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More color than you can see

            As our most visual medium, the movies keep striving for technological innovations that will keep up with a largely fictional vision-fatigue that is supposed to afflict all audiences. It is small wonder that the original directors and actors were flummoxed and outraged at the addition of sound, because it detracted from the visual; but sound has always been secondary to motion, at least in the Hollywood vocabulary, so the trumpeted advances have always been the visual ones: Technicolor! Cinemascope! VistaVision! Cinerama!

            More recently we’ve witnessed the surge of Computer Generated Imagery, which means if you can think of it you can show it, and 3D, which has the potential, ideally, to reach out and draw us in, but which in its current form mostly throws and shoots and pokes things at us to make us keep our distance.

            The real heroes of the current state of the art are the Production Designers, who are the ones responsible for coming up with the eye candy that keeps us wide-eyed with wonder and forking over 10 bucks for admission. They are like the architect and the general contractor rolled into one, responsible for the over-all look of the film and for coordinating all the art directors, costume designers, scenic artists and construction crews. When less successful, as with Guy Hendrix Dyas on Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the results can look like a lot of gold paint on too much coffee. When they’re on a roll they can come up with something breathtaking, as Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg did on James Cameron’s Avatar.

            Not that this is anything new: the look of movies has been spectacular and memorable, from Intolerance through Gone With The Wind to Ben-Hur and Star Wars. But it’s with CGI and 3D that producers have gone hog-wild on the visual end and lost all sense of proportion, with story and character development at an all-time low in importance. (I rest my argument on the Transformer movies, the worst instance ever of we-do-this-because-we-can syndrome.)

            The case in point, which you knew had to be in here somewhere, is Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful, currently topping the box office. Back-story movies are currently very popular, and in this one we get to see how the Wizard got to Oz as a young man long before he became Frank Morgan, the man behind the curtain.

            In a conscious homage (there are many) to MGM’s 1939 classic, the current movie opens in black and white, on a small square screen, where we meet the wizard (James Franco), a two-bit magician with  big dreams, trapped in a traveling circus in Kansas. We quickly find out about his womanizing, his contempt for his friends and his glib line of patter, and also a tiny germ of compassion, before the tornado whips him and his balloon to Oz.

            You’ve seen the transition to color and wide-screen in all the trailers, and on the big screen it’s a beaut. The landscapes are glorious, with tall, thin hills that hook over and defy gravity, and enough flora in brilliant saturated colors, and cute critters providing visual puns, to keep you gasping. And no surprise – this is the work of Avatar’s Robert Stromberg, and it keeps you entranced without reminding you too much of that earlier work.

            Like Dorothy, our wizard is expected to straighten out a whole passel of problems involving witches, which he does with a pick-up gang of pals and, as he keeps reminding us, no magical powers at all. He eventually does this not by flirting with all three witches (though he does that too, causing complications) but in the accepted Disney manner, by encouraging the good-hearted populace to stand up for themselves. It’s an academic question why they need this, since all the witches are just exploding with magical powers.

            Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good is perfectly charming, but could have used some of Billie Burke’s original ditziness; Mila Kunis is pleasant enough before her transformation, but her Wicked Witch of the West can’t compete with the memory of Margaret Hamilton. One wonders how much this lack of carry-through comes from MGM’s strangle-hold on the rights to the original – rumor is they wouldn’t even allow the same shade of green on the Wicked Witch, which is probably a good thing, since the original makeup put Hamilton in the hospital.

            The witch with the most presence is Evanora, played by Rachel Weisz, an actress who has been choosing her projects carefully since her break-out role in the first two Mummy movies. James Franco is a pleasant enough chap, but not a deeply skilled actor, and he conveys the Wizard’s evolving consciousness mostly through a series of smirks, uncomfortable laughs and sheepish grins.

            That he has an evolving consciousness at all is the work of screenwriter Mitchell Kapner, collaborating with playwright David  Lindsay-Abaire. It would be a refreshing trend to see Hollywood producers hiring more playwrights to work on their scripts. Not that that always worked out well in the past, but it’s something to hope for. Until we get back to character-driven stories, Robert Stromberg’s production designs will keep our eyes occupied.