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Non-Review Review: Oz – The Great & Powerful

Oz: The Great & Powerful is a fabulous production. A few minor misgivings aside, it looks and sounds fantastic. Sam Raimi has done the best job bringing Oz to the screen since the original version of The Wizard of Oz all those decades ago. In its best moments, there’s an enthusiasm and a lightness of touch that fits the material perfectly and captures the wonder that we associate with Oz. It’s very clear that a lot of love and care was put into the production design of the film, and that Sam Raimi’s hand moved with the utmost consideration and affection for the original film. It makes it a little disappointing, then, that the script to Oz: The Great & Powerful should feel so undercooked, more like an early draft than a finished screenplay.

Up in the air or down to earth?

Up in the air or down to earth?

The visuals for Oz: The Great & Powerful really are quite lovely. And, perhaps surprisingly, they fit Sam Raimi’s visual aesthetic perfectly. After all, what is Evil Dead II but a live-action Looney Tunes adventure. At its best, Oz: The Great & Powerful captures that sort of visual cartoony slapstick. There’s a lovely moment when our characters stalk through a haunted wood while disembodied eyes stalk them, only to disappear quickly when they turn around. As our protagonist makes his way to the land of Oz, a tornado turns the most unlikely items into potentially lethal weapons.

Oz: The Great & Powerful is – in many respects – a cartoon brought to life. Raimi really proves himself an ideal fit. I wasn’t overly impressed with the live action adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, mainly because Tim Burton’s gothic aesthetic almost suffocated a story that wasn’t ideally suited to it. Everything seemed dark and macabre and sinister and gothic, with “wonder” in purely an academic manner. Raimi has a loosely similar approach to Burton. Both directors tend to favour a stylistic approach. However, Raimi has a bit more flexibility within that framework.

A fairy good idea...

A fairy good idea…

Raimi can do gothic and macabre, as he does during the aforementioned expedition into a dark and lonely forest. In fact, that sequence could easily have been lifted from a Tim Burton film, climaxing as it does in an action sequence set in a graveyard. However, Raimi works just as well in bright technicolour surroundings. I have to admit that I was actually quite impressed with the 3D (despite normally being cynical of such things), but I would love to see the film rendered in 2D so that the bright colours could really pop.

Indeed, Raimi’s visual flair is obvious even during the obligatory black-and-white (or gold-tinted greyscale) opening sequence. The screen is hemmed in and the colour is removed, but Raimi is still surprisingly experimental. He uses the black space at the side of the screen generated by the 4:3 aspect ratio to allow special effects to “leap” out of the frame. It’s a gimmicky application of 3D, but it works very well in that context. If film makers insist on filming in 3D, that’s the sort of creativity and spectacle that I’d rather see.

I feel tragic, like I'm Marlon Brando...

I feel tragic, like I’m Marlon Brando…

The opening sequence is genuinely fun, and it’s quite clear that Raimi and even James Franco are having a wonderful time playing in this iconic sandbox. It’s very odd to describe a black-and-white introduction as one of the best parts of a technicolour fantasy epic, but it works very well because Raimi seems genuinely energised by playing with the format of the film. In a lovely touch, the 3D Disney logo even casts an obvious shadow on a fake greyscale background, just another indicator of the love that has gone into the design of the film.

Once the action gets to Oz, things are a little more surreal, but still beautiful. There is a load of CGI at play here. Some of it is quite good, but not all of it is perfect. However, while the design and application of the CGI is quite effective, it still feels strangely out of place. What defined the original version of The Wizard of Oz was the absurd tangibility of all. None of the sets or the effects were especially realistic, but they didn’t have to be.

Any witch way but loose...

Any witch way but loose…

For lack of a better way of describing it, they felt real – they were actual actors and actual models and actual sets. They were physical objects standing in for these fantastic concepts. The obvious “fakeness” of it all was juxtaposed against the fact that Dorothy was very clearly in a field of flowers – albeit one with a wall just behind her. She befriended a lion, even if it was just a guy in a suit. He was really there, so we could maybe accept that lions in Oz just happen to look like guys in lion suits in the real world.

The special effects of Oz: The Great & Powerful are obviously light years ahead of those of its predecessor, but there’s a sense that – despite the obvious attention paid to detail – something is missing. We know that the big door is there, and the munchkins are there, but that those snapping plants aren’t real. It might look like James Franco can touch them, but we know that he can’t. It’s an irony of visual effects that a fantastic computer-generated image could somehow seem less convincing than a cheesy sock puppet.

Going for gold...

Going for gold…

Still, it’s a minor complaint, given the obvious love that went into executing the film. Raimi cleverly uses all manner of old-fashioned visual cues to create a sense of cinematic continuity. There’s floating montages and dutch angles to beat the band, which look rather novel when rendered in 3D. Even when he’s filming objects not there, Raimi is careful to shoot them as if they were, which is a nice touch that does a little to convince us even if we don’t quite end up accepting that a lot of this world is real.

In particular, Raimi does an excellent job with the climax, which actually feels worthy of its predecessor. In a lot of ways, it’s an ode to the art of illusion, itself a potent metaphor for cinema – that most elusive form of magic. As such, Raimi is able to cleverly turn Oz: The Great & Powerful into an ode to the power of film as a medium, a power that is perfectly represented by the impact that The Wizard of Oz has had on generations of people.

