by Steve Habrat
With remakes, sequels, and prequels being the name of the game in Hollywood today, I don’t really think it surprised anyone to hear that the iconic musical The Wizard of Oz was getting a prequel. It seemed that Hollywood had the good sense not to even attempt trying to update that one! Could you imagine someone other than Judy Garland belting out ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow?’ Yeah, I didn’t think so. Well, enter director Sam Raimi, the man who gave us The Evil Dead and the Spider-Man trilogy, and Disney, who seems to have their hands in everything these days, and, once again, we’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz! Truthfully, Oz the Great and Powerful isn’t a bad movie at all and it is all the more interesting that Disney handed the project, which is based on the works of L. Frank Baum, over to a director like Raimi, who seems more comfortable tossing body fluids all over his actors rather than exploring the land over the rainbow. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that Oz the Great and Powerful is actually quite fun, charming, impeccably acted, and, dare I say, cool, but there are also a myriad of problems buried beneath all the eye candy (pacing, character development, chopped editing), which may prevent it from ever reaching the classic status of the original film.
Picking up in 1905 Kansas, Oscar Diggs (Played by James Franco) or “Oz,” as he is called, is working as a small-time magician for a traveling circus with his assistant, Frank (Played by Zach Braff). Oscar is a fast-talking womanizer, giving every pretty girl he meets a music box that he claims belonged to his grandmother when in actuality he has several of them waiting to be passed out. After Oscar is revealed to be a fraud during his magic act, visited by his true love, Annie (Played by Michelle Williams), who is planning to marry another man, and chased out of the circus by an enraged strongman, Oscar manages to crawl into a hot air balloon and float away from all of his problems. Shortly after making his escape, Oscar is sucked up into a tornado and transported to the mystical land of Oz. Upon his arrival, he stumbles upon Theodora (Played by Mila Kunis), a beautiful witch that believes Oscar is the wizard that will save them all from the clutches of the wicked witch. She explains that if Oscar can save the people of Oz, he will become their beloved wizard and king. Theodora takes Oscar to the Emerald City, where he is introduced to the skeptical Evanora (Played by Rachel Weisz), who guards the Emerald City throne and acts as the aid to the wizard. After some convincing, Oscar reluctantly agrees to help the people of Oz and sets out to track down and destroy the wicked witch. As he ventures deeper into the land of Oz, he meets Finley (Voiced by Braff), a flying monkey in a bellhop suit, China Girl (Voiced by Joey King), a porcelain girl with broken legs, and the beautiful Glinda the Good (Played by Willaims), who all agree to aid Oscar on his quest.
First, let us discuss the good parts of Oz the Great and Powerful. Raimi kicks things off with a dazzling funhouse opening credit sequence that really comes to life in 3D. He then continues to play with the 3D effects as he presents the opening fifteen minutes in scrunched black and white (fire breathers blow flames out at you while debris is thrown into the black bars on the side), transitioning to Technicolor widescreen as Oscar floats into Oz, an obvious nod to the original film. Oz itself is absolutely breathtaking; a dream world with massive flowers, neon hummingbirds, and toothy river fairies filling the widescreen to the point where you fear the screen may burst. And then there is the meticulously recreated Emerald City, which is absolutely magnificent and almost always sparkling gloriously in the background. I also can’t forget the two animated travel companions that align themselves with Oscar, China Girl and Finley, both of which look utterly fantastic in all their CGI glory. It is clear that this Oz is all about how lavish the filmmakers can make this fantasy land look and you have to hand it to the special effects department. They do construct an environment that will have the adult viewer speechless and the children reluctant to leave the theater.
While all the eye candy is pleasant enough, it still can’t conceal the fact that there are a number of problems with the film. Oz the Great and Powerful runs slightly over two hours, fairly lengthy for a children’s film. It seemed like Disney was afraid that the length would turn some viewers off, so they asked Raimi and his editing department to cut certain scenes short. This chopping and slicing severely wounds some of the character development and trips up the pacing. Without saying too much, one of the witches is not fleshed out properly, making a major transition within her character seem a bit hollow when it should have hit with some major emotional force. The early scenes between Oscar and Theodora also seem clipped and rushed, with a love story developed and then quickly discarded. And then there is the dragging middle section, which goes on and on as the characters pace around and debate how to deal with the wicked witch. Screenwriters David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner then decide to introduce several more characters too late in the game, yet ask us to really become attached to them even though they haven’t been in the film twenty minutes (I’m looking at you, Master Tinker and Knuck). And then we have Oscar’s arrival in Oz, which found our hero barely batting an eye or questioning this strange new environment. He was just a little too clam and nonchalant about the bizarre things he is seeing and being told.
