Tag Archives: Dr Seuss

Oz the Great and Powerful – Franco, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more…

Grave danger: James Franco and Michelle Williams

Grave danger: James Franco and Michelle Williams

When major studios aren’t rebooting properties to hold onto the rights – Sony with The Amazing Spider-Man – they’re making them because they are suddenly out of copyright and up for grabs. The works of L. Frank Baum are the latest guaranteed cash-cow to become available, and while we wait for the film musical of Wicked and an Asylum movie set in Oz, here’s Disney’s surprisingly strong stab at that universe, which serves very much as a prequel to MGM’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz.

Oz the Great and Powerful pays considerable homage to its forebear (although none to 1985’s Return to Oz), similarly opening in Kansas with a black and white sequence – shot à la The Artist in the Academy ratio to conjure up the sensation of watching a classic movie. More conjuring is done by James Franco’s Oscar ‘Oz’ Diggs, a fairground magician/charlatan who can work a crowd just as adeptly as he can seduce women. But his life is hollow; the crowds want more than he can offer, he has no real friends and the one woman he might have settled down with is to marry another man. That’s when his hot air balloon gets sucked into a twister, and an overly elaborate action scene later we find ourselves in the wonderful land of Oz, candy-colour fading in and the letterboxing at the sides of the image expanding out to widescreen.

In Oz, Oz finds he is the apparent subject of a prophecy to bring peace to this magic kingdom. His first encounter is with the good witch Theadora (Mila Kunis) – innocent, ravishing and leather-pantsed – who Oz discovers is just as easy to win over as the girls back home. Mistaken for a true wizard, who can conjure fire from his sleeves and doves from his hat, Oz is charged by Theadora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) to protect the Emerald City from the Wicked Witch, in exchange for its crown and mountains of gold. Seduced by riches and terrified of being found out to be a conman, Oz sets off on the quest across various colourful and bizarre terrains. Along his travels on the Yellow-Brick Road he picks up three companions (as is the style in these parts): Finley, a winged monkey servant (voiced by Zach Braff); a tiny but spirited girl made of china (voiced by Joey King); and the good witch Gilda (Michelle Williams).

China girls, monkeys and dark woods - oh my!

China girls, monkeys and dark woods – oh my!

Oz, the land that is, all blue skies, green hills and bright yellow everything else, is very similar to what fans of the original film remember. However, the added gloss brought by director Sam Raimi and Disney’s merciless obsession with excessive CGI makes it look more like a cartoon based on the original than a story set in the same world. Whereas The Wizard of Oz looked like the world’s best-produced school pantomime, Oz the Great and Powerful is so overblown with digitally animated features and landscapes that it manages to look even less real, and less corporeal, than a film nearly 75 years its senior. Sure, the flora in Wizard looked as though it were made of papier-mâché, but then at least if you touched it you know it would feel like papier-mâché! Here, the eye-blistering graphics create too many images that look textureless, as though your hand might go right through them were you to reach out to grab them. Green-screened backdrops (all a little Dr. Seuss) are not much of an improvement on ancient matte paintings. Multi-coloured horses are seen grazing in distant pastures, but they’re so poorly animated they move like B-movie animatronics. Finley’s face never looks quite finished – put it back in the computer, lads, he’s not done yet!

But that’s not to say there aren’t some fantastic visuals on display here. The Emerald City itself looks superb, and a chase through a foggy graveyard by fearsome winged baboons is very much what you’d hope for from the director of Spider-Man 2. Lots of silly fun is had with the 3D effects, which never quite dominate proceedings, although Raimi goes overboard with having his effects break through the letterboxing during the film’s prologue. You could argue 3D is not a gimmick, but having objects fly out the boundaries of the image certainly is.

Forget it James, it's China Town

Forget it James, it’s China Town

 What makes Oz work, if it works at all, is the competence of it script. Adapted by Mitchell Kapner and polished by the formidable David Lindsay-Abaire, whose ability to avoid patronising young audiences is a rare gift in Hollywood these days, the screenplay for Oz the Great and Powerful toys brilliantly with the expectations set by The Wizard of Oz. Borrowing that film’s “and you were there, and you were there…” concept, cast members carried over from Kansas to Oz allow Franco’s character to repair the damage he did in his real life. He comes to treat Finley with the respect he never showed his sideshow assistant, also played by Braff. A faith-blinded wheelchair-bound girl at his carnival show who begs him to use his “magic” to heal her legs becomes in Oz the china girl, whose shattered legs Oz can mend using magic from his own world. As he flees Kansas, his declaration to a lost love, Michelle Williams again, that “I’ll see you in my dreams”, again references The Wizard of Oz, while also allowing the events that follow to be seen as a dream. The egotist Oz finds himself in a land named after him, where he can be king, women adore him and he is respected and adored for his powers.

Where the script fails is in its representation of the three witches. The Wizard of Oz is often quoted as an early work of cinematic feminism, and while that may not be quite accurate, it certainly had a well-defined female protagonist and a villainess who was a serious force to be reckoned with (provided she wasn’t reckoning with water).  Here Weisz is a far less dominant witch; she nails the role with a completely appropriate hammy performance bordering on camp, but it’s hardly a well-drawn character. Reminiscent of characters in Raimi’s disastrous Spider-Man 3, Kunis’s Theadora goes through a trilogy’s worth of character evolution in just three scenes, reducing what began as a promising character to a rather basic female stereotype. Williams, positively glowing as Glinda, cannot bring much to a character whose only characteristic is being good. There’s a reason Glinda was the deus ex machina of The Wizard of Oz – “goodness” does not good drama make.

