I’ve been a film geek as far back as I can remember. I was the kid making movies with a Super 8 camera using Play Doh to create a monster that devoured my action figures. I’m the guy who watched VHS versions of his favorite films until they no longer worked. I eat, breathe, and occasionally shit out cinema (if you’ve seen any of the films I’ve produced, you will find that last description particularly apt). As I sat watching “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” I started to wonder how much interest I have left in big-budget, studio blockbusters.
Part of my cinematic education started with Director Sam Raimi. “Evil Dead” is one of the most influential films of my early love for horror. I have seen each film in the “Evil Dead” series at least 30 times—maybe more. I’ve read books about the making of “Evil Dead.” I have trekked to the locations where these films were made. There are only a handful of movies I hold as sacrosanct. The “Evil Dead” films rank among them. So when Sam Raimi started transitioning from independent horror maverick to mainstream studio filmmaker, I was less than thrilled. I possessed the righteous indignation one has when they see something they love achieve widespread success. Like when that indie rock band breaks out of the club circuit and starts filling stadiums. It’s never the same.
Raimi’s “Spider-Man” was an unparalleled success both creatively and financially. He was a filmmaker who was able to convey his love for the material and translate it to the screen. All of his trademark flourishes were there: the kinetic visual cues; the blend of action and comedy. In spite of the largess, I could still see Sam Raimi as a filmmaker in there. Raimi really knew how to get a reaction from an audience.
“Oz: The Great and Powerful” is another story. It’s a film where the individuality of its director bleeds out with every pastel-swathed, computer-generated frame. I felt the same while watching Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit.” I was watching a filmmaker who had once been so gifted at making small, personal movies drowning in a sea of computer-generated imagery. We are losing our best and brightest to the 3D toolbox Hollywood studios require of their big-budget blockbusters.
Anyone who’s seen Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” has seen “Oz: The Great and Powerful.” It’s another variation on a known story, featuring an overabundance of visual stimuli and a bunch of characters running in front of green screens trying their best to seem real in a world that seems anything but.
It’s unfortunate, too, because I think there is a good movie to be found somewhere inside of this mess. Somewhere deep within the syrupy backdrops and theme-park visuals lies the potential for a nice, old-fashioned adventure. Oz (James Franco) is a magician at a traveling circus who dreams of a greater life. His road show con-man routine isn’t doing much for him. One hot air balloon and a tornado later, he arrives in the technicolor world of Oz and is told he’s the key to an ancient prophecy that will end the reign of the wicked witch. It’s a great proposition for a con man: He takes on the role of “wizard,” defeats the evil witch and gets to rule the kingdom. The only real problem is that he isn’t a wizard. Details.
The movie follows the framework of the original 1939 classic closely, with loving reference to “The Wizard of Oz.” Great pains are made to make the audience feel like they are stepping back into this familiar place; however, the means to which they try to achieve this are purely digital. And no matter how much time and money they spend, it still looks really, really fake. I was on board for the first hour. When the dark, dusty black and whites made way for the computer-colored landscapes of Oz, there was still a chance for this to be something fun and inspired. But it so quickly devolves into long shots of artificial landscapes, and the characters rarely feel like they’re inhabiting an actual physical space.
These are good actors trying to not embarrass themselves as they perform on a soundstage, woefully unaware of what the finished product will look like. It’s bland. It’s uninteresting. And, creatively, it’s impotent.
As I said, it’s unfortunate, because there really was a chance for “Oz: The Great and Powerful” to be something unique. Yet, it becomes just another painfully average movie trying too hard to be “an experience” rather than a feature film.
As a film writer, it’s difficult. I find myself losing interest in these two-hour, $200-million spectacles. They are nothing more than CGI eye porn. It’s a malignancy that is growing, turning our most talented directors into interchangeable virtual filmmakers, who seem incapable of injecting any humanity into these worlds they create. Pity.