been expecting.  Reluctantly drawn into the epic problems facing the Land of Oz and its inhabitants, Oscar must find out who is good and who is evil before it is too late.  Putting his magical arts to use through illusion, ingenuity and even a bit of wizardry, Oscar transforms himself not only into a great wizard, but into a better man as well. (From Disney’s official synopsis)

Oz the Great and Powerful
Many years ago, Sam Raimi was an off-Hollywood horror/comedy maverick trying to chisel his way into the mainstream. He floundered in relative obscurity while he watched contemporaries find major success throughout the ‘80s, then continued plugging through medium-budget productions as these same contemporaries fell out of favour in the ‘90s. He paid his dues during the era with a wide array of genre work, including a semi-successful dark superhero movie ( Darkman), an all-star western ( The Quick and the Dead), a critically acclaimed dramatic thriller ( A Simple Plan), and a Kevin Costner baseball drama ( For Love of the Game). In the year 2000, it was a very realistic possibility that Raimi would end his career as a steadily working cult figure, but then his charm and passion scored him the job of bringing Marvel’s Spider-Man to the big screen for the first time, taking over for super-hit-maker James Cameron and history was rewritten. Post- Spider-Man, we live in a world where Sam Raimi is a major ‘name’ Hollywood director (coincidentally, another cult horror/comedy icon, Peter Jackson, also found mainstream success with the Fellowship of the Ring the same year).

Even when forced to pull his punches making ‘grown-up’ movies and boring baseball movies, Raimi didn’t disappear into any of his films and his gonzo touch remained a vital part of his motion picture output. Despite playing the studio game throughout his big-budget superhero adventure, the director managed to make two and a half good Spider-Man films before producer interference finally drove him away. These three films could’ve easily turned into nondescript effects vehicles, but even the problematic Spider-Man 3 is a definitively Raimi-esque motion picture. In fact, many of the film’s most notoriously unloved sequences are absolutely 100% vintage Raimi. After leaving the franchise to Marc Webb for an utterly nebulous reboot, Raimi took a detour from blockbusters to make Drag Me To Hell, a throwback to his ‘spook-a-blast’ Evil Dead days that ended up being both a satisfying horror comedy and one of his best, most mature films. As a fan, Drag Me To Hell was a dream – the kind of retrospective revamp we pray for from our cult idols and something few of us realized Raimi could actually pull off, following the creative stunting of the Spider-Man mega-productions. In that regard, it has been kind of depressing watching him courted by more studio tent-pole franchises. For a period, it appeared that he’d be taking over The Hobbit from Peter Jackson (which might have been nice had Jackson taken the chance to do his own Drag Me To Hell-like throwback), but, when that fell through, he was approached to adapt the World of Warcraft videogame series. It smelled like a depressing consolation prize. As a non-player, I’d assume that WOW fans would prefer a filmmaker that actually played the games took on their favourite property. Thankfully, studio in-fighting prevailed and Raimi left the project.

Oz the Great and Powerful
This brings us to the project Raimi finally settled on – Oz: The Great and Powerful. Sight unseen, L. Frank Baum's Oz seems a much more interesting world for an All American Boy, raised on classic fantasy and comic books – not MMORGP videogames – to flex his creative muscle. Though the production materials would have you believe this film is some kind of triumphant return to Oz, Baum’s world never really disappears from film and TV screens for too long – just recently, the SyFy channel made a very popular miniseries called Tin Man, which slightly revamped the story’s themes for an adult audience. But Disney had been holding onto the property with hopes of blockbuster franchises since the 1980s. Raimi's abilities with dynamic visuals and childlike charms seemed a perfect fit now that he'd become a big player. The only catch was that Disney and producer Joe Roth wanted the new Oz to resemble Tim Burton's obnoxious Alice in Wonderland reboot, which had scored the studio a surprising $1 billion-plus at the international box office. Fortunately, Raimi has dealt with various forms of animation since his Evil Dead days and through three CG-heavy Spider-Man movies. He had enough experience to theoretically bring his own style to the film, rather than aping Burton’s. But even Spider-Man 3 was basically anchoring in a physical reality – Oz the Great and Powerful would be his first so-called green screen movie where he'd be depending on other artists to fill in the backgrounds. There’s a bit more Burton in this film than I’d prefer (the films also share production designer Robert Stormberg) and a bit more sappy, cutesy crap than I’m sure Raimi is comfortable with, but, even in these circumstances, Raimi’s true colours press through the curtain of mainstream expectations. The camera shifts into expressive Dutch angles, crash zooms, and the image is bent into circus mirror shapes, all for the sake of comedy.

