The Oz series has been experiencing a resurgence in the last ten years or so. Led in large part by the success of Gregory McGuire's novel Wicked and the musical of the same name, a new generation of fans have been discovering that there is more to Oz than Dorothy's visit to the Emerald City. Further, the annoying but inevitable nostalgia wave of a generation about to hit milestone birthdays (30 or 40) with access to the internet has also led to a new appreciation for the overlooked 1985 film Return to Oz (here's a tip if you're writing something for one of those annoying cracked or buzzfeed sites, or want to -- throw in as many random and unnecessary references to 80's and 90's pop culture as possible, and watch your likes/shares increase exponentially). The standard that anything Oz related will always be judged by, however, is the 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz. It has become one of those rare movies that transcends critical and historical analysis and rests in a secure and permanent place in American pop culture. Although we often forget that the film was not an overwhelming commercial or critical success on its initial release, it's still somewhat surprising that we haven't been inundated with sequels, remakes, reboots, rehashings, and (from us, the audience) regurgitations over the last 70 years. Hollywood was a very different place in those days, and I don't think any of us are surprised that after a successful opening weekend, Oz the Great and Powerful already has a sequel in the works, and has all the usual Hollywood assholes whispering the OTHER powerful "f" word: franchise. All of that cynicism aside, was Oz the Great and Powerful any good? It was. Sort of.
Fans of L. Frank Baum's Oz books have, in a weird way, become victims of the success and iconic status of the first film. .As much as we might wish otherwise, audiences will never accept a pair of silver shoes in place of ruby slippers, and the witch must always, always have green skin. This, and any other subsequent Oz film, should be approached with the understanding that any sense of book continuity/accuracy will be thrown away, as should our expectations of ever seeing those silver shoes again. Return to Oz tried to stay truer to the books, with only the occasional nod to the first film (yes, the shoes were red, and one can imagine how much of their budget had to go toward paying MGM for the rights to those) and that's a big part of why it failed. All subsequent films will be based on the 1939 MGM continuity. With that being said, Oz the Great and Powerful attempts to borrow a little from both films, and it's an awkward line to straddle -- at times it succeeds and toes that line beautifully, but at others it slips and gives itself a very painful wedgie.
Oz the Great and Powerful has an odd and difficult job to do in having to please three different groups of people: fans of the MGM original film, who appreciate over the top whimsy and a bit of old Hollywood overacting/overdoing in a family friendly way, fans of the sequel, that appreciate that Oz is occasionally a very dark and scary place with some strange and questionable things going on (headless witches, sexually ambiguous shoe-stealing weave-snatching gnome kings), and fans of the books, who hate everything.
The film opens beautifully -- Danny Elfman's score sets the scene (and only sometimes makes you feel like you're watching a Tim Burton movie) and serves up a bit of Old Hollywood realness with the opening credits. Sam Raimi makes the wise decision to showcase Kansas in black and white. It might seem like a cheap trick, but everyone would have cried foul if he avoided it and I think it's surprisingly effective here. Despite the fact that most of the work went into creating a vibrant and colorful Oz, I think the early scenes in Kansas are actually the most interesting, visually, but more on that later.
Much of one's enjoyment of the film, just like the fate of the citizens of Oz, will hinge on whether or not they find James Franco to be a convincing wizard. The movie keeps going back to the question of belief, and whether or not anyone believed in the Wizard, and I couldn't help but sit there and wonder along with them. Does James Franco pull it off? Once again, I hate to say, the answer is a maddening and weakly-written (sorry) "sort of". I know -- it's lazy writing, but James Franco is a lazy actor.
Let me explain (and confess) -- I love James Franco. He's one of the most frustrating and infuriating people in Hollywood -- I always feel like he almost has it in him to be a great actor, but he always manages to come across as if, instead of studying his lines, getting a good night's sleep, and, well, showering before showing up on set, he decided to smoke out of a vaporizer and stumble there and give a half assed performance, resenting the fact that Hollywood, which is "so beneath him", is what pays his bills, when what he REALLY wants to do is be an author/writer/painter/philosopher/ARTISTE. He's Hollywood's chronic stoner/underachiever -- I think of him as the anti-Anne Hathaway, and I love him for it. Full disclosure policy -- he's my only real Hollywood crush. Others have panned his performance here, and I admit that where I should have been watching closely and critiquing his lack of subtlety or nuance, I may have been gazing, starry-eyed, at his greasy hair and sleazy gum-displaying grin. The way his eyes would look at me, glazed over and vacant, after packing a bowl and passing it to me, leaning in to kiss me and probably missing and falling off balance...
