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Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

Family Rated PG

In Oz the Great and Powerful, magic doesn’t rule the day. Old-fashioned, sleight-of-hand does. And the struggle between the two – between the dark powers of a pair of evil witches and the circus tricks of a showman named Oz – doesn’t only take place within the narrative. A similar struggle – between gigabytes of computerized bombast and subtler, effects-driven handiwork – occurs within each frame. In one picture we have everything that’s right and wrong about the contemporary blockbuster experience.

A prequel  to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, the movie opens in black and white and in the boxy aspect ratio of that era. It’s a charming touch (as are the cut-out credits that precede it), and a hopeful sign of things to come. We’re back in Kansas, where Oz the Great and Powerful (James Franco) is really just a trickster in a traveling circus, a con man who lies through his teeth to both his audiences and his revolving door of beautiful assistants.

After a misunderstanding with the circus strongman (it involves the strongman’s beautiful assistant), Oz is forced to flee for his life via hot air balloon, just as a tornado is bearing down. As anyone who’s seen the original classic knows, that’s the surest route to the land of Oz. Soon the screen has widened, the colors have burst and we’re in modern CGI hell, one of those places where computer pixels stretch as far as the eye can see and flowers bloom under the demanding rays of 3-D.

What’s the difference between this Oz and the one of 1939? Did audiences of that time find the colors – which were a largely new experience – to be off-putting and garish? Were the elaborate sets too much, too over-the-top? Perhaps for some, but most audiences were enthralled, and the movie has continued to cast a spell across generations (something this Oz, no matter its many good qualities, is unlikely to do).

In one picture we have everything that’s right and wrong about the contemporary blockbuster experience.

The difference, I think, is that we can sense the work that went into the onscreen magic of 1939. We can feel the texture of Scarecrow’s straw; we can smell the paint on the plastic flowers. We’re not just watching Oz; we can imagine ourselves being in it (maybe even creating it). The reason these older, less technically proficient movies nevertheless last is because realism is not the goal of special effects when it comes to fantasy. Enchantment is.

Everything that works in Oz the Great and Powerful – and more works than does not – has both a human touch and a sense of enchantment. Foremost among these is China Girl, a living, porcelain doll whose legs have been broken during an attack on her village (China Town). Using “magic in a bottle” (glue), Oz repairs her legs, and the moment is absolutely bewitching. However China Girl has been conjured by the filmmakers – puppetry, stop motion, CGI or some combination – she has a presence beyond her pixels. She takes up real space. The light in the room reflects off of her; when she wraps her tiny fingers around Oz’s hand, you can feel her touch. She’s a slightly creepy creation, and as such captures the surreal spirit of the original better than anything else.

Similarly transfixing is a contraption Oz designs for the climactic showdown with the evil witches. Using smoke and a camera trick, he’s able to project a giant version of his face onto the square of Emerald City (it’s the same trick we see in The Wizard of Oz). While the witches are throwing balls of flame and green lightning – the sort of CGI stuff we’ve seen a thousand times before – Oz uses things we could actually touch: gears, switches, light. There’s a nice moment when Oz’s equipment falters and an assistant yells, “We’ve got a loose wire!” Oz’s equipment is wonky – not seamless – but it works.

What else works in the movie? While I’m not entirely sold on Franco – director Sam Raimi, who worked with him on his Spider-Man films, probably could have found someone else to really make the part sing – he certainly has the right Cheshire cat grin to make Oz a suitable scoundrel, someone who has no problem letting the people of Oz think he’s a great wizard. I also enjoyed the many nods to the 1939 film, from the way some people from Kansas have doppelgangers in Oz to what I think is a glimpse of the Cowardly Lion. (Alas, I didn’t catch a reference to ruby slippers.)

I would also have liked to have seen a Wicked Witch of the West that was worthy of Margaret Hamilton, but that brings us back to the special effects. I won’t reveal the identity of the witch – she’s either played by Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis or Michelle Williams – but when she’s finally unveiled in all her green glory, it’s another case of alienating effects work. Whereas Hamilton had little more than green makeup, which we could feel as powder on our own skin, this Wicked Witch has an oddly smooth face, one that mimics the look of CGI even if it is the work of makeup and prosthetics. Whatever the technique, she’s not quite there on the screen the way Hamilton was.

With effects work like this, there’s no entry point – no understanding of the mechanics, no connection with the tools, no glimpse of how things work. It’s just – poof! – there, shiny and bright and all too often completely uninvolving. In the opening section of Oz the Great and Powerful, when Oz is levitating his assistant before a crowd of country bumpkins, a member of the audience shouts, “I see a wire!” The seamlessness of CGI is a feat of technology more often than it is an act of artistry, and we in the audience can feel the difference. Sometimes, we want to see the wires.