Sister, Sister: Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis

Sister, Sister: Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis

As for Franco, I have never been one to shy from revealing my dislike for the cocksure actor, but have always given him credit where due, such as in 127 Hours. But I maintain my belief that the actor is a pretentious fraud who has managed to fool most of Hollywood (and apparently publishers, universities and music labels) into believing otherwise. This all, of course, suits the character of Oz rather perfectly, and Franco excels here, naturally playing a fraudster pulling the Technicolor wool over everyone’s eyes. Constantly “acting”, Franco’s discomfort with the size of the production carries into the character of Oz, who is constantly out of place in a world so much bigger than him. A speech he gives about Thomas Edison, a “real wizard”, sounds like the sort of community college gibberish one imagines he produced during his time at Columbia University and NYU. It’s hard to imagine more suitable casting, although younger audiences will miss out on these hidden depths.

Which is all to say that Oz the Great and Powerful is really quite an entertaining ride, with a story and dialogue that are often far smarter than you might expect. While Disney had no rights to use certain MGM properties (the ruby slippers are sorely missed), the film leaves enough gaps for willing viewers to fill them in themselves.

A sequel has already been announced, which will hopefully take a very different tack with the land of Oz. It would be nice to see some new ideas and wonderful landscapes, with less of a Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland vibe.

Hopefully the next one will at least be a musical.




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The Lorax – Review

Absolutely stumped

Everybody loves Dr Seuss, right? The rhythm and rhyme-mastering children’s author is a legend unto himself, even if recent film adaptations of his fine works have been as much hit as miss. This latest adaptation, The Lorax, comes from the director of the witty and charming supervillain caper Despicable Me, Chris Renaud, who also worked on the last computer animated Seuss movie Horton Hears a Who!

Colourful, humorous and with an important if overly hammered-in moral at its centre, The Lorax is a guaranteed hit for young kids and will likely offend only the Grinchiest of adults. But it’s certainly not one of the best animated films of recent years, despite its charms.

The film opens in the town of Thneedville, a cheerful dystopia where everything is plastic, water is toxic and air is pay-per-breath, but everyone seems happy with it. With its futuristic engineering, Thneedville is a shining star amidst the barren landscape that surrounds it, a world after the last tree has been felled.

Determined to impress a girl whose dream is to see a real tree, 12-year-old Ted sneaks out of Thneedville into the grim wilderness beyond. Here he encounters the Once-ler, a mysterious figure who holds himself responsible for the state the world is in. The Once-ler begins to recount his tale of a time before fake plastic trees and bottled air. His story, which takes up at least half the movie, shows him as an ambitious youth, hoping to develop a revolutionary new product called a thneed, made from the nearby Seussian furry trees.

As soon as the young Once-ler chops a tree down, the Lorax appears, a magical moustached chicken nugget-shaped man who “speaks for the trees”. The Lorax pleads with the Once-ler (I can’t help but feel these names only work in Seuss’s particular writing style) to leave the trees be, and when that fails, he conspires with the local fauna to get rid of him. But in the end capitalism and greed win over. Can Ted make everything right again?

Very much a tale of two films, The Lorax intercuts between both with varying success. The flashbacks to the Looney Tunes-ish sparring between the Lorax and the Once-ler are far more entertaining than Ted’s efforts to win the girl and defeat the villainous Mr O’Hare, a tiny fat cat with a monopoly on oxygen. (Disappointingly it is never explained how O’Hare produces oxygen in a world without trees.)

The film’s central message, be nice to the trees, is a simple but pleasant one, and only the right wingingest of folk could disagree with it. It’s a shame however that for a film so opposed to artificiality, that it should feature such a plastic-looking animation style. Obviously Seuss’s drawings were always fantastical, but there’s no texture to the animation, and the real trees look as artificial as the inflatable ones in Thneedville. The look doesn’t match the tone.

And speaking of tone, an odd choice for the film was to insert a handful of music numbers, in the classic Disney style. Alas, none of these are very standout, and the dizzying visuals distract from the lyrics. One song, ‘How Bad Can I Be?’, features a few clever lines about the imagined moralities of capitalism, but also repeatedly insists on stretching out the word “bad” to four syllables. Tim Rice, this ain’t.

Comedy is supplied mostly by supporting characters, especially the bears, birds and amphibious singing fish from the Once-ler’s flashbacks. Kids should be in stitches, and there are definitely one or two just-for-the-parents gags in there too. Voicework is largely fine, with Danny DeVito playing his classic grumpy but loveable role as the Lorax. The Hangover’s Ed Helms gets across the hopes and broken dreams of the Once-ler well, while Betty White has great fun in the recording booth voicing Ted’s excitable grandmother. Zac Efron however is an odd choice for Ted, given the High School Musical star’s character never sings. Also, voicing a 12-year-old with an adult voice makes one less concerned about the bottled air or what’s wrong with the water, and more worried about what hormones are in their food!

The Lorax is a sweet movie that is sadly less than the sum of its parts, mostly due to its cheap-looking animation (although 3D fans will be happy to know lots of stuff pokes out from the screen). But it’s short and its message is a nice one, so in the end it’s hard to feel anything other than a little bit smiley. Nothing wrong with a nice movie every now and again.


The Lorax is released in cinemas across the UK and Ireland this Friday.

The Lorax was released in the US like freakin’ ages ago.

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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