Immersed in Movies: Puppet Cams, China Girl and VFX Wizardry in 'Oz the Great and Powerful'

Features
by Bill Desowitz
March 8, 2013 2:23 PM
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"Oz the Great and Powerful"
Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi have both embraced lighter, kid-friendlier fables with "Jack the Giant Slayer" and "Oz the Great and Powerful," respectively, tapping into their inner child while pushing virtual production and 3-D with theatrical flair. While the results have been mixed (it's hard to pull off innocence after the post-modern "Shreking" of our culture), Disney placed serious pressure on Raimi, whose return to "Oz" was a bumpy ride. 

First of all, how to compete with the 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz," no matter how hard you hide behind the original L. Frank Baum book, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," while conjuring an original wizard origin story? And as likable as James Franco is as the conniving would-be magician, it's not like having Robert Downey Jr. (the original choice), Johnny Depp, or George Clooney as the charismatic scoundrel from Kansas. Also, the which-witch-is-which charade with Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams overshadows the wizard for most of the journey.

Still, Raimi and company are most successful when playing off Baum or going in new creative directions with only a tip of the hat to the legendary Technicolor classic. For instance, a wonderful "Hugo-esque" subtext in Oz's adoration of Edison serves as a key plot point while paying homage to early cinema.

"We were trying to set up Oz's knowledge as a tinkerer," Raimi explained at a recent press conference, "Oz's awareness of Edison's kinescope and early motion picture cameras, so that we could properly support the idea that he could have created this technology with the help of the tinkerers once he got to the Land of Oz."

Also, Raimi had never created a world before, much less tinkered with 3-D, so finding that sweet spot between evoking the original movie and conjuring something new was quite an opportunity. Fortunately, most of the eye candy looks stunning, thanks in large part to Oscar-winning production designer Robert Stromberg ("Avatar"), who also worked on Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," and recommended that they veer more toward the practical than the virtual on this one. 

That not only grounded the actors and artists in more of a physical reality (shooting on large stages in Raimi's hometown of Michigan), but it also enhanced the theatricality. Stromberg's infusion of Art Nouveau for Glinda's castle and Art Deco for Evanora's Emerald City is an inspired aesthetic clash. However, there's a perception that "Oz " is all CG glitter, so either the balance got altered in post by Sony Pictures Imageworks or we're misreading what we're actually seeing.

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