Directed by Sam Raimi
It’s perhaps a tad hypocritical of me to be such a devoted fan of the Evil Dead Trilogy whilst lambasting the recent work of Sam Raimi, most notably the stylistic choices made famous by the series of films that helped cultivate my love of horror. Drag Me to Hell was Raimi’s attempt at “returning to his roots,” particularly those nourished by the slapstick humor of Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness; yet, I simply couldn’t reconcile my love of these films with Drag Me to Hell’s amateur script, terrible acting, and utter tonal misfire.
This blending of slapstick humor worked for Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness because the content allowed it to. Flying eyeballs, “Three Stooges”-esque dialogue, and gallons upon gallons of blood lent themselves to Raimi’s unique visual style and the over-the-top performances required of his actors. Everything was tongue-and-cheek, and perhaps most importantly, he knew it. It didn’t work with Drag Me to Hell because, despite Raimi’s trademark zooms and gross-out gags, the film is a thriller with an attempt to frighten the audience, not gross them out, with the end result being an uneven blend of the two that is only made worse by the film’s poor acting, weak script filled with massive gaps in logic, and laughable dialogue. These same problems plague Raimi’s newest venture, Oz: The Great and Powerful, with such pervasiveness that it becomes almost unwatchable, with the most egregious offenses coming in the form of what looks suspiciously like “acting.”
As a con man transported to the Land of Oz and compelled to kill the Wicked Witch, James Franco’s performance as Oscar Diggs highlights the disconnect between the content of the film and Raimi’s inability to let go of his unique style to benefit a film that doesn’t need it. Franco is a solid comedic actor, made evident by his role as the good-natured stoner Saul Silver in Pineapple Express, but his attempts at drama and action fall completely flat at almost every turn. Instead, a serious character with a mischievous streak is turned into a laughable oaf who seems unable to control the muscles in his mouth to quell his shit-eating grin. Franco turns a boring movie into a bad one, compounded by a story that moves so quickly that major characters such as Theodora the Good, played by Mila Kunis, and her sister Evanora, played by Rachel Weisz, are given the bare minimum of screen time and character development in order to focus on Oscar and the good witch Glinda, played by Michelle Williams.
The only stand-out characters are Finley, a flying monkey voiced by Zach Braff, and China Girl, a small porcelain doll voiced by Joey King that Oscar rescues after the Wicked Witch destroys her village and kills her parents. The former is the closest we’ll ever get to a new episode of “Scrubs,” with Braff delivering the only dialogue in the film that’s remotely funny, while the latter is a quick-witted and adorable little scamp whose rallying cry of “Let’s go kill a witch!” serves as one of the funniest moments in the film. Beyond this, every other character, from the denizens of the Emerald City to the munchkins, is nearly forgettable.
Raimi’s fantastical Land of Oz, replete with lush scenery, giant plants, bizarre creatures, and the requisite subtle morbidity that makes Oz a stone’s throw away from being a Tim Burton film (the first few notes of Corpse Bride’s leitmotif are clearly heard in several scenes), is created with a mix of CGI and practical effects that is, for the most part, visually impressive. Unfortunately, Raimi’s intended scope is severely diminished by the use of 3D and its tendency to un-blur the line that divides the computer-generated imagery from the actors. It’s a minor quibble in a film already filled with far more serious issues, but in a land like Oz, it belies the intended grandiosity of this magical world, thus sucking the viewer out of it. Furthermore, the incredibly insulated story allows for very little attention to be paid to the sweeping landscapes of Oz as a whole, with Raimi preferring instead to set most of the action in or around small areas and castles.
It’s amusing to point out that as Raimi’s revisionist tale-cum-prequel to the classic Wizard of Oz unfolds, you can’t help but notice the similarities to Army of Darkness in terms of the story: A hero arrives in a foreign land and reluctantly agrees to rid the area of a destructive force to serve his own selfish end. This can be easily dismissed as an interpretation of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, but beyond this lie other similarities, perhaps accidental, that discerning fans of Army of Darkness will quickly pick up on. Unfortunately, the similarities stop there, because like Drag Me to Hell, what worked in Army of Darkness doesn’t work in Oz: The Great and Powerful, and for a movie that runs two hours long, it’s hard to believe it’s so empty.
1 1/2 out of 5