Thursday, March 14, 2013
Movie Review: "Jack the Giant Slayer"/"Oz: The Great & Powerful"
If you had told me that a 2010 movie by Tim Burton would be one of the most influential forces of the next few years of cinema, I never would've believed you. Burton had long past the point of predictability, just about everyone was sick of his schtick, and I was sure he had nowhere to go but down. But for whatever reason, Alice in Wonderland was a massive hit, so massive that ever since then making darker, action fantasy versions classic fairy tales have been in high demand in the industry. In the last two weeks, two such films have come out, so we're going to take a look at them both.
Most people are unaware of this (including me up until a few weeks ago) but "Jack the Giant Slayer" isn't just some cutsie riff on Buffy the Vampire Slayer they came up with for their grim 'n griffy Jack & the Beanstalk reboot (my god, I never thought I would seriously say those words). Jack the Giant Killer was an actual British fable that was something of a sequel (in as much as such a thing existed back then) to the more well known Jack & the Beanstalk story. The thing plays out like an ancient Greek myth, with the heroic Jack traveling the country killing every giant he comes across in interesting & gory ways, picking up an arsenal of magical weaponry along the way. He weds a princess, joins the Knights of the Round Table, and at one point decapitates the flippin' Devil. In other words, it's way cooler than anything that happens in this movie.
Jack the Giant Slayer is actually the second adaption of the old fable, and like it's 1962 predecessor, it borrows the name but little else. Instead it takes the basic plot structure and iconography of the more familiar "Beanstalk" fairy tale, and re-contextualizes it to add in more action. Now there is not one giant, but an entire army dwelling in the clouds, and the beans are a magical MacGuffin created by druids as a stairway to heaven. No really. Also there's a stir-crazy adventure-craving princess love interest of the Disney variety, a scheming King's adviser armed with another magical MacGuffin, and a swashbuckling knight sporting a Justin Bieber haircut for some reason.
The film is directed by Bryan Singer, and is surprisingly the first outright failure in his filmography. I say "surprisingly" because given Singer's limited abilities, it's rather surprising how he's only now managed to make a genuinely bad movie. In the past I've called him the "master of mediocrity", and while he's certainly not the sole competitor for that title, it still holds true in my mind. The man simple has no real style or creative vision of his own. He's a competent filmmaker but has never come into his own as a true auteur. And while as a result nothing he's made has ever truly excelled, he's never really faltered below par either. Until now that is.
The film is aesthetically unpleasing, though when Bryan Singer is involved that's to be expected. Still, the film is exceptionally unpleasant to look at even for him. The costumes have a slapped-together look to them, as do the designs on the horribly unreal looking CGI giants, and Singer's tendency to shoot everything in a dull, grayish hue clashes with the films attempts to be a bright & colorful The Princess Bride-esque affair. On top of that the tone is out of control, wobbling between childish toilet humor & brutal violence, resulting in a film that can't decide whether it's for little kids or the action crowd.
The cast is made up of provably good actors, none of whom seem particularly interested in going the extra mile for this project. The usually awesome Ian McShane seems even more bored than he did in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Ewan McGregor puts in the most effort as the aforementioned swashbuckling Bieber, but his efforts are completely wasted. Stanley Tucci is suitably sly as the villain, but his actions make little sense and he exits the movie by the end of the second act, leaving us the impression that his character existed solely to pad out the film. Newcomer Eleanor Tomlinson makes an unceremonious debut as the romantic lead, and should probably get a new agent so we can see how she fairs in an actual good movie. And Nicolas Holt does his best with the adventurous but shy farmboy routine, but honestly he seemed far more alive as a zombie in Warm Bodies.
I liked Oz: The Great & Powerful quite a bit, and the reason for that is childishly simple, emphasis on childish. While this may have been greenlit to ride the gritty-fairy-tale-re-imagining wave the industry's high on right now, it is very much NOT an action-oriented "adult" take on the Wizard of Oz universe. On the contrary, it's one of the best children's fantasy movies to come out in a while, never losing the innocence of 1939 classic, while still remaining engaging to children and adults alike.
A big part of retaining the innocence of Oz comes from that fact that it never devolves in a LOTR wannabe battle scene. Sure, there are plenty of chase scenes, action and even a few genuine scares, but director Sam Raimi is more than aware how woefully out of character it would be for the Munchkins, a people so childlike they have organizations like the Lullaby League & the Lollipop Guild, to charge into battle armed to the teeth to skewer & stab Winkies and Flying Monkeys to death. That just wouldn't be the Oz we know and love. By realizing that, the film forces itself and & its characters to become more creative.
As previously mentioned, this film comes courtesy of Sam Raimi, and while hiring the director of Evil Dead II to direct a children's movie seems a dubious proposition at best, in retrospect it makes a surprising amount of sense. Raimi does have a tendency to approach even his horror films with childlike glee, and his personal style draws largely from vaudevillian humor and retro Old Hollywood cinematography. In short, it's not hard to deduce that he's likely quite found of the original Wizard of Oz, and possesses an innate understanding of its appeal. The film has every reference to and recreation of iconography from the MGM film that copyright law will allow, references he applies with the delicate touch of an actual artist, not the copy-paste approach a corporate hack like J.J. Abrams uses when approaching Star Trek (yeah, I went there).
The film is imperfect though, and the main weakness lies in the cast. James Franco displays very little range here, and his insistence at playing the film protagonist, Oscar Diggs, as more or less himself really takes one out of the movie. At no point is he believable as an 19th century magician, and he completely fails at as a magician regardless of the period. Mila Kunis starts off well enough, conveying the innocence and sensitivity of her character, but when it comes time for her to assume the Wicked Witch persona she suddenly seems out of her depth. The costume looks great and Kunis is clearly throwing herself into the role with admirable gusto, but she has no menace at all, and her scenes start to resemble a dream sequence on That 70's Show after a while. To her credit, her laugh sounds pretty good, though so radically different for her witch voice otherwise I suspect it may have been dubbed by someone else.
Fortunately the other half of the cast more than make up for it. Michelle Williams absolutely steals the show, giving her part as the Good Witch Glinda real emotion and gravitas with a little touch of wimsy & girlishness, distantly reminiscent of the Billie Burke portrayal. If they ever decide to make another live action Super Mario Bros. movie, she would be the perfect choice for Princess Peach (though vastly overqualified). Rachel Weisz is also unique & engaging as the other Wicked Witch, devilishly manipulative & cruel while surprisingly vulnerable & nuanced. She acts circles around Franco & Kunis in all of their scenes together. Also, as bonus for Raimi fans she becomes a Heinous Horror Hag at one point.
So if it wasn't clear before, Oz: The Great & Powerful wins. Not Raimi's best but a fun time at the movies, genuinely funny and exciting in a charmingly innocent way. Jack the Giant Slayer on the other hand is best forgotten, and probably already has been.