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Oz the Great and Powerful - A Review

I know that technically I was supposed to be reviewing all the Disney movies in order and, well, this is jumping ahead a bit. But I got rather sidetracked from reviewing Disney films as I went, and I had a few thoughts about this latest adaptation of the Oz universe I felt would be fun to share.

Firstly, some background. I'm an Oz fan. An Ozmologist in some ways. I know a fair bit about most of the Oz lore. Read many of the books, seen the MGM movie a zillion times, obsessed with the 80's Cinar cartoon, won an award for playing a crow in a local stage production - I was a fan of Wicked before Wicked was a musical. If there's a film version of the Oz books out there, odds are I've seen it. So I approached Oz The Great And Powerful with some hesitation - yes, great that Oz is still popular enough to be worthy of a major Disney feature film, but history has shown that modern retellings of this story tend to miss the point. And with everyone comparing it to Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, a movie that was basically a generic fantasy movie with Wonderland names bolted on, I was less excited by the prospect of the same happening to Oz. Friends had told me how awful it was, other friends were amazed, so last night I decided to see it for myself.

Oh, incidentally - Spoilers, Sweetie.

I think it was a mixed bag. Visually it's spectacular - it takes what the MGM film does and pushes it up a notch. So many scenes designed to echo similar scenes of its predecessor - Glinda's bubbles, the tornado, etc - but with a twenty-first century twist. In the original, when the Wicked Witch of the West appeared amongst the Munchkins (on a spiraling origin point to the Yellow Brick Road), she appeared amidst some glowing orange smoke. Here she does the same, only it's bigger, it's scarier and she blows a friggen hole in the ground doing it. The backdrops - even having Kansas look like an old MGM sound stage - manage to stay consistent with the 1939 version, but without appearing retro. Which worked well - if this was a movie that was supposed to tie into MGM.

It's the same issue so many Oz films have - trying to tie into both the books and the MGM movie (Return to Oz suffers from similar problems). All the imagery in"Oz The Great And Powerful is from MGM - the Winkies (falling just short of the "oo-ee-oh"), the Munchkins (cause Baum didn't make them midgets), the Witch of the West, even down to the sets and the black and white "everyone in Oz has a Kansas counterpart" conceit. Which is fine, if you want to be a faithful MGM prequel, it's exactly how to do it. But then they make Glinda the Good Witch of the South (just like the books), the Wizard gets his original literary name (right down to his initials spelling O.Z.P.I.N.H.E.A.D.) and if you notice in the final scene Glinda has the Silver Shoes on, not Judy Garland's Ruby Slippers (though why Glinda has them and not Evanora I haven't a clue). So it confuses things - it doesn't lead into the MGM movie well at all, nor does it become a faithful adaption of Baum's books. Instead it just sits between the two in an awkward "I dunno what I'm trying to be" place. Those expecting a faithful prequel to the Movie end up asking why Ginda's forgotten which side of Oz she lives in, while the book fans are wondering why she's suddenly got Ozma's backstory. So basically, it wants to please those who are coming to Oz cold (if those people exist), which doesn't seem right since so much of the film depends on nostalgia.

I have to admit, to finally see the Wizard and the Wicked Witches battle for control of Oz had me on the edge of my seat - Baum hinted at it, Wicked bypassed it, but here we see how the Great Humbug could defeat someone as powerful as the Wicked Witch of the West despite having no skill of his own. But overall, the acting was pretty blah - James Franco only shines because everyone else is so poor (especially that Wicked Witch - put her in front Margaret Hamilton or even Idina Menzel and she'd soil her broomstick).  Does everybody in Oz really need to be so simple and dense? Don't get me started on the various "betrayed love" motivations thrown about and the stupid Wizard/Glinda kiss at the end. That was annoying. Glinda, the Sorceress I know and love from the books, is way more savvy and clued up than the dumb blonde we had here.

I hear they're doing a sequel, which could be good to try and close up the gaps that this movie left between it and The Wizard of Oz. Like all Ozmologists, I'll probably end up rushing down to see it as well, but probably without any anticipation. As a specacular visual feast, Oz The Great And Powerful is, to coin a phrase, wonderful. But if you want properly drawn characters, decent acting or something faithful to Baum's original text, then you may want to look elsewhere.

