Oz the Great and Powerful Review: No Courage, No Heart, No Brains
(Just Googled it and the movie's only 2 hours and 7 minutes long, a number so low I never would have guessed.)
The Oz books of L. Frank Baum were a huge part of my childhood, 14 magical novels bound in beautiful editions that belonged to my grandmother. I read and re-read them all voraciously, visiting the land of Oz many, many times before I ever saw the films, and then consuming both The Wizard of Oz and Return to Oz with great fervor. Oz is the first magical kingdom I ever loved, the first that I knew the inhabitants as well as the inhabitants of my own neighborhood, their problems and triumphs as real to me as my own. I could never understand the limited scope the films took, omitting many great adventures and skipping over entire fascinating subplots in favor of what I felt were some of the more boring stories. In fact, the book upon which The Wizard of Oz is based was one of the most boring to me. Simply written and lacking in the truly versatile and dangerous charm of the others.
In the books, Oz was not always a safe place, there was dangers throughout the land, though I do remember that actually dying was very difficult. There was oppression aplenty and violence against others, stronger beings enforcing their will among those unable to fight back. There were powerful struggles between entities who wanted many different things, whose intentions could not be summed up instantly. Many, if not most of L. Frank Baum's strongest characters were women, and men often took a backseat to the powerful women who ruled the land, be it Ozma, the ruler of the Emerald City, or Dorothy, a vigilante for justice, or other female characters (Trot! Betsy Bobbin!) who found their way to Oz through various means. Likewise, the witches were powerful, serious, wise and just.
Sam Raimi's take on the entire affair, Oz the Great and Powerful, is colorful, vivid, strange and trying very, very hard to be a spectacle beyond all belief, but somewhere along the way they traded in the soul of the movie for some magic beans. A two bit magician who wants to be a great man, Oscar Diggs (James Franco), leaves behind the black and white vistas of Kansas and finds his way via hot air balloon to the magical, wonderful land of Oz. There, he's mistaken by a witch, the beautiful Theodora (Mila Kunis) for a long awaited wizard who is supposed to put and end to a wicked witch and set the people of Oz free at last. They march off, Theodora has apparently never met a guy before and seems to think that she and the wizard have a true love connection, even though he treats her rather poorly. They go meet up with a bunch of other people, misunderstandings happen, the wizard gets sent on a mission, I just... I just... it doesn't even really matter, guys. It just doesn't. There's three witches, there's one James Franco, and there's a lot of Things! To! Look! At!
At first, I was conned into thinking this was a progressive film with much to say about the confined nature of women's lives and the price we pay putting others first. But no, these women are without layers, one note bitches or goody two shoes who fall for things because they're too stupid not to. Theodora (Mila Kunis) falls in love with James Franco because he's a little bit nice to her and says she's pretty. Rachel Weisz is pretty and wants to keep on ruling over the land of Oz, and Glinda (Michelle Williams) is sort of monotonously pleasant and pretty. They interact in relation to this prophecy of a man come from the sky to save them all, and though they are possessing of real magic, they continually revere and laud the magician's cheap parlor tricks. There's no courage, no heart and certainly no brains to be found here.
James Franco. James.... Franco... Well, shit. Okay, I know he's a genius, and I personally think he's foxy and kind of charming and weirdly I know like three people who have dated him at some point or another, and I would be pretty scared to actually talk to him because I think I want him to like me as a person, but seriously what the hellllllll is he doing in this movie? It's a lot of grimacing, it's a lot of grinning, and over all it's just... a lot. I think Franco is actually turning down his natural weirdness, and did some good work on having a different accent than he usually does, but at the end of the day, it's Smirking James Franco in a Hat. Oh, and there's a talking monkey, voiced by Zach Braff. The monkey's face is lifelike and will haunt your dreams. You will know fear, and his name is Finley or something like that. Digby? Felixby? Anyway, there's also an adorable little china doll girl, probably my favorite character in the film, voiced by Joey King. Cuteness.
The movie is also weirdly scary, or hinty-at-being-scary depending on how you look at it. The flying monkeys are hellacious beasts, and the Wicked Witches are quite frightening, though nothing is quite as scary as Mila Kunis' acting. Margaret Hamilton, the original wicked witch, is undoubtedly rolling in her grave at the dull eyed staring and awkward breathing that Kunis employs to convey emotion. Everyone else is just about as guilty, though she really goes the extra mile to be really bad.
As a prequel of sorts, it's bound to many of the aesthetic decisions of The Wizard of Oz, but they still found a way to dress everyone as ugly as possibly, from the absolutely beautiful women of the film to the nameless, shapeless extras with terribly weird hairstyles and stupidly raggedly colorful clothes. It makes me tired, really. Rachel Weisz' positively bangin' body is draped in the most atrocious crystals and green gross weird icky dresses. The same goes for the other girls, whose equally beautiful forms are obscured by some of the most noticeably bad, nay, offensively bad costuming, hair and make up choices in recent memory. The one standout was these tight, tight, tight black leather pants that Mila Kunis is stuffed into in the early scenes. Just... no.
The rest of the production design is good, the general aesthetic dictated by The Wizard of Oz. Some of the special effects are ASTOUNDING. It's truly visually stunning from time to time, the landscapes and some of the details breathtakingly beautiful and is obviously absolutely engineered for 3-D technology, there's a basic problem of scope and dynamics. When a film fails to get the majority of details right, your mind goes straight for these aberrations like a cheetah on an antelope, and honey, the African plains were hoppin' with gazelles and antelopes of all kinds in this one.
Another strange thing: The land of Oz is one of the most relentlessly racially diverse places I've ever seen, in fact, it felt as if they were attempting to make up for the lack of diversity in The Wizard of Oz. Unfortunately it simply made me wonder what happened to all these different races in the future, when Dorothy comes. Oz manages to become less diverse in the meantime! What kind of insane ethnic purging went on in the intervening years?!
Beyond these problems, the movie is oddly obsessed with morality, relentlessly talking about good and evil without ever teasing out why exactly any of it matters. There appears to be Good and there appears to be Evil, because the Evil characters want to be Evil and the Good characters want Good things to happen but I started to wander down shady mental lanes about six hours into it, snarling to myself that none of it mattered. They might as well have picked other arbitrary words like Blue and Red. "We don't like Red, because we are Blue. Blue is best! Join the Blue side!" Sure, one side wanted to keep the Oz people in slavery, but their lives didn't seem so bad. What's the difference between a free Oz and one that's in bondage? There doesn't seem to be much of one. In a post-modern world, and especially in a Hollywood system that believes that every viewpoint is valid and every decision must be tolerated and accepted, concepts such as Good and Evil fail to even make a drop of sense anymore, and feel laughably outdated. If the movie can't even be bothered to explain why the stakes matter, why should the audience be forced to mentally scramble to make it all work?
Though there is much to dislike about the film, there's also still plenty to admire, and even enjoy. Oz the Great and Powerful is a movie that is worth seeing, despite all its problems. It's entertaining, and interesting to look at, beautiful beyond measure occasionally, and potentially a treat for anyone who loved The Wizard of Oz. I know this seems like a strange way to end things, but I found myself wishing for the comforts of home, wanting to wake up and believe it was all a dream -- forgetting the unpleasant parts and focusing in on the beautiful.