Wait, what was I saying? Oh, right. So yes, if you don't like James Franco, most of the movie will probably be infuriatingly terrible to watch. I feel like he's actually really trying here though, and succeeds at least a little bit -- this would be a tough and challenging role for any actor. Again, I think his best scenes are the Kansas scenes, where you can see how a small prairie town without much joy or excitement beyond the birth and death of livestock (seriously, why DID Dorothy want to go back to Kansas? I never understood it) could be charmed by this mysterious and magical man who wanders from town to town. I was totally buying it for the first part of the movie. He was given an excuse to over act and ham it up, and he took it. He's at his best in these moments. I'm less certain of his success in the rest of the movie, where he has the very difficult dual task of having to carry the film as the only human actor in many of the scenes, as well as getting the audience to route for a character that is a very selfish and deceitful anti-hero. One of the most interesting aspects of this movie is the fact that we are asked to empathize with a protagonist that is so ethically ambivalent, and I get the sense that if they weren't already locked into a certain character arc, they would have gone the predictable Hollywood route and redeemed him completely by the end. So the film's greatest storytelling challenge is one of its redeeming factors, even if it isn't accomplished with complete success. Many actors greater than James Franco have failed in these tasks, and I think he's at least adequate here. Though once the rumor about the original casting choice of Robert Downey Jr. had leaked, it became difficult to not imagine him doing a vastly superior job.
Strangely, he has more chemistry acting alongside the computer graphics than he does with the human females. After his lies and womanizing catch up with him in Kansas, he needs to make a quick escape, and ends up being caught in a storm and ends up in Oz, where he immediately proceeds to hit on every woman he comes across. He's okay with Michelle Williams, but terrible with Mila Kunis. I would rather have had a sex scene between him, the china girl, and the monkey. But I'll get back to that.
It's in these early Oz scenes that Sam Raimi makes some of his first missteps, other than giving Franco some awkward monologues to deliver. The moment of Oz's big reveal, when we switch from bland colorless Kansas to the big bright world of our imagination seems totally arbitrary and flat. I realize that this is an unfair comparison to make -- to me, the moment when Dorothy steps out of the farmhouse in the MGM film and gets her first glimpse of color in Munchkinland is not only one of the greatest moments in film history, but is the single moment in all of cinema that is most fitting as a metaphor for what going to the movies is actually supposed to do for you.
Yes, it's obvious that a huge amount of effort went into creating the look of Oz, but I think they should have put a little more focus on capturing the feel of Oz. Everything is SO bright, SO vivid, SO out of this world fantastical, that it actually took me out of the movie rather than allowing me to be immersed in it. I was never able to connect with Oz as an actual setting. I realize this is a crotchety and cantankerous viewpoint, but I will always prefer money being spent on building sets than making it look like the characters have been put into a video game. Still, while I was sitting there scowling, the audience audibly reacted to certain things -- aww'ing at Finley, the flying monkey, and gasping when the river fairies were attacking, so I guess it worked for some. The best visual bit in the movie was the animation of the little china girl -- I was briefly taken out of my skepticism and actually believed that she was walking, talking porcelain, and I give major credit to the team responsible for bringing her to life. The majority of the rest of the settings and scenery left me cold, though. While we're being visually bombarded with the vastness of Oz and all its giant waterfalls and blooming flowers and any number of excuses to send things flying at the screen to make people feel justified in paying for those fucking 3D glasses, I found my attention wandering and just hoping they'd hurry up and get to the witch stuff.