As an adaptation of Baum’s books, Oz the Great and Powerful is disappointing, because it doesn’t take as much of the original stories into account as I’d like. It’s been so long since I read the Oz books that I assume my memories aren’t the steadiest, but there’s definitely more weirdness in these stories that this more adventure-centric movie allows. Walter Murch’s continuously underrated Return to Oz remains a better representation of what to expect from Baum’s imagination-bending tales. I will admit that it’s miles away from a mainstream property, but it’s challenging in a fashion tailor-made for old-school Raimi. Besides being a movie driven by adventure and action, Oz the Great and Powerful also acts as a semi-prequel to Victor Fleming’s original 1939 musical Wizard of Oz. This isn’t only a generally boring choice, but it creates all kinds of rights issues that make the process stilted. Frankly, I don’t really care about lining up the history of the humans that visit Oz I’m more interested in the mythology of Oz itself.

Oz the Great and Powerful
The screenplay, credited to Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, recalls Raimi’s films in snappy, sarcastic dialogue tones, comedic failure, and slapstick (though not quite the slapstick extremes of, say, Evil Dead 2). As fantasy elements begin to infiltrate the story, the usual Raimi-isms are swept aside in favour of the images, but, again, there’s still an awful lot of the director’s singular tone in the mix. Unfortunately, the cast isn’t quite on the same frequency and often comes off as more stilted than ‘gee-gosh’ likeable. James Franco clearly understands the rhythms of a Sam Raimi movie, having worked with him over three Spider-Man movies (Evil Franco is a Spider-Man 3 highlight), but he’s miscast as a young Bruce Campbell stand-in here. The female cast, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams, are more in step with the script’s style, but there aren’t any real standouts among them. The one thing Burton got out of Alice in Wonderland were ‘unique’ (not always the same as ‘good’) performances out of Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway. More disconcerting is the way the witches’ personalities revolve almost exclusively around the whims of Oscar, whose lack of romantic focus ends up being a defining character trait, like some kind of accidental male incubus (movies like The Gift and Drag Me To Hell have proven Raimi can handle female characters better than this). The more coherent, non-Raimi-specific problem with the screenplay is its saggy middle section. The sense of unwinding awe expected from the property is a bit muddled by the second act’s lack of momentum and a little too much time spent on exposition.

What’s most surprising is how closely the story matches Army of Darkness. Oscar is a blowhard that overestimates his own talents and finds himself thrust accidentally into a fantasy land where everything is beyond his control. When he arrives in Oz, he is informed that there’s a prophecy claiming he will save everyone from great evil. Both Ash and Oscar use their unearned fame to their unbelievably selfish advantage, but eventually step up to the plate, gather an army of misfits, and take on the magical forces of evil with technology and montage sequences. There’s even a part where Oscar has to get an enchanted object from a cemetery (though he doesn’t have to speak a line from The Day the Earth Stood Still).

Oz the Great and Powerful

Video


Oz the Great and Powerful was shot in digital 3D using a mix of 3Ality Technica and Red Epic cameras. It is, I believe, the first time Sam Raimi and cinematographer Peter Deming have shot using both the 3D and digital format. As per the usual, my review pertains to the 1080p 2D, not the 3D version (though I do regret not watching the film in theaters to see what someone like Raimi would do with the 3D format). As the film opens, it is ‘picture-boxed’ at 1.33:1 (it has black boxes on the top, bottom, and sides). These scenes are black & white to ape the films of James Whale and the like, but not faux-damaged like one of the Grindhouse releases. This footage is dark, as if lit by candlelight, but very crisp and clean as well. As Oscar enters Oz, the frame stretches to 2.35:1 and the sepia turns to super-vibrant colour, all in homage to the original 1939 film, where Kansas was black & white and Oz was in beautiful Technicolor. Digital colour still can’t quite match the hyper-saturation of Technicolor, but it surely has an advantage when it comes to soft gradations and sheer quantity of hues. The 3D digital effects create some awkward foreground to background divisions in 2D. There’s a general lack of blending between real people and digital creations throughout the film, but I get the impression that this was sort of the intended look. The film’s textures tend to be a bit softened for the sake of the film’s plush look, but the complexity of patterns and differentiating colours is very crisp, without any notable compression issues or edge haloes. Black levels are strong without crushing the darker hues – even the dimmest sequences feature plenty of pin-point highlights and fine details.

