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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.

3/5

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The Amazing Spider-Man – The reboot is on the other foot

Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker-Man

The world has become a cynical place. Here we have a massive franchise reboot of a box office certainty only 10 years after the original, and five years after the last entry in that run. Desperate to hold onto the rights to the Spider-Man name and make more money (and, more importantly, deny money to Disney/Marvel), Sony have pumped out this curious superhero origin tale, The Amazing Spider-Man (was he not amazing back in ’02?), which is at times all too familiar and at others unsettlingly new. Even Marvel had the cop-on to pick up The Incredible Hulk more or less where Hulk had left off five years previous. Did Sony really need to put us through all this again?

But audiences are as guilty of this cynicism, many assuming the worst before release and, overwhelmed by the success of The Avengers, bitter that Sony’s declaration to use the Spider-Man brand will deny us a Spidey-Iron Man crossover anytime soon. You think this is bad, wait ‘til you see what Fox do with the Fantastic Four to hang onto those rights! The Amazing Spider-Man is actually a pretty decent entry in the comic book movie canon.

The problem is that now the previous films seem like a waste of our time. All of a sudden, everything we’ve been through with Peter Parker is undone. Tobey Maguire is off with Gatsby, Sam Raimi is off in Oz and Kirsten Dunst is basking in the glow of Melancholia. So we’ll start over. I guess.

Peter Parker is a young scientifically minded but socially awkward teenager who… no. No I’m not doing this again. You know it. You’ve seen the trailer. Spider bite, magic powers, gets the girl. So what’s different?

The film opens with young Peter Parker being left with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (his traditional surrogates) by his mysterious parents, who flee for clandestine, sciencey reasons. Peter is left with abandonment issues and an identity crisis. In high-school, now played by Andrew Garfield, he begins the search for information about who his parents were, leading him to sky-scrapping science-hub OsCorp and his father’s former lab partner Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). This is where the infamous spider bite happens, although the underlining issue here is that the spiders were a project Peter’s father had been working on. Comparisons to the movie Hulk come to mind. Curiouser and curiouser and possibly disastrouser.

Now super strong and flexible Peter becomes king of the schoolyard by showing off his tricks on the basketball court (in a scene worryingly similar to one from the cinematic travesty Catwoman). He begins to woo the girl, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), a blonde, sassy science-type herself, and Peter’s original love interest in the comics way back in the 1960s. Because these details matter. Of course all this success and cool skateboarding comes with a sacrifice, and his relationship with Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) becomes strained. Soon Ben is gunned down by an assailant who Peter selfishly chose not to stop during an earlier robbery. Racked with guilt, Peter decides to become a hero.

Peter Parkour

Well actually no, he doesn’t. He decides to go on a massive vigilante hunt tracking down goons who resemble his uncle’s killer. While doing the police a minor service, his actions are more than a little shameful and all too Batman. Thankfully a supervillain is on the way.

Dr Connors, with Peter’s help, develops a cross-species chemical thingy that might allow him to regrow his missing arm (we never find out where it went) by injecting himself with lizard DNA, but sure enough within minutes he’s a giant lizardman wreaking havoc on NYC. Determined to save the city and the man who can tell him about his parents (probably, Peter never mentions it again), Spider-Man must battle the Lizard and… well, it’s all the same from here on in.

This can only end badly

The Amazing Spider-Man has a lot going for it. Adeptly directed by Marc Webb (who made the appealing but bafflingly overrated (500) Days of Summer), it balances strong scenes of teenage anxiety with a surprisingly believable romance and some dizzying, well-choreographed and rather amazing action sequences. James Horner’s score is suitably epic throughout.

Andrew Garfield, who has frustratingly played the tear-stained, put-upon barely-adult all-too-many times before, finally gets his day in the sun as a character who avenges all his previous geek roles by leaping into affirmative action. And he really gets into the role, convincingly balancing moments of gentle tragedy with witty retorts during his wall-crawling escapades. Emma Stone similarly gets a strong role to sink her teeth into, a character who has all the pluck the Mary Jane role lacked in the original Spider-Man trilogy. Stone and Garfield, an item since filming this movie, have a suitably awkward but intense onscreen chemistry, and with Webb’s background in romantic comedy, it is this chemistry rather than the 3D action (or the silly “the lizard knows my daddy” sub[?]plot) that carries the film. Sheen and Field are similarly fine in their supporting roles.

