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Oz is realized with the same double-edged sword that reliance on CG often brings.

It was with much trepidation that I went to see Oz the Great and Powerful. Even more than with that fucking giant movie, which I was pretty sure was gonna be bad at the get-go only to have this confirmed, though in some unexpected ways, when seeing it. Oz is sort of a different beast. This is another of those prequels and re-imaginings and whatever that they keep doing with old movies, kids movies, and fairy tales, and pretty much anything the suits think will come with a landed audience. Oz was produced by the same peeps that churned out the awful Alice in Wonderland sequel thing from a couple of years ago. That time, they figured Tim Burton would be a creator well matched to the property and feel they were going for. This time, it’s Sam Raimi. That alone will be enough to sell tickets, even for people who (like me) think that Oz looked like so much candy-colored bullshit. I’ve never been a huge fan of Raimi. One could say I liked his older work more. Since Spiderman I don’t think I’ve liked anything he’s had his hands all up in. He produces Spartacus so maybe that’s the one exception. And, before you ask, Drag Me to Hell can go fuck itself.

And also, I don’t care about the original Wizard of Oz film one way or the other, so this is either a bad thing for my criticism or a good thing. Given some of the rosy reactions this film has undeservedly gotten for reasons of investment in the “franchise”, guess which I think.

To say I’m not the target audience for this movie is putting it mildly. I try to keep that sort of thing in mind when I review movies I don’t have a personal interest in and this is especially important for kids’ movies since I see so many of them as a “perk” of being a dad. Oz turned out to be, in spite of my skepticism going in, a pretty good movie for the most part. It has a great sense of wonder, scale, and magical silliness while also featuring some truly likable secondary characters. The problems, however, start with the characterization of Oz, flow into the function (they are barely characters) of the Three Witches, and mar everything else. For most people, the most resonant flaw of the film will be that it’s too long and very redundant. It is not on the nose, it fucking is the nose.

Appropriately, Oz the Great and Powerful could have been “great” but settles for flawed but good.

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There’s an inspired prologue of black and white 4:3 aspected “real world” before the venture into Oz.

A lot hinges on James Franco in this film. He isn’t always recognized by audiences for his innate charm, comic sensibilities, and ability to carry films. For every Pineapple Express there is a Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In other words, the guy doesn’t always bring his A-game and as he fancies himself an artiste, I expect he’s like any other working actor: sometimes he doesn’t actually give a fuck. Fair enough. In Oz and as Oz, Franco is more present than the other actors in the film and while this is nice for him, it does have an incidental negative effect, mostly on the three young actresses (all of whom are very good in general, not so good here) who occupy roles that are incredibly hollow, regressive, and, frankly, beneath them.

Oz is a magician who wants to be a Houdini or an Edison. He’s not only an illusionist but a showman, and beneath these he is an inventor or at least an exploiter of inventions. We like him because he is obviously passionate, has ambition we can sort of get behind, and is pretty charming in general. But he’s a sham and a rake, charming women and fucking them (though we don’t see it) town by town while all along his heart belongs to Anne (Michelle Williams), a Kansas girl that Oz can’t quite settle down with. The prologue is economical in delivering the setup of the film’s primary drive: the characterization of Oz. This bit with Anne is actually nuanced enough that adults have an easier time investing in the guy and his journey. This is a fine line to walk as Oz could easily have been a scumbag and since he’s no Bruce Campbell, I don’t know that Raimi could have sold us a Franco-Oz that we could get behind just on the basis of devilish charm and childlike wonder.

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Dolla dolla bill, y’all.

Put in other words, Oz is a man who wants to accomplish shit and be great and do stuff. This should resonate with people, especially young men, from the ages of like 15 to 35 who mostly think the same way in some vague sense and, like Oz, aren’t quite sure how to get there. What does greatness mean even? It seems that even Oz isn’t sure. It’s intangible and throughout the film, we see various ways he receives the idea of it. The movie is pretty much about the illusion of greatness which sometimes obfuscates a higher character that is more innately valuable than the types of greatness (wealth, fame, recognition, etc) that we are taught to covet. In some ways, Oz the Great and Powerful is a treatise on the nebulous ideal of the Good Man. It is not shy about telling you this, which undermines the appeal of this element somewhat.