Disney Review - Fantasia

Well, that was … different.

I’ve never seen Fantasia before. Well, no, that’s a lie. I’ve never finished Fantasia. Every so often I’d start it, get about ten minutes in and be baffled by the complete lack of plot or characters and turn it off in sheer boredom. But I was but a child then, surely by now as an adult I could sit through it and be entertained and inspired and all those other things one does when one sees a movie again after being grown up. Sadly, I should have heeded my younger self’s advice – good golly is this heavy going!

Eight individual animation segments set to famous classical music. I can see what they were trying to do with this. It’s a good opportunity for the animators to reinterpret the music into a new light, while pushing their animation skills even further than before. And to its credit, Fantasia looks stunning. So many wonderful images, ranging from the abstract shapes and colours in “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” to the balletic fairies in the Nutcracker Suite to the rather funny hippos in tutus in “Dance of the Hours”. It’s all beautiful to look at, and certain images (like Chernabog in “Night on Bald Mountain”) have rightly lasted the test of time. Independently, each of these segments are quite nice, though admittedly not to my tastes. But one after another for over two hours, it honestly came to a point where I considered switching it off and moving on to watching Dumbo instead. How kids in the 40s were expected to cope with this I have no idea…

The bit I really liked is the bit everyone remembers – and indeed the reason why Fantasia was made – “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. Who can’t help but like Mickey Mouse, making his feature debut (and his debut into my reviews). Of all the segments of Fantasia, this was the one that felt more like a traditional film, including a definite plot and characterisation. Mickey gives it a centre that the other segments lacked, a focal point for the audience to care about as he frantically tries to regain control of his enchanted broomsticks. Maybe it’s the fact he’s more recognisable than a random cute flying horse, maybe it’s something innate in Mickey’s character (or the reverence Disney has for him), but I found myself sitting up and taking notice more when he was on the screen. Fantasia only ever came about as something to support “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” short film, and I think you get that sense watching it – it stands up head and shoulders above the rest as something special. Sadly it comes in at around the half hour mark meaning you’ve got the bulk of Fantasia left afterwards which doesn’t inspire half as much.

I haven’t got a lot to say about Fantasia, but there’s not a lot to get your teeth into (and I confess, by the time I got to the second half I wasn’t paying as much attention as I probably should have). Fans of classical music will get a lot from this film. Those who get excited about revolutions in animation technique likewise. However I am neither, I prefer a movie to have plot and character and jokes and story, otherwise I’m left bored…


Disney Review - Pinocchio

I’ve always been fond of this film. While most Disney movies have their Snow Whites or the Ariels or their Mulans or Cinderellas at their centre, Pinocchio is one of those rare instances where a male character is the centre of the plot. Someone that I, as a little boy myself though certainly less made of wood than our naïve hero, could identify with. Not a love story in sight, it’s always made a nice change from the constant stream of Disney Princesses and waiting for that some day when their prince will come. Our lead character doesn’t want a magic kiss, he just wants to be a real boy, and it’s a refreshing change. As a kid I enjoyed this movie, and I was worried going in that the lens of adulthood might sour the experience. But unlike Snow White, Pinocchio has aged much better, has a lot to offer and in places it’s loads of fun.

Let’s start with the bit I liked the best – Jiminy Cricket. It’s easy to see why this character became such an icon for the Disney Company as a whole. From the get-go with his opening rendition of “When You Wish Upon A Star” and his direct-to-audience introduction to the story, he’s more engaging than anything we got from Snow White. And that’s what makes this film work better than its predecessor – we have an interesting, comic (without being silly) narrator guiding us through the story. Snow White, in comparison, opened with a silent book statically telling us the state of play followed by the absurdly innocent Snow White having another conversation with birds. Jiminy Cricket is by no means innocent – he’s experienced some of the world and knows what’s what, which complements perfectly with Pinocchio’s newborn simplicity. That’s what was really missing from Snow White – we had Grumpy, sure who seemed to have a healthily cynical eye as to what was going on, but his character is fairly low in the mix. In Pinocchio it’s as if they’ve realised it’s best to bring someone like Grumpy to the foreground and give relief to the innocent Snow White (and it also means we don’t have to spend ages watching Pinocchio talk to mute birds and squirrels). But Jiminy is more entertaining to watch than Grumpy – he seems to seriously enjoy life however it presents itself to him. He’s bouncing around Geppetto’s workshop to the music-boxes without a care in the world, throws himself into the role of Pinocchio’s conscience with enthusiasm and gusto so that you can’t help but go along with him. He cares about the little wooden boy put into his care, and thus so do we. And it helps that the cricket has a sense of the snark about him too, with one-liners coming thick and fast (“what does an actor need with a conscience anyway?”), a happy change from the saccharine blandness and tweeness of the dialogue in Snow White.

