Family-Friendly Deathmatch

Oz the Great and Powerful vs. Jack the Giant Slayer!

Images from IMDb.com

Images from IMDb.com

Dude, that wasn’t even close. Jack smoked Oz.

I enjoy how as an adult I can feel refreshed by a high-quality children’s movie, and that’s the experience Bryan Singer delivered with his fairly straightforward fairy tale adaptation. I have to tread carefully here because I honestly don’t want to oversell Jack. One of my favorite aspects of the film was how it charmed me out of my low expectations. In that way the project as a whole mirrors its humble protagonist, earning respect through well-timed displays unassuming competence.

I liked Nicholas Hoult’s “aw shucks” heroism, which grew in confidence but not aggressive machismo. For a boy-centric movie, they handled the romantic subplot well, maximizing the potential in a limited amount of screen time by relying on the leads’ low-key but unforced chemistry. And with the character of the knight Elmont, it was great to see Ewan McGregor bringing back his whole swashbuckling, twinkle-in-the-eye thing for the benefit of a much less irritating protégé than Hayden Christensen. In fact, my one suggestion as an armchair director would have been to maybe beef up McGregor’s role. In the absence of romantic fireworks, it would’ve been nice to delve deeper into more of a mentor relationship between Elmont and Jack. I loved the banter-sprinkled second act.

In contrast, I had high hopes for Oz that were more or less dashed before I even got past the black-and-white Kansas prologue. I felt there was something stridently off about James Franco’s performance as a con man-cum-wizard. Instead of just inhabiting the character, he always seemed to be ACTING! Maybe the nuances necessary to giving a good performance as someone giving a bad performance are beyond his range, or maybe he’s just spent a little too much time on a soap opera set. However, I’m hesitant to lay all of the blame at his feet because I don’t think he ruined an otherwise air-tight script. Overall, his transformation into a hero seemed rushed and underwritten. And when you fail to effectively sell the redemption in an “asshole makes good” story, you’re left with “Be an asshole! Rewards will be heaped upon you!” as the moral. See also: the Star Trek reboot.

Also, the magical land itself as rendered in CGI looked bright and pretty, but also sort of cold and intangible. And two-thirds of the witches and 95 percent of the other inhabitants failed to interest me. I’m so much more curious about the sentient apple trees in the 1939 The Wizard of Oz and what their whole deal was than I ever will be about the Quadlings here. To end on a positive note, I will say that Sam Raimi achieved arguably the best implementation of 3-D that I’ve seen. It’s a technology I pretty much loathe, but effects like a light snow appearing to gently fall upon the audience won me over in this particular instance.

Sadly, at the box office, America completely embraced Oz and blew off Jack. In fact, Jack is one of the biggest money-losing flops of the past few years. I think I can understand why that happened. Oz had more of a built-in audience, and it had a much better trailer. Naturally, I would prefer the better movie to get rewarded for being better, but I also think Jack works best as a one-off, and if it had been as lucrative as it deserved to be, then I’d have to worry about unnecessary sequels. Hopefully, it’ll find its audience on video.

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