Oz the Great and Powerful, 2013.
Directed by Sam Raimi.
Starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs and Joey King.
A small-time magician is swept away to an enchanted land and is forced into a power struggle between three witches.
Let me start by saying that the story of The Wizard of Oz, and all his counterparts, has already been done to death. There are countless re-imaginings, prequels and sequels to L. Frank Baum’s original story, the most famous of which, of course, being the 1939 film starring Judy Garland. Sam Raimi, who directed this most recent incarnation, would struggle to take the world of Oz and its inhabitants from a new angle. I think it is safe to say that Raimi’s film did achieve a unique perspective, but unfortunately, rehashing an old story in a new light alone does not make a good film. Ergo, Oz the Great and Powerful is not a good film. Not at all.
First, there’s the writing. The exposition of the world of Oz is admittedly fantastic. The Emerald City, the Yellow Brick Road and Muchkinland are all created as beautiful, ephemeral settings, drawing from the original but also adding greatly to it. The advantage Raimi has is that modern technology allows his setting to be far more realistic and awe-inspiring than anything previous to them. Attention to detail borders on the minute and the expansive land of Oz is done justice.
In comparison, the writing of the characters is problematic. Obviously there’s no Dorothy in the film due to it being set years before her arrival in Oz, in fact with the arrival of the Wizard himself (James Franco).
James Franco’s Wizard is arrogant and egotistical. He manipulates women so he can sleep with them (or so it is inferred; this is Disney, people!) and is a conman. His arrival in Oz is instigated by a jealous man chasing him onto a hot air balloon (and into a vortex) because he’s been having his way with the other’s man’s woman. When he crash lands in a swamp in Oz, he is presented immediately with Theodora (Mila Kunis), a stunningly beautiful, albeit slightly naive, young witch. The first thing Oz does is hit on her, and she very easily falls for him, clearly already in love with him while he sees her more as a passing fancy. When he arrives in Oz he flirts with Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and later sets his sights on Glinda (Michelle Williams). Basically, Raimi and Franco himself set Oz up as an incredibly seedy and unlikable character. His clear desire for Oz’s riches and the power that has been thrust upon him is evident too, as well as his disregard for his servants, Frank in Kansas, and Finley the monkey in Oz (Zach Braff).
It’s all well and good to set up a protagonist as an unlikable character – it’s been done a thousand times throughout history. Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge is the ultimate example. Although Scrooge begins as a Christmas-hating, grumpy old fool, his journey throughout Dickens’ novel allows him to develop into a more tolerant and benevolent man. Oz, on the other hand, is problematic because by the end of his journey he has changed little, and he ends up getting everything he wants: the girl, the position as leader of Oz and all the riches that come with it. Despite this, he remains arrogant and misogynistic. Surely not traits Disney want their younger viewers to idolise? Of course, throughout the Wizard of Oz canon, the Wizard has always been a morally questionable character. But, seeing as Oz the Great and Powerful diverges from the canon so frequently, I’m sure Raimi would not have depicted Oz as arrogant in attempts to adhere to L. Frank Baum’s original wizard. So – what is it? Unfortunately the film never solidly reveals Raimi’s intentions with Franco’s character.
Similarly, the female characters of the film are equally problematic. Theodora, an early version of the woman who eventually becomes the Wicked Witch of the West, is naive and wears her heart on her sleeve. When she realises Oz has no intention of marrying her and making her his Queen her rage and jealousy causes her to transform into the evil green witch as we know her. Her sister, Evanora, is evil from the start and encourages Theodora’s transformation. While Rachel Weisz’ performance as Evanora is perfect in its cold-hearted self-centredness, Mila Kunis fails to make the sufficient transformation. Even as the formidable green witch, the audience still sees her humanity and her feelings for Oz. This is either brilliant writing and directing from Sam Raimi, or an excellent portrayal of an extremely conflicted character from Mila Kunis. I’m inclined to think the latter. Kunis told The Student Room in an interview that the physical transformation of her character allowed her to think about the humanity of Theodora: “It’s an emotional transformation that just so happens to be mired with a physical one. She became human to me”. It’s unusual for Kunis to not be playing the beautiful love interest, which in a way she does in the first part of the film. However, her depiction of the “wicked” version of Theodora, although humanised, is still slightly uncomfortable to watch. It seems that Kunis has spent so long playing protagonists that she doesn’t know how to be the “bad guy”. By comparison, Rachel Weisz appeared to have a greater understanding of her own antagonistic character and played on it efficiently, making her performance the best of the film, primarily because she is the only female character whose happiness doesn’t seem to be hinged on Oz.
And that brings us to Glinda the good witch. No one in the world is as good as Glinda. She’s entirely altruistic, benevolent and selfless. Her faith in the far-from-perfect Oz is annoying because he so obviously doesn’t deserve it. The fact that she ends up with Oz at the end of the film is possibly the biggest mistake of the entire screenplay, and another example of Oz getting what he doesn’t deserve. Glinda’s relationship with him is infuriating because, although she has the potential to be a fiercely independent leader of the people of Munchinkinland, she instead places the mantle on Oz, for unbeknownst reasons, especially when later she admits that she knew he wasn’t the real Wizard all along. Glinda’s motivations are truly a mystery; and her taste in men is borderline masochistic. It’s curious that Michelle Williams plays both Glinda and Oz’s “one true love” from Kansas, Annie. Before he visits Oz, Annie tells the Wizard that she is marrying someone else, clearly expecting him to beg her not to. Before their relationship can be developed in any more detail the Wizard is whisked off to Oz and falls for Glinda instead (also played by Michelle Williams). It’s obvious that Raimi is trying to say something about Glinda being the Oz version of Annie, by choosing to cast the same actress in both roles. But it’s unclear what exactly he means. Annie chooses another man over Oz because she knows he is fickle and unstable. Glinda chooses Oz because of that. The metaphorical value of this is lost on me. It seems that Raimi and screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire have imagined a world created specifically for Oz, which it is not, and allowed no repercussions for his actions. This, for me, is why the film is ultimately a failure.
So: while Oz the Great and Powerful is worth a watch, I wouldn’t suggest it for a family viewing. For one, there are violent images that make the film deserving of its PG certificate. I would recommend Oz the Great and Powerful more as a study on the psychology of the brain of Sam Raimi. And when you look at his previous directing and producing credits (Drag Me To Hell, Thirty Days of Night, The Grudge) you have to wonder whose bright idea it was to let Raimi direct a Disney movie.
Flickering Myth Rating - Film ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★