Unfortunately, the "witch stuff" is actually the film's weakest part. I think most fans of Wicked who appreciated the depth and back story in the relationship between these two women will be particularly disappointed here, as will fans of Margaret Hamilton's iconic performance in the original. I can't recall -- and remember, this is coming from a fan of awful B movies -- a worse on screen portrayal of a character's journey from good to evil as the one Mila Kunis gives here. She's sort of believable as a naive and trusting girl who instantly falls in love with the mysterious man who falls out of the sky (something tells me in another world and another time she would be a huge Doctor Who fan) but her entire descent into "wickedness" is as insulting and sexist (she does it for a man) as it is unbelievable. It's poorly acted as well as poorly written, and although in my reviews I always say that I understand differences of opinion and concede that I'm a picky asshole, I really do not understand any of the good reviews she's received. They might as well have hired Lindsay Lohan to do it and gone with the few extra millions of dollars worth of free publicity that would have given them. Even if Wicked had never existed, this was a waste of what should have been the most interesting and engaging character in the film. They were fortunate to have an almost completely blank slate to work with in developing her character here (almost no back story is given in the original) and they completely squandered it away in the most boring and obvious way. The fact that Margaret Hamilton's performance is so memorable and iconic is a perfect way to illustrate how a good actor can transcend a bad role -- if you think about it, they really didn't give her much to actually do -- but she took that and made it great.
Which brings me to Michelle Williams. I say this every time I see her, even as far back as when I was 300lbs and yelling at my tv during Dawson's Creek with a pint of ice cream in one hand and a Stridex pad in the other: I don't want to like her, but somehow she always manages to win me over.
I always hated Glinda (seriously, I never trusted her. If you think about it, all of the problems in Oz are her fault in some way), and I always think I hate Michelle Williams, so I waited with a heavy heart for her to appear on screen (even after sort of liking her in her brief scene back in Kansas), and I was amazed to find that she did a great job. Of the three witches, she's the only one who managed to transcend the awful and limited material she was given and make it memorable and interesting. Seriously -- she is working her ass off to make some of these scenes compelling, and I credit her entirely with saving the latter third of the movie. She's surprisingly good, and manages to give a sense of power and believability to Glinda's annoying "I'm good!" schtick. And, dare I say it, she was even giving me a bit of Judy in the opening scenes (gasp!). Her battle with Evanora at the end of the movie -- generic Sith-lord villain powers (sign of evil: your hands will shoot lightning) struggling against some kind of light force in a tug of war, while flying around the screen, could have been the generic ending battle of any fantasy film ever made.
Speaking of Evanora, Rachel Weisz is adequate but forgettable. Unlike Theodora, I believed she was evil, but I didn't know why and, more importantly, I didn't care.
All of this seems like I'm dancing around the point, and by now, if you're still reading and not crying out, "someone get this guy an editor!", you must still be wondering -- is the movie any good?
Yes, it is, and despite all my complaints, I did enjoy it quite a bit. There are lots of cute and clever nods to the original -- any fans in the audience will smile at the Munchkin song-and-dance moment, seeing Oz use his actual magician tricks to stage a fake invasion of the Emerald City is pretty cool, and witnessing the creation of the Great and Powerful Oz-face is extremely satisfying for fans to see. The inclusion of the china girl is a nice (though inaccurate -- they're not supposed to be allowed to leave their land) nod to the books. A cameo by Bruce Campbell (that I didn't notice -- my boyfriend, a walking IMDB, had to point it out to me) is always fun. There are moments of the film being self-aware -- I detected a bit of Sam Raimi (arguably best known for The Evil Dead) acknowledging this in a scene towards the end where they talk about how no one in Oz is actually allowed to kill anyone,which takes some of the tension out of the battle scenes where some was desperately needed (since we already knew that everyone survived, at least for a few more years). One of my favorite things was The Wizard having had a past fling with Annie Gale, who is Dorothy's mother. The fact that he then perceives Glinda to have her appearance and characteristics adds some interesting layers of meaning to Dorothy's eventual meetings with the both of them in her own Oz journey (did Annie need a quick marriage to John Gale after The Wizard left her in an Unfortunate Predicament? Did Dorothy create Oz for herself as a way of reconciling her two absent parental figures? I'm joking, but it's still a fun thought).
Unfortunately, prequels are always tricky to pull off, and when they fail, they fail horribly, painfully, and crushingly, like a certain trilogy that took place long ago in a galaxy far, far away. They have to satisfy an existing fanbase while still being engaging to newcomers, and the fact that we as an audience already know how the story will turn out means that an extra effort has to be made to make the plot as surprising and unpredictable in its route to the destination as possible. Likewise, it's the responsibility of the director to coax performances out of the actors that will make you care about what happens to the characters even though you already know. Basically, when making a prequel, you have to try harder than with other movies, and it's here that Oz the Great and Powerful is the exception in that it only fails slightly and is ultimately satisfying for what it attempts to do. Unfortunately the plot and the writing are too weak to call it an instant classic, but as a prequel to the original film, with nothing to do with the books, it works. Though, I must say, like a good gay boy I spent the whole second half of the film wondering about when THE SHOES were going to appear. They never do. I'm sure there were ruby-colored licensing problems, though it seemed strange to me that in a film so successful in other ways at paying homage to the original that they would not reference the source of all of Oz's problems in that film in any way.
