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Oz the Great and Powerful

March 8, 2013
Oz the Great and Powerful

“A man hasn’t any idea what his soul looks like,” Kevin Spacey opines in The Big Kahuna, “until he gazes into the eyes for the woman that he’s married to. And then, if he’s any kind of decent human being, he spends the next couple of days throwing up. Because no honest man can stand that image.”

I recalled these lines during one particular scene of Oz the Great and Powerful. If The Wizard of Oz was about telling Americans in depression-ravaged 1939 that what we have at home — though imperfect — is still better than the fantastic unknown, then Sam Raimi’s prequel echoes and personalizes this sentiment: being the best version of yourself is better than being a hollow imitation of someone else. You might even call it “the banality of greatness”, which like evil is not some magical property that some possess and others lack, but is an inborn possibility in each of us. And being brought face-to-face with our own insincerity can be profoundly disturbing.

Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a profoundly insincere man. He uses a pseudonym — “Oz” — in his act as a carnival magician, which he refuses even to acknowledge as a performance even to spare the pain of a crippled girl (Joey King). He is a womanizer, seducing each girl with an endless supply of music boxes and a yarn about a czarina grandmother from Irkutsk. He berates his assistant (Zach Braff) and complains that he should be playing fancy stages in big cities instead of a tent on the outskirts of one small Kansas town after another. He dreams of being not a “good man”, but a great one, breathing the same rarified air as the likes of Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison.

As all of this starts to catch up with Oz he flees in a hot-air balloon, straight into the path of an approaching tornado. As the winds die down, the color fades in and the image expands from Academy format to widescreen; I might have suggested fading in the stereography at this point as well, but I can see the droves of irate and confused customers that might lead to. Anyhow, this is the land of Oz. Right off, we run into Theodora (Mila Kunis), who explains that there is a prophecy of a wizard bearing the same name as the land itself. Oz promptly goes along with it in order to sleep with her, as well as to lay claim to the treasure of Oz.

When they reach the Emerald City, things start to get complicated. The royal advisor, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), explains that before he can become king the wizard must travel into the forest and defeat the wicked witch by breaking her wand. Oz picks up traveling companions — a porcelain girl from China Town (King) and a monkey bellhop (Braff) who seems to have flown straight out of the Uncanny Valley — on his way to get rid of Glinda (Michelle Williams), who is the spitting image of the one woman Oz truly loved, who left him to marry a good man named John Gale. Of course, those of you who have been paying attention know that Glinda isn’t a wicked witch at all, and that the story will take a lot more than breaking a little wand.

The story and the production design very much follow on after the 1939 film, with heavy influences in parts from the atrocious Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland, thanks to producer Joe Roth. The stereography is at least better than we saw there, but it’s still awkward and gimmicky, with lots of stuff thrown at a wincing audience. They do pull some neat tricks with the narrowed image of the Kansas sequence, though. All the best work comes across fine in 2-D, though, especially the gorgeously lush color palette. The rainbow arcs that show up everywhere from the landscape to the clouds are a particularly nice touch.

Kunis and Weisz are both great; Kunis’ passion is as essential to Theodora’s character as Weisz’ aloof machinations are to Evanora’s. Williams’ Glinda is a radical departure from Billie Burke’s doting grandmother, with a youthful vigor that allows for a far more emotionally rich and engaging character. But the big surprise for me was Franco, who I normally can’t stand. But hey, a smarmy, self-promoting tool with little real talent? he might just have found the role he was born to play.

While Oz the Great and Powerful is not without its flaws, it provides some beautiful imagery and a sense of fun. Most importantly it has a story that, while it may not be the most original, at least isn’t a stock narrative pulled from someone’s ass and slapped casually onto a beloved property (looking at you, Burton). To be the best version of yourself is an idea that not only resonates with the existing film, it’s a worthwhile lesson on its own.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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