Article by Ryan Wilson
Photos courtesy of Disney
There are two perspectives one can take before choosing to watch Oz the Great and Powerful. The first is to go ahead and appreciate a revisionist approach to a beloved fantasy, while also accepting the weaknesses you already suspect come with the film’s execution. The second (and probably more likely) view is to appreciate the $325 million Disney production as a cynical attempt to exploit a beloved fantasy, while decrying the weaknesses you already suspect come with the film’s execution.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time Disney has returned to Oz. 1985’s Return to Oz stayed somewhat truer to L. Frank Baum’s books, but that film ended up a muddled, surprisingly dark trek back to the ruins of the Emerald City. Return to Oz has become something of a cult classic due to its obscurity and moody art direction.
No such fate awaits Oz the Great and Powerful. The film is the typical digital eye-candy so disappointingly predictable in the 21st century. Sure, Oz begins with promise, beginning in a grainy black and white Kansas circa 1905, but once James Franco’s magician tornadoes into the color coordinated kaleidoscope of the wonderful world, he might as well have traveled to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland or James Cameron’s Avatar. The flowers and waterfalls are all too asymmetrically spectacular, but their smooth effects prove bland (not to mention repetitive) all too quickly.
Thus, Oz the Great and Powerful does little but reinforce the limitations of the modern movie fantasy. One of the marvels of the original Wizard of Oz was the combination of sets and cinematography to transport one completely into Oz. Even now when watching the original film, it’s chilling to view the contrasts between light and dark. Old school movie artists accomplished this by making maximum use of traditional technologies. What do we have now but lazy artists graphically bleeding those tones together, signifying nothing.
But to be fair, what can the new film do but fail? The original is so deeply imprinted on our psyche. More than any other movie in our history, it’s a dark allegory that also serves as a rite of passage. When you’re allowed to watch The Wizard of Oz, you’re technically no longer a child’s child but a child that can process fear. And of course no one personifies that fear better than the Wicked Witch of the West, played with terrifying precision by Margaret Hamilton.
Oz the Great and Powerful knows this, so its trick is to delay her arrival, whittling down the film to a sort of origin story for the Wicked Witch. Who among the three witchy women will it be: Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis, or Michelle Williams? The answer to that isn’t nearly as intriguing as it should be or even as interesting as in the novel and adapted stage musical Wicked. The film does want to keep her terrifying, and she is for about a millisecond. But that’s mainly due to the anticipation of her arrival. When she finally arrived fully on the screen in the last third of the film, whatever terror I had residing from my own childhood rapidly melted into a different type of horror, one comprised of the terrible make-up and the terrible performance from the actress playing her. She’s no Margaret Hamilton, let’s just say that.
The Wicked Witch may be the main attraction, but the protagonist is, of course, Franco’s Oz. Many critics have been harsh on him as a device, as well as harsh on Franco, but aside from phoning in his performance at times, Franco’s acceptable as a sort of sheepish con man. While it’s true he doesn’t have near enough “abra” in his “cadabra,” if you’ll recall he’s not supposed to. The wizard was always a bit of a clown. But even a clown has depth, and the film’s largest problem is its failure to flesh out any of the characters enough for the melodramatic backstory this is all supposed to be. That’s a near impossibility to begin with: to turn the thin archetypes of the source material into genuine people.
And speaking of genuine, what has happened to director Sam Raimi? Is this really the same talented guy who conceived The Evil Dead trilogy? One would think he’d want to do more with Oz (maybe more along the lines of David Lynch’s campy Wild at Heart). But it’s clear this film isn’t his. It really belongs to Disney, who has basically whitewashed everything remotely original.
Oz the Great and Powerful may be a powerful warning about what’s to come regarding another rite of passage film: Star Wars. Most fans are already kicking our heels, wanting to return home from what George Lucas did with his own franchise, but if this is the sort of bloated waste of our movie icons Disney has in mind, we’d be wise to look behind the curtain.
Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.
© Ryan Wilson, 2013