Even though characters are not properly developed, the performances are still quite strong, which is surprising. Many have said that Franco was miscast as Oscar, but I actually liked him despite the fact that his character is a heartless jerk. Franco is certainly enjoying himself and his enjoyment is infectious. It has come out that Robert Downey, Jr. and Johnny Depp were considered for the role, but I can’t really picture Downey in the role and Depp seems like he’d be a little too quirky. Then there is Mila Kunis, who I personally felt stole the entire film. Even though her scenes as Theodora are brief, she makes the best of them and tries to work her way into out hearts before her stunning transformation. I don’t really want to spoil anything, but Kunis really nails her massive part. Weisz is seductively evil as Evanora, who is skeptical of the overly confident magician Oscar and quietly manipulative of her poor heartbroken sister. Rounding out the witches is the sweet-as-sugar Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good, a radiant sunbeam that gushes over the munchkins and China Girl. It is almost impossible not to fall in love with her. Then we have our to CGI characters, Finley and China Girl, both who could have become seriously annoying but end up being rather clever additions. They actually steal some of the films best lines, especially the feisty pint-sized China Girl.
While Oz the Great and Powerful suffers from a number of problems, one can’t deny that Raimi doesn’t craft a rousing twenty-minute finale. It has everything you could possibly want and then Raimi puts a cherry on top in the form of fireworks just because he can. I really can’t rave enough about it, mostly because epic blockbusters like this fail to muster a satisfying climax. For the fans of Raimi’s earlier work, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find the director refusing to soften during the eerier moments of the film. His flying baboons will nab a few jumps, his trip into a haunted forest will send chills up and down your spine, and he even throws in a haggard old witch that looks like she would have been right at home in The Evil Dead or Drag Me to Hell. Rest assured that there are no evil trees ready to violate any of the female performers. Overall, Oz the Great and Powerful is going up against gigantic hype and inflated expectations, which basically sets it up for overwhelming disappointment. While it certainly has its fair share of problems, Raimi doesn’t forget to give this epic a big heart and irresistible charm, which single handedly makes up for everything else. Oh, and make sure you see it in 3D. You’ll thank me later.
by Steve Habrat
I may upset tons of people when I say this but I have never been the biggest fan of Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy, the wildly popular animated television series that relies heavily on making one random joke about pop culture after another to the point where I almost get sick to my stomach. I’ve always found the jokes lazy, with MacFarlane hoping you’ll giggle at all the randomness he fires at you at rapid speeds. He’s also gone on to create two other animated series that have almost identical set-ups (American Dad and The Cleveland Show), one worse the other. With the popularity of Family Guy, you knew MacFarlane would eventually make the jump to the big screen and now he has with the surprisingly funny and warmhearted Ted, the first good comedy of the 2012 summer. If you worry that Ted’s premise will wear itself out, you are in for a pleasant surprise. Focusing on a raggedy teddy bear that has magically sprung to life, Ted has a charm you just can’t resist, no matter how hard you try. This profane little party animal will also surprise you with his humility he demonstrates late in the game, something I was not expecting at all but ended up really getting into. Yet the magic of Ted comes from the way that MacFarlane manages to work his pop culture referencing gags into a live action film and for the first time, making it seem like there was some actual thought behind all those geeky references.
On Christmas day, 1985, young Boston outcast John Bennet (Played by Bretton Manley) makes a wish that the cuddly teddy bear he received Christmas morning would come to life and be his best friend forever. John wakes up the next day and realizes that his wish has come true. After horrifying his parents with his creepy new buddy, John and “Teddy” scamper off to conqueror the neighborhood. Teddy or Ted (Voiced by Seth MacFarlane), as he quickly becomes fond of, begins to catch the attention of the media and he rises to be a huge sensation across America. The fame fades and the years pass with Ted getting into trouble here and there. We soon come to present day where Ted and John (Played by Mark Wahlberg) are still shacking up together, living in a cloud of marijuana smoke and half-consumed beers. John works a dead end job at a car rental company that appears to be going nowhere fast but he still manages to get by. John is in a happy relationship with the sweet Lori (Played by Mila Kunis), who is forgiving of John’s loser lifestyle and beams at every moment they have together. Yet on their fourth anniversary, John fails to purpose to Lori, forcing her to demand that John pick her or Ted. John begins trying to grow up for Lori but the raucous Ted makes that a difficult task, especially when he gets his own apartment. Ted also finds himself harassed by a bizarre father (Played by Giovanni Ribisi) and his overweight son, who will stop at nothing to make Ted a part of their family.