Honestly I’d be jealous if they weren’t so damned adorable together

But as I’ve noted already, all this charming romance and quippery is buried in a bog-standard villain-of-the-week plot. Rhys Ifans, coasting carelessly, plays a role that has barely been sketched. Connors is not jealous of Parker (Sr or Jr), he’s not overly ambitious, and while he wants his arm back he doesn’t seem utterly traumatised by not having it. After his injection, he succumbs to a bad case of what the villains in the first two Spider-Man films fells prey to – superpower-induced megalomania. (Say what you will against Spider-Man 3 (please do, it’s wretched), but at least its villains had reasons to be bad). Once Connors becomes the Lizard, a weird CGI creature that more closely resembles Spider-Man villain the Scorpion than the traditional Lizard, he does nothing but rampage, attack children and try to poison New York.

The various other plot threads of the film are abandoned like somany threads of webbing across the skyline of Manhattan. The mystery of Parker’s parents is not left unexplained, but rather sidelined by the reptile hunt. Similarly Ben’s killer remains at large, possibly set to become the Sandman in a likely sequel (dear lord no). References to Connors’s experiments being the only thing that can “save” Norman Osborn (owner of OsCorp, villain of the first Spider-Man and traditionally the web-slinger’s arch-nemesis) are similarly discarded, with only hints that he may be connected to the Parkers’ vanishing.

Ben and May: The only parents a good Spider-Man will ever need

And this Osborn stuff is at the root of The Amazing Spider-Man’s problems. While almost justifying itself as a reboot, it fails to do what is required of major comic book movies now: world-building. While the Avengers movies all hinted at their shared universe, even before them Batman Begins hinted at the rise of the Joker in its final reel. While Osborn is clearly part of the Amazing world, the only real hint at things to come is a mid-credits sequence about Peter’s parents. But at this stage who cares? What The Amazing Spider-Man needed more than anything was a last-minute stunt casting, having a major actor play Osborn or some other Spider-Man nemesis (or ally) to make us believe in this world. Because believing in this world requires us to believe it is better than the Raimi Spider-verse. And while Spider-Man 3 tainted that world to no end, it was still a place that we cinemagoers spent many years of our lives. So if we’re going somewhere new, you need to sell it better, and build it bigger, than this.

There is plenty of general clumsiness on display – a deus ex machina referred to early on as “gathering dust for 15 years”, but which is clearly plugged in, stands out – but we’ve come to expect this sort of thing from our blockbusters. A forced reference to Spider-Man’s traditional origin in the wrestling ring goes down like a lead balloon, while a skateboarding montage seems as desperate to be cool as the ‘Stayin’ Alive’ strut from Spider-Man 3 was desperate to be embarrassing. A scene where Parker tries to make money off photographing his alter-ego in action reaps no reward, denying a link to his traditional profession and also failing to explain how he pays for his nightly pursuits. At least the ubiquitous Stan Lee cameo (he created most of Marvel’s biggest heroes, in case you’ve missed him before) is amongst the cleverest yet.

The action scenes are slick and witty, although one sequence oddly falls back on the jingoism that those in the original Spider-Man films demanded in reaction to 9/11 – now in 2012 it feels very out of place. Determined to scupper the fun, the 3D effects on display are amongst the most jarring seen since Clash of the Titans, with horrendously blurred backgrounds and double imaging rife.

Needlessly overlong (it is but a few minutes shorter than Spider-Man 3!), The Amazing Spider-Man is still arguably the best Spider-Man movie yet. Its decision to set the story entirely during Peter’s high school days is a wise one, which adds to the character’s confusions and uncertainties. The love story is more believable, and Garfield’s Parker is more likeable than Maguire’s. Ironically it is in the major shifts from the original, particularly the empty mysterious parents story, that The Amazing Spider-Man falls down. Because of this, all the best bits in the film feel like retreads, even if for the most part they are pulled off with far more success than Raimi ever managed.

Quiet, no one likes you!

If 2002’s Spider-Man didn’t exists, The Amazing Spider-Man could have been one of the superhero movie genre’s greats. A truly amazing Spider-Man movie still alludes Hollywood, and probably will until Marvel get their hands on the rights.

3/5

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