Can Bad Visual Effects Ruin a Film Like 'Oz the Great and Powerful'?
by Tyler Wantuch
March 29, 2013
Disney's Oz: The Great and Powerful is a mediocre film. While the film is surely entertaining, there isn't a whole lot to compliment. Most reviewers were quick to point out the dull script, the placid acting, and the overall lack of energy (all of which is understandable), but when looking at the views on the computer generated visual effects, we find the topic is divisive. Those who enjoyed the film touted its wonderful visual effects, while those who were less enthralled by it cried out for mercy from the seemingly neverending dull CGI landscapes, sometimes no better than a canvas backdrop. In a strange way, both viewpoints are correct.
At various points, Oz's use of CGI is very impressive and appropriate, while other times it is overused and simply awful. While the film's mediocrity surely stems from the more critical issues stated above and has nothing to do with its use of CGI, we cannot get away from any reviews that say either the visual effects are worth the price of admission or they are so poor that it will destroy your experience. It seems there is some belief that bad CGI can doom a promising film into becoming forgettable. Is this even possible? Do visual effects and CGI have that much sway or do they simply get added to the laundry list of complaints to a bad film and a list of praises to a good film?
I cannot think of a single movie I have loved based solely on its CGI work. Along those lines, I have never experienced such bad CGI that I was completely turned off from a film either. This leads me to believe that CGI and special effects are truly neutral by nature; They have little to do with our enjoyment of the film when it is rolling. Only afterwards when we have decided on our overall feelings do we then discern if the effects were good enough. Bad CGI does not doom a film to be unwatchable; it merely gives us another reason to like or dislike the movie even more after it's finished. Great visual effects should increase our enjoyment, and some even take our breath away, making us wonder how they achieved such realism. But these moments pass by quickly and the awe just as swiftly turns into anticipation of what's next.
No amount of CGI can continue to grip our attention for two full hours. In fact CGI should be seen more as a tool to help guide the audience deeper into its fantasy. Combined with an intriguing story, decent acting and a consistent background, CGI suddenly becomes not a deciding factor, but rather a sort of magic wand that makes a film feel better—kind of like adding salt to a bland meal. When the rest of the film is clicking, CGI can also shield the filmmakers from their own mistakes. Once a viewer has fully emerged themselves, they will gloss over any ugly special effects and only remember the ones that added to the mystique of the cinematic world. If you were to get lost in Oz, you surely would remember the masterful CGI that was used in the grand finale showdown and almost certainly forgot the "horses of a different color" found awkwardly meandering in a Nintendo 64-esque landscape. It also explains why a reviewer who loved the film could be blown away by the effects at the same time another would nitpick them to death.
In his highly successful horror trilogy that started with The Evil Dead, you will find that Sam Raimi used no CGI. Raimi relied solely on make-up and trick photography, and with these tools alone, the series manufactured a world with highly memorable, over the top special effects. It didn't matter that some effects worked and others were decidedly laughable, because they all fit together inside Raimi's ThEvil Dead world and the style of the film itself. It is this consistency that let Sam Raimi get away with low budget effects. Even as Ash moved from cabin to castle to grocery store, the special effects were consistent throughout and never jarred the viewer.
Now if Ash suddenly fell into a setting like Oz: The Great and Powerful, surrounded by a CGI landscape, Evil Dead fans would immediately shun the change. I am sure fans were ecstatic to discover the Evil Dead remake seemingly avoided this, by excluding all CGI, or at least keeping visual effects to a minimum. It is not that CGI couldn't enhance some of the series scenes and make them look better, but our displeasure is caused by the loss of consistency from one effect to the other, which catapults us out of the cinematic world being presented. When our expectations are not met, even well-used CGI can damage a film. But would that be enough to turn a good film sour? Reactions to the unnecessary additions of Jabba the Hutt or the spirit of Hayden Christensen in the special editions of the original Star Wars trilogy may be good evidence, but it did not move the movies away from their classic status.
Even more telling than the selective memory of happy viewers and the strength found inside a consistent look is the way we look back at older films with early CGI. There are usually two trains of thought after watching a film with some lousy CGI. Either it was great for the time the movie was made, or the effects hold up years later. Both are blinded to the possibility that it was just bad CGI, regardless of the time it was created. Movies we are watching 20 years later must be pretty good to stand the test of time, and perhaps that's why we forgive them of their slight faults (though the idea of forgiving any shortcoming due to a dated film is an entirely separate discussion). Even Air Force One, with its crash landing from 1997 now resembling a 3D pre-visualization tumbling about on hard flat water, still holds up as an entertaining film. The special effects criticism hasn't overtaken the love that some still have for it. In fact, it appears that the more time passes, the more forgiving we are of a film's visual effects faults.
CGI quality is a minor offense; one that is noticeable but easily forgiven if the remainder of the film is worth a damn. Sometimes we only mention the special effects, simply because we haven't wrapped our heads around why we liked or hated a particular film, or maybe it was the only remarkable aspect, good or bad. It is the easy answer, an answer that rolls of the tongue. Why do you like Oz: the Great and Powerful? Is it because Oz was bright and colorful and pretty? That can be something you liked, but it can't be the reason you liked the film. You liked it because you were able to escape for a few hours in a fantasy world outside of our own mundane existence.
Good or bad, CGI has little effect on our overall opinion of a film's quality. It only affects the way we argue for or against a film. So let's hope that Sam Raimi and other directors can spend a little more time focusing on the basics of character development and story, by starting with a good script, while letting some of the over the top effects fall by the wayside. Eye candy and CGI may be fun and sometimes necessary, but they will not rise a film from the depths of mediocrity, nor will it doom a film into a flop. CGI is simply a tool that can help create wonderful cinematic moments but it cannot wow audiences alone. Do you agree?