It’s not hard to see what MacFarlane is saying with Ted, as he presents a man-child who just can’t let go of his teddy bear (or his free spirited youth, if we are going to identify the metaphor). Only when the man-child lets go of that teddy bear, will he truly be a man for his gushing gal pal. After some recently iffy starring roles, Wahlberg is back on track speaking through a thick Bahston accent and trading droll geek dialogue with the sexy Kunis, who couldn’t seem more at home here. The two work great together, making you wonder why nobody has tried pairing them up before. Every time you think John has finally gotten on the right track, in crashes the vulgar best buddy to rip him away from his adult responsibilities. Before separating, Ted and John would plant themselves on their sofa, rip bongs, and drone on and on about why Flash Gordon is the best movie ever made. When Ted gets his own place, things really spin wildly out of control into booze-filled blowouts that have them doing cocaine with one of their idols (I won’t spoil the surprise). Yet it was those little moments between John and Lori that forces some of the stuffing over in Ted and makes way for a human heart.
When we aren’t going “awwww” over John and Lori, you will be doubled over laughing over the slovenly title character as he curses his way into your heart. He ends up becoming a new pop culture icon himself! Ted is a skillfully illustrated little CGI creation that has been carefully fleshed out to make us never grow tired of his reckless, foul-mouthed behavior. Despite the fact he is a computer image, he really holds the screen, making us cease to see him as an expensive animation and view him more as a flesh and blood character. It helps that MacFarlane stuffs him with quite a bit of emotion that he smartly reveals at just the right time. When Ted realizes the damage he has done to John and Lori’s relationship, he goes above and beyond to really help his buddy out, actually realizing that he has been a horse’s ass and admitting it. This isn’t a fast one pulled by MacFarlane (thankfully). I kept waiting for Ted to revert back to being an asshole, and while he does in a way (he is more smartass than asshole), this character actually does undergo a major metamorphosis even before the final chase sequence is thrown in to for the hell of it.
Ted does come with a few rips and tears in his matted little body, mostly from the half-conceived weirdo father and his even bigger weirdo son, who are supposed to be the villains in all of this. Ribisi’s Donny is game to get freaky and he sure does in the final stretch, but Ted could have been a really great movie without his character being on board. His son does provide one of the film’s funnier one-liners but it doesn’t justify their inclusion. Without them, this comedy could have been fifteen minutes shorter and all the better for it. Community’s Joel McHale shows up as Lori’s frisky boss who constantly tries to impress her with all of his money. He quietly steals the show from everybody else and quite frankly, there wasn’t enough of him in the film. Ted also features a handful of other celebrity cameos that mirror MacFarlane’s fascination with random pop culture referencing. Don’t get me wrong, they are pretty clever and they will definitely catch you off guard. Another inspired decision by MacFarlane is having Patrick Stewart acting as the storybook narrator who goes off on a hilarious rant about how bad 2006’s Superman Returns was.
Another flaw that really bothered me in the opening half of Ted was the way that MacFarlane would undercut his own jokes. He would deliver a good one, think he was on a role, and then go too far with it, sucking the laughs right out of the moment. It happens a number of times near the beginning, sending Ted into a slight tailspin early on. Luckily, MacFarlane rebounds and the second half doesn’t have a dull moment. Overall, it is great to see MacFarlane showing a bit of range with Ted. After making millions off of rehashing the same material with slightly different characters, MacFarlane proves he could be a comedic force to reckon with on the big screen. He can do crass with the big boys and he can tell jokes until it hurts. If you were looking for another reason to see Ted, check it out for the chemistry between Kunis and Wahlberg, a pairing that I hope to see on the big screen again sometime. Even if you’re not a fan of MacFarlane’s television work, there is still much to enjoy in Ted. Plus, you have to give MacFarlane credit for producing a summer comedy that is worthy of the ten bucks you will spend on it.