One of the problems with telling a fairly unfettered version of this story, as Oz attempts, is that it leaves aside the other people for whom the Good Man realizes what is actually Good and eschews the hollow rewards of “greatness” (only to receive them anyway in an ostensibly more “correct” way than greed or duplicity). The movie puts a lot of time into the Witches Glenda (Michelle Williams), Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz) but leaves them hollow cyphers. Redeeming itself somewhat, Oz puts equal emphasis on its titular lead’s two best pals: Finley the Flying Monkey (Zach Braff, also doubling up the roles in more than one way) and China Girl (Joey King, who also plays the girl in the wheelchair earlier in the film). This makes some of the criticisms about how the movie handles the Witches come with a yeah, but… contingency. The point being that it does leave room to show that it’s by forging relationships with others, something Kansas Oz couldn’t do and didn’t want to do, is crucial to becoming a fully realized person. A “good man”. So the movie is mostly successful in redeeming the Kansas Oz and telling a story about a guy who changes for the better. There’s some great paralleling here as well, what with the doubling of roles (almost invisible in the case of Finley and China Girl) with Braff playing Oz’s long-suffering assistant and King as the paralyzed girl that Oz’s “great magic” can’t help. Of course, later, Oz does help China Girl fix her legs and he does befriend his assistant (now Finley). This is tight and interesting and satisfying and I wish the movie would have spread that love and attention around more.

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Compared to the relationship between Oz and Finley or Oz and China Girl, the sparse attempts at fleshing out the Witches just fall flat.

The Witches. Now it’s time to talk about them! For starters, let me get a nitpick out of the way. For some fucking reason, they opted to let Weisz use her British accent (which, in a film where no one else uses one, basically cements her as the obvious bad guy a bit too early) when her sister is Mila Kunis whom doesn’t even try to match it. We meet Theodora very early, as Oz first gets to… well, Oz. She is instantly smitten by him as she is young and naive and been waiting for a prophesied “Wizard” probably all her life. Doing his usual routine, Oz gets her all Overly Attached Girlfriend pretty fast an this leads to disasters as Evanora seduces her (confusingly, with an apple) to the Dark Side. Beyond just “wickedness” there is no motive for Evanora, who killed the former Wizard-King (Glinda’s father) to take over the kingdom with her evil flying baboons. Apparently, though they are housed in the Emerald City’s towers, no one connects these baboons (known as minions of the Wicked Witch) to Evanora. Somehow, Evanora has convinced everybody in Oz that it’s actually Glinda who is the wicked one.

The above is convoluted, yes, but also depressingly lazy. There’s no pathos to any of this, it just is and it is in the poorest and flatest sense imaginable. You can tell that no one cared much about the big plot of Oz the Great and Powerful. Certainly not as much as they cared about Oz himself, and the extent to which this film is a focused journey of character. On that level, it works. As a grandiose fairy tale, it doesn’t. And this is owed largely to the fact that the Witches are such a fucking afterthought. There are nice touches, like that each has a magic jewel that is the core of their powers (this is barely referenced, just something you pick up by watching). I even thought Theodora’s transformation wasn’t so bad, the Wicked Witch makeup being all right as well. Her evil cackle is overused and feels like it belongs in a different movie, but this is a minor issue.

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It is never clear why these super-powered suffragettes even need a man to save/defeat them. It’s totally arbitrary.

More damning is that Theodora basically goes bad because she gets no call-back after the first date. This is a character woefully dependent on the presence of The Man in the story. Part of the lesson may be that Oz needs to be more considerate or something, but he is not punished by Glinda (his real love interest) in any sense for his malfeasance. She just wants to help him and her whole role depends completely on him and so on. Even Evanora, closest thing the movie has to a progressive portrayal of a woman, spins on the axle represented by Oz. These are not characters, but caricatures, the fact that they are Witches rendering the whole thing into a semi-offensive layer of regressive weird bullshit. The most actualized female in the movie is China Girl, a little girl made out of porcelain but who is allowed to show more character, more pathos, and more badassery than these three witches combined.

