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March 14, 2013 - Rick Chatenever
It's no accident that the folks at Disney dropped the word "Wonderful" from their new movie about the Wizard of Oz.
Because it's not.
Following the lead of last week's box-office winner, "Jack the Giant Slayer," "Oz the Great and Powerful" reinforces the impression that when it comes to classics, Hollywood still doesn't get the concept, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
The new rule goes the other way: Break it. Then market the pieces.
They're really good at that part. The witches of "Oz" - two bad, one good, played by Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams - are everywhere, smiling at us from magazine covers at the supermarket checkout lines.
The doe-eyed Kunis did a hilarious interview that has gone viral on YouTube with a lucky young Englishman who can't shake his disbelief at just talking to her.
This doesn't deter him from repeated invitations to join him at a football (soccer) match, or else at his local pub, or at a friend's wedding.
She handles it all with kindness and humor far more appealing than anything she does in the movie itself. Of course, for a big chunk of the movie she's green and hideous.
The allegedly multitalented James Franco stars in this prequel to the 1939 classic. As in the original, it begins in Kansas in black and white, where he's Oscar Diggs, a two-bit carnival magician. He's a silver-tongued wooer of female admirers in every hick town, frequently forced to make hasty exits, pursued by their irate kin.
Franco has a natural flair for smarminess when it comes to sweet talking damsels on the prairie. But his Oz does have genuine adoration for at least one person besides himself: Thomas Edison.
This will come in handy later in the story, for his transformation into the silver screen's most famous wizard, at least until Harry Potter came along.
The sense of pulling back the curtain that provided the bittersweet climax in the Judy Garland movie is the starting point here. Franco, the writers and director Sam Raimi don't waste any energy trying to hide the wires behind their "magic."
Rather, their smug, wink-wink attitude, along with uninspired acting, phone-it-in writing and ho-hum special effects create the opposite effect. For a story pretending to celebrate the wonders of imagination - from "Oz" author L. Frank Baum to entertainment visionary Walt Disney - this return to Oz owes more to the clear-eyed calculations of P.T. Barnum, the greatest carny showman of them all, credited with building his empire on the belief that, "There's a sucker born every minute."
Researchers now claim Barnum never actually said those words, but the concept is alive and well in this new millennium where studio accountants are tallying "Oz's" worldwide opening-weekend grosses at over $150 million.
Coincidentally, a similar premise - a naive, small-town girl falls under the spell of a dashing carnival performer - is also the starting point for Cirque du Soleil's "Worlds Away," a far more thrilling cinematic flight of imagination, and heart, released a couple of months ago.
The most troubling aspect of today's movie industry that's so happy to replace storytelling with marketing is audiences' willingness to go along with it.
We eagerly volunteer to prove P.T. Barnum (or whoever actually said the words) right. We'll accept being part of the laugh track, or getting onboard for the Steven Tyler Bill as our 15 minutes of fame.
A number of readers chimed in last week, sharing my misgivings about the evolution of fairy tales into computer-generated Hollywood trinkets. Unfortunately, such sentiments don't make us right - they just identify us as people of a certain age.
An age where there's no app for "authentic," and the Wizard of Oz remains the poster boy for our happy willingness to believe in magic.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at rickchatenever@ gmail.com.
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