That’s generally what puts Pinocchio above Snow White – it’s less twee. Sure, it’s still a Disney film, we still have a Blue Fairy stating that “a boy who won’t be good might just as well be made of wood” and other childlike rhyming platitudes, but the story overall is treated with a sophisticated level of holistic storytelling that was absent from the previous film. Every sequence works towards the advancement of the story, there’s no lengthy comedy washing-up sequences here. The animators and writers still haven’t quite got out of the habit of relying on gags to fill time – for example, how many comedy moments with clocks and music-boxes does Jiminy Cricket really need? – but for the most part everything is there to serve the plot and very little is wasted. Our main characters feel more three dimensional, their dialogue more natural revealing an actual character with relatable motivations rather than, say, the Wicked Queen who just wants Snow White dead cause she’s Evil (or Snow White who just wants her prince and to sing with the animals some more). Which makes us care more. When Pinocchio ignores his conscience and goes off with Honest Jon and Gideon to be an actor or to Pleasure Island, we feel Jiminy’s exasperation and worry. There’s real emotion in Geppetto’s search of the rainy streets of the town for his missing son. The pinnacle of this is the sequence in Pleasure Island where Lampwick transforms into a donkey. I mentioned last time how scary Snow White eating the apple was – this turns the horror up tenfold as we see the initial changes happen slowly and almost comically. Then there’s Lampwick’s panic and terror once he realises what’s happening, his hands turning into hoofs. Then that famous moment where we see  Lampwick’s silhouette, screaming for his mother, turn into a donkey and he loses all ability for speech or rational thought. And then, the scariest part of all, Pinocchio begins to transform in exactly the same way. Unlike Snow White fleeing through the forest, here I found I really cared about what happened to the wooden boy and whether Jiminy could get him out of what he’d got into this time. When Pinocchio later works out how to break his father out of Monstro the Whale, one can’t help but feel proud at how far this little guy has come.

Have to have a few words in praise of Dicky Jones as the voice of Pinocchio. The part could have been incredibly annoying, as many cute child characters are, but Jones keeps it on the right side of irritating and brings a nice warmth and charm to the part. He’s innocent, without being annoyingly so (unlike Snow White…), and as I said, I found myself caring as to how he got out of the messes he got into. And his unknowing humour when it comes to learning the basics of life is entertaining – his discovery of fire springs to mind. Endearing, not annoying, and plays off very well with Jiminy Cricket. In fact, I’m going to be interested to see how Jiminy Cricket comes across in those future films where he’s going solo without Pinocchio, as the two work very well together as it is.

Oh, and how about those songs? It’s easy to see how this score won awards back in the day – it’s so catchy and memorable. Sure, there’s “When You Wish Upon A Star” which has become the Disney anthem (and rightly so), but even the minor, lesser known songs, like “Little Wooden Head” and “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee” stick in the brain and go round and round for hours. It’s rare that I see a Disney film where I like the whole score, usually there’s at least one or two I’m not that impressed with, but not the case here. I’m thinking, hopefully not for the first time, I’m going to have to chase down the soundtrack for this movie.

Overall impressions: Disney’s clearly learnt a lot about feature-length storytelling in the time since Snow White, and Pinocchio is all the better for it. It works better as a cohesive unit, every sequence working towards the overall story, with engaging characters and a catchy soundtrack. Definitely one of those films from my childhood that stands the test of time.

Next time, hippos in tutus and magical mops. It’s Fantasia


In an another attempt to get this blog of mine moving again, I thought it could be fun do get some reviews going, since if nothing else I know I can talk about my own opinions until the cows come home (and really – what else is the internet for?). I was going to review local theatre, but then I figured I want to be involved in local theatre and annoying somebody with a bad review may not make me appealing to future directors. So I figured I’d switch to something less likely to cause offence – Disney.