There were plenty of opportunities where it seemed like the movie could have gone deeper. In one of its more visually striking moments, Theodora is crying and the tears burn scars into her face ("Oh shit, that's right," we remember, "she's allergic to water, or something!") -- the emotional and psychological implications of this character having to live a life where she could never let herself shed tears of any kind under threat of physical pain and disfigurement are dark and frightening and could have been used to great effect in portraying this character's descent into madness and cruelty, but this is never explored and mostly just used as drama. There was also room to examine the nature of "good" and "evil", but this doesn't happen either.
Likewise, the message of the movie, which at first is pretty one-note and blandly moralistic (lying is bad and creates evil -- look what happened to poor Theodora!) becomes somewhat more complex when, paradoxically, the battle for Oz is won by spreading lies and false hope and praying on the gullibility of the masses to believe in the ultimate power and infallibility of an arbitrary figurehead (the thought of the election of a new pope today crossed my mind several times) -- the message of the story then becomes a bit more satisfyingly morally ambiguous, but, again, none of these questions are actually explored in any way.
The land of Oz has always had a more ephemeral, mutable, and subconscious quality than either Middle Earth or Narnia, which it is most frequently compared to. Although my worship of Middle Earth is well documented (read my overly enthusiastic review of The Hobbit here -- http://geeksout.org/blogs/ranerdin/hobbit-unexpected-success -- it's really not as good as I said it was, but shh) I always kind of felt that Oz was more deserving of a place in the pantheon of children's literature than it often received -- and specifically I wouldn't mind if it was given Narnia's place on the small bookshelves that occupy the rooms of annoying and precocious children. Less "real" than Middle Earth, less allegorical and fable-like than Narnia, the dreamlike qualities of Oz are probably a big part of what made it difficult to develop a more rabid and public fandom, but are precisely what I find to be so interesting about it and what I think makes it an important and rewarding place to revisit. When Lucy stepped through the wardrobe, she was seeing the same woods, snow, and witch that Edmund, and later Peter and Susan, experienced. Oz, however, always seemed to have to strange ability to change based on the perception of the person observing it -- one could assume that Dorothy's fear of Ms. Gulch influencing her perception of the Wicked Witch, and later her fear of being locked in an insane asylum and subjected to shock treatment creating an even darker version of Oz, would give that world a very different look and feel than if it was you who had been carried off in that tornado. Likewise, Oz can also reflect the hope and joy of the visitor -- the good natured farmhands appear as Dorothy's friends, and the Wizard projects the face of the woman he loves onto Glinda, the symbol of goodness. Moreso than other settings, Oz holds up a mirror to the subconsciousness of the visitor and shows what is both great and terrible in ourselves. Oz is shaped by what you bring into it -- and I think this quality is what makes Oz so attractive to very young children, who exist in world where they themselves possess very little power. If Middle Earth is too big and Narnia too bland and moralizing, Oz is a perfect introductory point for young readers/viewers. I don't know if children seeing this film will react the same way that we all did watching the original, but that might be a generation gap issue and is an unfair point to make.
The fact that a visitor's experience of Oz is shaped by what they bring to Oz with them is true of the viewer's experience of the film itself, and it will be appreciated and influenced almost entirely based on what set of expectations you bring with you into the theater. Is it a perfect movie, or even a very good one? No, not really. But as a starting point for our return to Oz, and what I assume will be several years of Hollywood beating us over the head with sequel after sequel, it could be much worse. It doesn't destroy any cherished childhood memories, and will be a good time as long as you're not expecting anything life changing.
Late in the film, the Wizard is whining to Glinda about her being wrong about believing there was greatness in him. She agrees that there isn't, but reminds him that there is goodness in him. The same is true of this film as well. At the very least, though, its initial success proves that Oz is still a viable franchise, and a world that people are still interested in visiting, and that is a great thing. Grade: B-
As always, comments/critiques are always appreciated: Ranerdin@gmail.com