In Defense of Practical Effects: Oz the Great and Powerful Reviewed

China Girl

There’s a moment halfway through Oz, the Great and Powerful where Oz meets an adorable living china doll. She is scared and hidden in the dark corner of a broken house, and she is the first opportunity for Oz to do some real good in this colorful new world.

Oh, how I wish she would have stayed in that house with her legs snapped off.

It’s not that the character is bad — she isn’t. It’s not that the voice acting isn’t good — it is! I pick on the China Girl as a symptom of a deeper disease that makes this movie a truly mediocre waste of time.

The problem with the China Girl is that every time she’s on screen interacting with other actors, the CGI involved is as competent as a high school media project. The lighting on the doll doesn’t match the lighting on the actors, and James Franco in particular seems incapable of pretending he’s holding a doll in his hand. This leads to a number of scenes where Franco tries desperately to cup his hands to nestle a China doll’s butt without letting his talent trickle out from between his fingers. As he walks across the room, his hand and the doll move independently of one another like the animated background in a Scooby Doo cartoon.

These kids don’t know it, but they are better actors than James Franco.

Before long, I was convinced that the special effects were placed lovingly by the same photo techs who digitally insert Tinkerbell into Disney World vacationers’ family photos.

Technology changes, and it does so every day. As it grows, the urge to use technology grows with it, and film producers are compelled to look for ever-newer, ever-flashier, ever-more expensive ways to depict the fantastic characters in their movies. This is a symptom of big Hollywood productions in that, in every way, Oz, the Great and Powerful is supposed to be a great movie simply because it was so very expensive.

Even though it cost $215 million dollars, Oz has more than turned a profit in the first two weeks of worldwide release. It is the biggest hit of 2013 and continues to dominate the box office and probably won’t slow down for a while. But why so much money on such bad effects?

This idea shows up everywhere in this movie. A good script with a better story can only soak up so much of the budget — after all, you can only pay writers so much before they’re just getting spoiled. But 100 graphic artists and computer animators dissecting and recoloring and animating every frame of a two-hour movie? Now we’re talking about some serious change.

This mentality seeps into other parts of the production as well. On several occasions, the actors are shown in profile as shadows against a wall or as silhouettes in front of a setting sun, and for some bizarre reason these scenes are again animated in CGI, and they are done very poorly. The animations blend seamlessly from a real person doing real things on a set to a pre-render glitch reel from the cutting floor of Nightmare Before Christmas.

Why not put an actor in makeup, point a spotlight at them, and film the wall of the set? Why not spend a little money buying an actual china doll and then animating the mouth and using digital effects to erase the wires? At least then she’d fit in poor Franco’s hand.

There’s a reason why the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park from twenty years ago look and move better than the dinosaurs in last year’s stinker Terra Nova. Even though true computer animation has been invented, pioneered, professionalized, and matured in the last two decades, it still can’t match the real quality impact of a hand-made, hand-illustrated model. A guy in a rubber suit made Alien the archetypal horror classic, while $130 million couldn’t save Prometheus from the trashbin of broken dreams.

attack_the_blockIndependent film hit Attack the Block introduced the world to a horrifying cast of aliens that began as actors in gorilla costumes slamming around the set. After filming, the glowing teeth and matte-black fur was added in post-production. Regarding the cost of the aliens and the success of their overall look, director Joe Cornish said:

I knew [the aliens] had to be practical. I knew we couldn’t afford CGI creatures. And I wanted them to be practical, because I love the practical work in movies that I saw when I was growing up. I wanted to use some digital, but with a lightness of touch. I always feel digital is best used to enhance what’s already present, than to create it from the ground up.

The results are breathtaking. The young actors on set admit that they felt intimidated and scared of the creatures, even though they knew they were just actors in stupid suits. They were reacting with fear to real monsters, and their performances are worth it.

Maybe less is more. Maybe practical effects with digital polish is the way to go. Maybe Hollywood should start taking lessons from the Indie film scene and start restraining budgets to unleash creative solutions.

Then again, maybe Oz is going to turn a profit big enough to fund a manned mission to Mars. Maybe Attack the Block lost $8 million of its production budget despite being critically acclaimed. Maybe what’s good for profit isn’t what’s good for art, and Disney film executives and I are just looking at opposite sides of the memo.