The big smoke...

The big smoke…

Unfortunately, the script is terrible. Given all the effort from everybody that went it creating a look and a feel for Oz, it seems that no real attention was ever garnered on the script, which suffers from any number of fundamental problems. The most superficial, and the most obvious, is that the dialogue is terrible. At a major emotional climax, a point of betrayal and revelations, one character demands, “What happened to you?” The other character replies, “You did!” When Oz has his obligatory five minutes of self-doubt, Gilda assures him, “The only person you have fooled is yourself.” That’s deep, man. Unfortunately, a lot of the film is like this.

These aren’t the only problems. There’s the script’s strangely cynical attitude, which feels at odds with the wonder of Oz itself. After all, if we except a world of flying monkeys in bellhop uniforms, we don’t need non-stop snark and wise-cracking. It seems a bit surreal to create a bright and vibrant fantasy world only to make cheap “psycho clingy girlfriend” gags. It feels especially terrible when your second-billed star is reduced to a love-sick puppy and – in the process – reduces another cinematic icon to nothing but a jilted lover.

A wiz, kid...

A wiz, kid…

And do we really need none-too-subtle inferences about Oz’s love life involving two of the three leading ladies? “He must truly be a great wizard to make me feel like that,” one suggests, after admitting he snuck into her bedroom… to “dance.” I quite like the decision to characterise Oz as a conman and a hustler (because, let’s face it, it fits with what we know of him), but the film feels strangely explicit – in a nudge, nudge, wink, wink  way – about his love life.

Dorothy Gale was hardly Ellen Ripley, but you have to worry when the gender portrayals in a 1939 film feel more advanced than those presented in 2013 blockbuster. The strongest male character in The Wizard of Oz was the Wizard himself, and even he was a bit useless. Dorothy and the two Witches were really where the film was at, and they drove the plot. Here, the female characters seem to wait around for men to do things to make the plot happen.

Monkey business...

Monkey business…

When the King of Oz is assassinated, he leaves the throne vacant. We’re not told why none of his daughters have claimed the throne. Instead, they just wait for a vague prophecy about a man coming along to sort things out. It makes even less sense when you consider that the Wicked Witch could probably have claimed it easily enough. We aren’t told why nobody has actually done anything about this pseudo-civil war situation, and why everybody waits for Oz before they do anything.

More than that, though, there’s just such a hard-edged cynicism to so much of Oz: The Great & Powerful that it is just frustrating. “You want me to lead an army that cannot kill?” Oz demands at one point. It feels a bit strange to hear the protagonist of a film set in Oz complaining that he can’t rack up an impressive body count. The villain of the piece even feels the need to utter a more hardcore threat than any uttered in The Wizard of Oz. “The Yellow Brick Road will run red with the blood of tinkerers, farmers and muchkins,” the bad guy warns us. So much for the little dog, too.

A Weisz woman...

A Weisz woman…

Cynicism isn’t inherently bad. After all, you can construct a fascinating deconstructive narrative about The Wizard of Oz. To break out a comparison that is already overused, Wicked subverts The Wizard of Oz quite well. If you are going to adopt a cynical approach to a much-loved piece of literature, there are really two rules. First, you have to be smart enough to justify it. Oz: The Great & Powerful is not smart enough to justify it. Second, you have to have the courage of your convictions. Oz: The Great & Powerful actually builds to a well-executed earnest finalé. The problem is that it feels completely out of touch with all the cynicism to which we’ve been exposed.

There are signs that Oz: The Great & Powerful wants to play with audience expectations. There’s an allusion to Wicked, in that – in both cases – an outsider comes to Oz and finds themselves manipulated as a pawn in a larger scheme of which they are not entirely aware. The problem is that Oz: The Great & Powerful never really follows through. It’s not that the politics of Oz are that much more complicated than they appear, just that he met the wrong people in the wrong order. The potential for depth and nuance is there, but squandered.

Don't cross him.

Don’t cross him.

There’s also the fact that script can’t keep its themes straight. Oz is apparently great because he brings science to this world, in a clever inversion of Clarke’s Third Law. He’s able to apply scientific principles with enough skill that it appears to be magic. So the film would suggest that more knowledge is a good thing. On the other hand, when plotting the arc involving the witches, knowledge is presented as a clearly bad thing. The film even uses the apple, an image with obvious symbolism. “Isn’t it amazing how clearer everything becomes?” one witch asks as another gains complete awareness. And, of course, that complete awareness is inherently eeevil.

It’s a shame about the truly awful script, because the execution is generally top notch. Mila Kunis is perhaps miscast for the second half of the film, but the rest of the ensemble do the best job possible job with the material they are given. Raimi even manages to capture some of the wonder of Oz. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t quite justify his efforts.

2 Responses

  1. I completely agree with your assessment of the script. It really was awful, and I felt it brought down the rest of the film. I enjoyed your comment about why the witches never claimed the throne for themselves. It really doesn’t make any sense! If you have time, check out my review of Oz at showmetheratings.wordpress.com

    • Thanks Stewie. Adding a link to your comment.

      And glad to see I’m not the only one wondering about the vacant throne.

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