The Man Behind the Curtain, by Scott Nye
The 1939 film The Wizard of Oz isn’t one of those films that holds a special place in my heart. I probably saw it when I was very young, but not enough to remember it with any great clarity, to the point that I saw it as an adult just to make sure I had it under my belt. But I do have a great fondness for the fact of it, for so many elements therein, and for its overall, unrelenting commitment to true fantasy, to a magical world that can’t be explained or rationalized, in which people break out into song and anything seems possible. Oz the Great and Powerful starts off trying to foster that same wonder, the same blurring of the line between the real and the fantastic, before ultimately succombing and becoming another rote film about “prophecies” and “chosen ones” that culminates in a relentlessly dull, ill-conceived, and poorly motivated battle sequence. Because the studio bothered to hire an actual director (Sam Raimi himself) this time, and lead James Franco is pretty damn charismatic, it’s a step above Alice in Wonderland or Snow White and the Huntsman, but small praise that is indeed.
Ultimately, one’s frustration with the film will likely revolve around your reading of the end of The Wizard of Oz, wherein Dorothy either returns from the land of Oz or wakes up from an extended dream. I don’t see much mystery about it – the thing seems to pretty clearly be a dream – and thus, Oz: The Great and Powerful makes absolutely no freaking sense. In it, a carnival magician named Oz (because why) gets swept up in a Kansas tornado, only to reawaken in a place also named Oz. He soon runs into Theodora (Mila Kunis), the hot witch of the undetermined direction, who tells him of a prophecy (ugh) that foretold that a wizard would arrive bearing the name of their land, and would set the people free from the terror of an evil witch before peacefully reigning over the land himself. Knowing a pretty sweet deal when he sees one (namely a big ol’ pile of money that comes with the ruler gig), Oz (Franco) decides to do just that.
The particulars of Oz’s hero’s journey are actually pretty solid, as his boastfulness, ego, and cowardice all prove to be stumbling blocks at various intervals, but even a man of Franco’s talents can only do so much here. He’s trapped in a nonsensical machine, fighting enemies that are apparently unaware that their fortress is surrounded by a particular flower that can be used against them, and teaming with some of the least-dimensional sidekicks imaginable (a flying monkey voiced by Zach Braff provides some not-painful comedic relief, while a young girl made of porcelain is just there), with his character’s destiny foretold not by prophecies, but by an established checklist structure. Even if one does buy into the world of The Wizard of Oz as being totally real, you’re still stuck with a character whose destiny is predetermined in several ways.
Now, yes, one could say that this film is more directly linked to the original novels by L. Frank Baum, who did indeed write seventeen novels centered around Oz (the place), none of which explored the backstory of Oz (the guy), and all of which took Oz (the place) very literally. And that’s one opinion. But the film is too intent on directly linking itself visually to the 1939 film to possibly let it go, even though it uses these iconic elements (well, the few it could get away with without infringing on copyright) purely as signposts; every time it threatens to evoke the actual spirit of that film (as when, for example, the Munchkins start to sing), too-cool-for-school Oz puts a stop to that.
But what’s even stranger is that Oz the Great and Powerful uses the same sort of ambiguity as the 1939 film with regards to how the “real world” relates to the merry land of Oz. In the original, farmhands reappear as characters in Oz, and here, Oz’s assistant reappears as a flying monkey, and the woman he loves, who’s about to marry another man, reappears in Oz as Glinda, the good witch (Michelle Williams plays both). Oz is also given the chance to successfully perform a miracle he couldn’t back in Kansas. And this would all be pretty potent if the film used these elements towards any purpose whatsoever. But there’s no self-reflexivity, no sense that this is a way for Oz to inwardly atone for his past mistakes.
If I seem to be going back to the 1939 film too often, well, the film’s asking for it every chance it gets, and it’s not like the few things it does differently are all that interesting. You do get, for example, some fairly uncomfortable gender politics that oscillate between “bitches be crazy” and “stand by your man,” with the added bonus that ugly = evil (“now people will see you as you truly are,” an attractive hero declares to a villain she has rather harshly disfigured). Further, Glinda is introduced in the shadows, and our heroes suspect her to be the evil witch they’ve heard so much about. But as soon as she takes off her hood, revealing her blonde-blonde hair, they instantly apologize and believe everything she says, having nothing to go on outside of her looks. I’m not saying this isn’t a real sociological phenomenon, just one that the film has little trouble with supporting. And even though Glinda is a much more capable, smart, and invested character, even she takes a back seat to Oz…well, simply being a man named Oz is enough for him to be The Man. Hard work can only get you so far, ladies, when a man comes to town, and it’s a testament to Williams capacity as an actress that she manages to make this somewhat work.
Raimi’s directorial hand is much obliged, elevating the truly mediocre screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire (who seems to have parlayed all that Rabbit Hole goodwill towards purely commercial ends as of late) into something vaguely watchable, and sometimes even a little inspired. He makes little effort to make the CGI backdrops look convincing, one of the nicer nods to the real charm of The Wizard of Oz, and the extended black-and-white-and-full-frame opening is a very cool touch, but there’s very little done to distinguish this, ultimately feeling like a finely-honed effort to bring the style of The Wizard of Oz to a “modern sensibility.” Since that sensibility has been largely distinguished by reluctant heroes, battle scenes, prophecies, and regressive attitudes towards women, I wonder how valuable that effort is any longer, if it ever was. Perhaps best to leave these things in their time; in many ways, they were more forward-thinking.