Like most grown up children, I’ve seen most of the Disney canon over the years, but there’s gaps, key movies I’ve missed. For example, I think that to this day I’ve never seen Cinderella or The Jungle Book, at least in their entirety. So, deciding to rectify that, I thought I’d start watching them all, in order, jot down a few of my thoughts and see how the Disney Company develops and changes into the great monolith of cinema it is today.

So, back to the very beginning, with Snow White. It’s not possible to understate the significance of this film. The first animated feature ever – not just for Disney, but at all. In 1937, there was nothing at all like this for audiences to compare it to. Sure, there were animated shorts, but nothing over ten minutes or with anything approaching a feature-length plot or detailed characterisations. The story of its creation is worthy of a film in itself – at the time everyone told Disney his “folly” was doomed to failure only for it to exceed expectations and become an all-time classic. For me, this holds significance in that my first on-stage performance was in a production of Snow White. I was five years old in my prep grade classroom production, and I played the Evil Queen (and then took over as the wicked witch at very short noticed when the assigned actress didn’t show up for school on the day, but that’s another story).

Snow White isn’t a movie I’ve seen all that often, and seeing it again today suggests to me why – despite its classic status, it’s definitely a movie of its time. You can see the creators’ previous training in short-form animation in its construction – rather than a cohesive plot, you have a lot of individual set pieces each with its own tone and atmosphere. And a lot of them were slapstick comedy routines, which no doubt get the kiddies giggling. Nothing wrong with that, I should add, it is a children’s movie and I’m not the target audience, but the overall effect was a bit of a contrast compared to the modern-era Disney film. But the net result is a film full of sequences that don’t quite seem to progress the plot, they’re there mostly to allow the animators to showcase their craft. I’m thinking mostly of the washing-up sequence, which feels like it’s gone on for twenty minutes and doesn’t tell us anything about these characters we haven’t already got from the long comedy sequence in the mines, or the long "Silly Song" sequence we’re about to get soon after.

But what I think what I felt the movie lacked most was depth of character. Everybody is painted is such broad strokes (no pun intended), with one or two character traits and that’s all. Fair enough, I hear you say, it’s a fairy tale and that’s how they work, but that made it difficult to care about them. The Dwarfs, sure, they’re our comedy relief, I can understand them being archetypes, but I found it difficult to care about Snow White and her predicament when she’s portrayed as such a dim and slightly crazy character. This is where the twee and saccharine image of the stereotypical Disney Princess comes from, back in the days before they had spines and a bent for witty banter. Sure, when you come across a cottage in the middle of a forest and you’re on the run, of course the first thing you do is clean the place up. You’re on the run from your evil stepmother, you need asylum – by all means giggle at the seven short people you desperately need help from. They may have tried to make Snow White a sweet and adorable girl, but she just comes across as a nutcase who doesn’t seem to quite understand the danger she’s in and is quite content to stroll around in a mild daze and shack up with any strange man who wanders along, be them dwarfs, princes or otherwise. The Queen’s motivations seemed a bit odd as well – fair enough, she wants to ensure she’s the most beautiful of them all, but to choose to destroy her own beauty in the process seemed a bit odd (as a kid I always assumed it was a temporary disguise, but something about her transformation sequence as show makes it look rather permanent). And as for Prince Charming … it seems the only reason Snow White falls for him is because he’s available for handy duets as he’s got no other traits one way or another (besides that he likes to kiss corpses. I mean really…). But then, as we’ve established, Snow White is out of her tiny little brain, so maybe that’s all she really needs from a guy…

And speaking of funny behaviour, gotta love the suspicious (to a point) Dwarfs, who don’t quite understand what this random princess is doing in their rooms and only seem to welcome her into the house when she promises to continue cooking and clean for them. Well, I guess it was the 30s.