Audio


For whatever reason, this disc defaults to Dolby Digital 2.0 when you hit Play. I know this because a menu pops up and tells me this. I have no idea why this was decided, but, those of you with surround systems, be sure to select the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack to get the full brunt of the mix. The sound design follows the image quality as the film opens by centering and flattening the dialogue and effects for the black & white sequences. Even the music seems to avoid the stereo and surround channels at this point. The directional enhancement kicks in as Oz’ hot air balloon hits a tornado with particular aggression. It’s jarring following the aurally thin lead-up, but is a fun trick and possibly the mix’s most dynamic moment. Once in Oz, stereo and surround effects are used to immerse the audience in the supernatural ambience and to give the creature effects directional movement. I don’t personally own the second two channels that make up a 7.1 set, but did notice that the movement between the rear speakers was especially lively, even on my 5.1 set up. The LFE gets a nice workout as well via storms, monsters, and particularly noisy magical acts (the witch showdowns are particularly stylish). I remember Danny Elfman claiming he’d never work with Raimi again after the Spider-Man 2 debacle (Raimi fell in love with the temp score, much to Elfman’s chagrin, and the two ‘broke up’ when it came time for Spider-Man 3), but, apparently, Disney-levels of cash will bring any rivalry to an end. It’s likely that the decision was left more to Disney and Roth than Raimi and Elfman. Anyway, Elfman certainly rests on his laurels during some points (lots of uplifting chorus and plunking bells), but there are some unique, magical moments featuring strange time signatures and dissonant chords (Oscar’s introduction to Oz is the score’s most exciting musical moment).

Oz the Great and Powerful

Extras


The extras begin with a Disney Second Screen iPad app experience entitled The Magic of Oz the Great and Powerful. Try though I might, I couldn’t get the disc and the app to connect over my wireless network. Either I’ve mismanaged something or the app is not entirely ready to be used until after the Blu-ray’s release. Oh, well.

This brings us to Walt Disney and the Road to Oz (10:10, HD), a brief look at the several decades-long process of making a Disney brand Oz movie, including Walt’s various failed attempts to secure the franchise rights and attempts at making live action versions of the stories. It also features concept art from the failed Mouseketeers version, footage from Babes in Toyland (Disney’s consolation prize) and Mary Poppins (the culmination of his efforts), failed Disneyland Oz-related ride concept art, footage from Return to Oz, and interviews with historian Les Perkins, Howard Green, Greg Erhber, and original Mouseketeers. My Journey to Oz by James Franco (21:40, HD) is a fly-on-the-wall style behind-the-scenes video diary put together by the lead actor, including interviews with Raimi, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, and various unnamed crewmembers. It’s a bit scattershot, but does cover the script’s changes (Raimi admits the original script was more true to Baum’s books), Raimi’s hiring, casting, special effects processes, and character types. Nobody acknowledges that the screenplay has so much in common with Army of Darkness.

Oz the Great and Powerful
The shorter featurettes start with China Girl and the Suspension of Disbelief (5:30, HD) briefly covers the process of bringing the China Doll to the screen with VFX supervisor Scott Stokdyk, make-up effects supervisor Howard Berger, production designer Robert Stormberg, costume designer Michael Kutsche, marionette artist Phillip Huber, actress Joey King, and Braff (for some reason). Before Your Very Eyes: From Kansas to Oz (11:00, HD) covers the film’s design with Stormberg, Raimi, and producers Grant and Joe Roth. The extras end with Mila’s Metamorphosis (7:40, HD) on the her make-up process, Mr. Elfman’s Musical Concoctions (7:10, HD) on Elfman’s score (no mention of the Spider-Man 2 thing), a blooper reel, and Disney trailers.

Oz the Great and Powerful

Overall


Oz the Great and Powerful is a problematic film, but my fears that director Sam Raimi’s specific tastes and talents would be lost in the multi-million dollar Disney production were largely unfounded. I’m much happier saying that it’s a somewhat unsuccessful Sam Raimi film than saying it’s a generic follow-up to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland monstrosity. It feels good to know we can still depend on Raimi to be Raimi, even when he isn’t being the best Raimi he can be. This 2D Blu-ray features reference-level A/V and a decent collection of extras, though I wasn’t able to get the iPad second screen app to work in time for this review.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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