Words: Rob DeStefano

witch's hand

Evading what might be the year’s last snow fall, I didn’t think it was the worst idea to look for escapism in Disney’s Oz – hell, I’ve seen Safe Haven, I can only go up from here. This 2013 production, and a massive one costing $215 million, acts as a prequel to the L. Frank Baum novel series, and therefore as an indirect companion to the revered 1939 film. Prior to entry, I was baited by a modernized sense of wonder and its well-respected cast. I was even more placated knowing Sam Raimi was at the helm—only soon to discover he was another wolf in sheep’s clothing—whose The Evil Dead Trilogy and first two Spider-Man movies suggested a clear vision behind a world inhabited by flying monkeys, sinister forests, and a divide between good and evil; basically, a place no different from that in Army of Darkness.

We start in a dusty Kansas circus where quack magician Oz (Franco) is heckled offstage after he is unable to cure an uproarious handicapped spectator. He escapes to his trailer where exposition clarifies that he’s not only a phony, but a pretty wild nymphomaniac; seriously, Oz is a huge womanizer. Screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire go to the lengths of including specific imagery, a music box that serves as a signifier to his lustful habits. He distributes them to each of his conquests—where does he keep these things?—and this whole music box nonsense becomes a major instigator to several plot points. The first of these is when a fellow carnival performer, credited as “Strong Man,” realizes his wife possesses one of the trinkets. He barrels after Oz, forcing him into a hot air balloon and off toward the sky.

That opening was actually the most tolerable portion of the film. After he is abducted by the tornado and spit out in a land that shares his name, Olympus really starts to fall. Mistaken as a prophesized wizard who would bring peace to Oz, he becomes entangled in the biddings of three witch sisters: Glinda (Williams), Evanora (Weisz), and Theodora (Kunis). The plot is completely inconsequential, but I will say that one of these witches isn’t too happy when she realizes how many boxes Oz has put out, and she even turns green over it.

While the story lacks a soul—as well as a brain, heart, and the courage to be authentic—the writing is only present insofar it provides a framework for the film’s overbearing use of CGI. Oz (so far from great or powerful) is nothing more than a studio cash cow, but unlike the pile of others that are released every year, this one is downright offensive.

Oz is not a remake of Victor Fleming’s classic, but when drawing from the same source material and translating to the same medium, the comparisons are justified. Margaret Hamilton, who played The Wicked Witch of the West back in ’39, would drop dead all over again if she saw how today’s “green and wicked” villain earned a paycheck. Where Hamilton danced from munchkin to munchkin delivering her notorious and culturally preserved terror, our contemporary witch merely orbits around gargling up some dialogue as if she’s just come out from anesthesia. However, the cast is not the sole culprit for their bland deliveries. Within the past three years, they have all turned in arguably their best performances, thus far: Franco – 127 Hours, Kunis – Black Swan, Williams – My Week with Marilyn, Weisz – The Deep Blue Sea. The ability is there, but Raimi’s Oz has no interest in using its players; rather, every scene echoes, “Let’s just do it in post.”

And a shitty job they did. Fleming’s musical took its audience—at that time feeling the early bleakness from the start of World War II—through a black and white haze and into a Technicolor marvel, with each new set providing a distinct leg of the characters’ bizarre journey. The company of the new Oz feels incongruous with Raimi’s messy and unattractive digital world. There’s no methodical layout of the kingdom or intrigue as to what lies where; characters fly around in bubbles at one point, whipping all over the place with complete randomness. Everything here conveys unabridged artifice, a cold and impersonal world incapable of inviting its own cast members in, let alone an audience.

There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.

I hope Raimi didn’t forget to click his heels three times, because he has come a very far way from home. This is the man who strapped a camera to a board and sprinted through the woods during 1981’s The Evil Dead. At the young age of twenty, he created a cult classic and became an iconic figure in independent cinema. But with his recent productions, he’s traded in jurisdiction for a green screen. Spider-Man 3. Now Oz. He seems to be following Tim Burton down the yellow brick road. Quack.

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