I’m being very critical, I know, and possibly a tad unfair. There is a lot in this film I did enjoy. There’s some surprisingly effective darker moments throughout – the Queen’s slow transformation into the Witch is especially effective. There’s also the scene where Snow White eats the apple, and the camera stays on the Witch’s reaction while Snow White dies off-screen. I’m describing it badly, but the result is a very disturbing moment.  And one thing I always forget about this film is the attention given to Grumpy as he comes around to liking Snow White. Granted, it’s nothing special or amazing as far as character development goes, even in 1937, but it’s still sweet to see. I’d have liked to have seen more wit rather than slapstick in the story (which you’ll come to notice will be an ongoing issue with me – prefer funny lines to funny walks any day), but there were one or two gems hiding in the script. Grumpy saying there’s “dirty work afoot” in regards to Snow White’s cleaning-and-entering. Couldn’t help but cringe at the images of animals cleaning dishes however, no matter how catchy the song in the background.

Yes, the songs, no discussion of a Disney movie is complete without mention of the score. It’s a shame so much of it isn’t particularly memorable – sure, it has long-time standards like “Heigh-Ho”, ‘Someday My Prince Will Come” and “Whistle While You Work”, but the rest is fairly forgettable. I did find it interesting that the overture uses “One Song” as its base rather than any of the catchier melodies – a misunderstanding of which songs of the movie had legs and which didn’t, or an attempt to give one of the less interesting songs more weight? Still, those good songs have a lot going for them and bode well for the musical exploits of Disney in the future.

I know I sound like I hated Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but that’s not quite true. But I did find it less than stellar and inspiring. It definitely has a key place in history, and none of the later great animation classics would exist if it were not for Snow White, but as someone watching back on it seventy-five years later, it’s suffers in comparison to what came after it. It’s definitely a strong start, but there’s so much room for improvement.

I've liked Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap for many years now. In my last great UK adventure I made sure I took time out to see the longest running play in the world, soon after bought the script book and recently started lobbying my local theatre company to put on an amateur production of it while the rights were available in Australia (not that anything came of that, but that's another story). So now that this famous production has finally come to Melbourne, how could I resist going along to see it and compare it to what I saw long ago in St Martin's Lane in London?

I should really know better to compare a West End production with a local one, as the Australian edition never quite holds up against its UK originals. This is especially true in the case of The Mousetrap - the production in London has been running for very nearly sixty years now in which time they've had ample opportunity to fine tune anything to make it a special production. Besides, being an English production it has a innate Englishness about it - the cast are all British, the direction has a British sensibility, it all fits in with a very British script. Here in Australia, however, I couldn't shake the feeling that the company were trying too hard to make it as British as possible. Everybody spoke with a "oh, I say, rather, what-ho!" tone, which had the unfortunate effect of bringing the play into the realms of melodrama. Let's face it, the play walks that fine line as it is - a ghastly winter night, an old manor house, eight people trapped within and one of whom will be a murderer... But in London the performers made it feel natural. Their anguish was real, their struggles felt like a normal struggle, which made me care. This Australian production took all the parts, wrung out any subtleties and made them all caricatures. Which, I suppose, is a perfectly valid way of portraying The Mousetrap, but not one I found to be as effective. It didn't help that they seemed to think they were doing a twenties period drama (rather than a fifties one as it was written). Agatha Christie done in the style of Noel Coward, as it were.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy the production I saw this afternoon - there was much to appreciate. Travis Cotton as Christopher Wren stole the show for me, and I found myself waiting eagerly for the times when he'd return to the stage for some more odd and slightly insane antics. Justin Smith playing Detective-Sergeant Trotter also gets special note, for carrying the bulk of the show excellently and managing to be one of the few who didn't tip over that melodramatic line (sadly its hard to discuss details of any of the cast without revealing key parts of of the plot, which we've been all sworn not to reveal). The rest of the cast were great in their own way, but I found it hard to take them seriously (and occasionally found the more pantomime acting actively annoying). Moving away from the acting, I loved some of the lighting choices made - especially at the climax (again, no details for fear of spoilers). The use of darkness to bring out the fear factor was just right. And I loved the fact it snowed outside the window! A little detail, but one that helped bring the magnificently lush set to life.

In a production at a venue called the Comedy Theatre, perhaps I should have expected this play to to ramp up the comedy to eleven, but I don't think The Mousetrap really needed it. Agatha Christie's murder mystery play has legs of its own - otherwise it wouldn't have lasted in the West End this long - but it could have been much more effective if it wasn't portrayed as a melodrama. But still, go down and see it if you can before it closes, the material speaks for itself. See if you can guess whodunnit before the final curtain!

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