Earlier I said that these roles are beneath the likes of Kunis, Weisz and Williams. I get that this is a big payday and those are nice, I even get the idea that one or all of them wanted simply to work with Raimi or other cast and crew. Maybe they just liked the Oz thing and given its place in cinema history, being any part of The Wizard of Oz is a positive… maybe a lot of things. However, Weisz and Williams are two of the best actresses out there right now. Kunis is younger, less proven, but rapidly gaining ground with work like Black Swan under her belt. It’s not especially weird that they are in this movie, not in a business or artistic sense, but it should  be. A film that treats all its female human characters as cyphers and devices for The Man to interact with has got bigger problems than the number of CG shots that don’t look quite work or the sheer breadth of the redundancy of its espoused themes (more on this soon). A movie like this is sending a weird, out of touch message to little girls everywhere. The closest thing to a Dorothy, a way better role model, is China Girl and I honestly hope it’s her and not Glinda, the dumb fucking Good Witch, that kids identify with.

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She’s a goddamn badass.

So back to the thing about redundancy. All that nice stuff I said about Oz’s character arc is definitely in the movie, and I think it’s the best thing about it, but it’s not the shit for which Sourpuss (Tony Cox) shall blow a fanfare. Instead, the movie endlessly reflects on faith in Oz’s inner goodness, on the importance of friendship, on how impressed everybody is that Oz stayed behind and helped fight off the Witches, etc. It feels like the movie is 20 minutes too long as is, with 10 of those minutes (an exaggeration I know) focused on shit we easily understand and have already been told by the movie. It’s saying, “guys in case you didn’t get it, here’s what you just watched!” like thirteen times.

It’s the epitome of not trusting the audience and even for a kids movie, this is too much. Kids movies frequently sum up their content, especially the moral or lesson part, but this is usually done in an elegant way. Here, it’s like they just weren’t sure how to end the fucker so we get a cheesy extended ending featuring all the characters who have been key to Oz’s “greatness”.

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China Girl is the best character and all the parts with her work so fucking well, I’d have liked to see a film that focused more on that side of Oz’s story.

All in all, I have a hard time getting past how on the nose Oz the Great and Powerful insists on being in conjunction with the fact that it’s doing so with thematic content that is obvious, trite, and not even the strongest thematic content present in the film. I also have a hard time getting across the sexual politics, though I bet most people would tell me I’m reading into it. Well, fuck that. Even if the story needed the Witches to serve primarily functional, plot-device type roles, more attention should have been paid to them just to make a stronger story. Weak villains make heroic narratives limp along, which the heroic narrative of Oz does to the movie’s overall detriment. Weak female characters are not doing anybody any favors and two of those extra twenty minutes could have been spent passing the Bechtel Test or just fucking giving one of the Witches, for whom you paid upwards of $20m to get in-demand actresses, a reason for anything they do that doesn’t revolve around Oz being a naughty boy.

China Girl, as I’ve said, redeems this somewhat but this redemption is lost in the shuffle of “we’re so proud of Oz” bullshit. It’s worth saying, however, that even in that moment it’s what Oz offers to CG in the saccharine “gift scene” that resonates most and almost justifies the entire scene just for being such a beautiful notion and fulfillment of character.

Because of fucking China Girl, I cannot fully sink Oz the Great and Powerful under the weight of its significant failures. Because of fucking China Girl, my mind wants to focus on all the stuff I loved about this movie while watching it, and continued to love even as the niggling problems edged into the frame like so many 3D gimmick.

I can’t really dismiss this film as it is flawed but capable of more, much like its hero.

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Often, the art direction makes the movie soar. Like a balloon, yeah, I know.

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