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[Review] Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz-The-Great-And-Powerful-New-Years-Movie-TrailersThere have been countless attempts to adapt or supplement the stories of L. Frank Baum and is magical land of Oz. What is canon and what is not is the subject of contentious debate, with only fourteen of the original forty novels written by Baum, and various sequels, prequels, companions and re-imaginings considered both canon and apocrypha depending on who you ask.

Oz the Great and Powerful is billed as a prequel to the series that begins with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1901) . More honestly it is an origin story of the type generally found in the pages of D.C. or Marvel. But the Wizard  – designated in this film Oscar Diggs and played by James Franco – is not a comic book hero. He is a man, and a deeply flawed  one at that. Lacking in any abilties other than those of  a carnival conjourer (and not a very good one at that), the wizard is, in his own words ‘just a common man’; a  con man and charlatan who is carried away in his balloon and ends up in Oz quite by accident.

Canonically, when he arrives in Oz the Emeral City does not exist:

“…I found myself in the midst of a strange people, who, seeing me come from the clouds, thought I was a great Wizard. Of course I let them think so, because they were afraid of me, and promised to do anything I wished them to.

“Just to amuse myself, and keep the good people busy, I ordered them to build this city, and my Palace; and they did it willingly and well.

In this revision, directed by Sam Raimi and written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, the Emerald City is already the centre of Oz (though it is the Emerald City of the 1939 MGM film, not the books) and is the home to witches Theodora and Evanora, played by Mila Kunis and Rachael Weisz respectively. So far, so not-very-Baum.

Let’s briefly run through the plot.

When Diggs arrives in Oz he meets Theodora, who is remarkably pleased to see him. Diggs’ arrival in Oz has, it turns out, been prophesied. A great wizard, it is said, will arrive to  overthrow the evil witch that killed the king. Obviously that is Diggs, for whomelse would fall out of the sky?

Theodora and Diggs travel to the Emerald City, adding to their number a winged monkey named Finlay (Zach Braff) who is saved from a (perfectly reasonably) cowardly lion en route. Inevitably, Theodora falls in love with Diggs.

At the Emerald City Evanora leads Diggs to believe that Glinda is the Wicked Witch and sends him, along with his new friend Finlay, to kill Glinda  by destroying her wand, the source of her power. If he does so, he’ll become King and owner of a room full of gold to rival  Scrooge McDuck, so of he goes. On the way to do so, Diggs meets and repairs the broken legs of orphaned China Girl (Joey King) and we all heave a mighty sigh because this one act of kindness apparently makes up for all the lying, cheating and scamming.

Pictured: Diggs motivation

Pictured: Diggs motivation

Just before Diggs succeeds in destroying Glinda’s wand, it is revealed that she is in fact the Good Witch. Evanora, watching via her crystal ball, reacts badly, and convinces Theodora that Diggs is a flirt and a scoundrel who is courting all three witches. Theodora is distressed and gladly accepts the magical apple that Evanora says will cure here heartbreak, but which in fact ‘cures’ her of her humanity and transforms her into the Wicked Witch of the West, turning her green (with envy?) in the process.

After some faffing and the revelation that Glinda knew all along that Diggs was in no way magical, the inevitable battle between good and evil takes place, with Diggs and his team using misdirection, showmanship, technology  and sleight of hand to conquer his enemies, become king of Oz and, in a move that is entirely unnecessary and sort of disappointing, snog the face of Glinda in the closing seconds of the film.

One might expect that an Ozian offering from Disney would be technologically spectacular and politically dubious and so it proves to be.

James Franco takes an unconvincing part

James Franco: definitely not Johnny Depp

Put simply, Oz(car) is a rat bastard, but from the moment he arrives in Oz there is no way he’s not going to win. “I knew it! The king’s prophesy was true. He said a great wizard […] would save us all, and here you are!” says Theodora, after watching him fail even to get out of knee-deep water without getting injured. From the hapless, cowardly barnstormer and con artist we meet in Kansas he becomes the Chosen One, his greatness thrust upon him. The worst thing is that his Greatness is thrust upon him by a woman who is demonstrably greater, kinder and more powerful than him.

Glinda the Good is damn powerful. She’s also the epitome of a trope that I want to die: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a term (coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in 2005) to describe a particular type of stock character. She’s usually uber-feminine and quirky in lieu of having an actual personality and she exists solely to aid the (white) male protagonist in his journey.

Glinda: shiny.

Glinda: shiny.

Glinda is the daughter of the King of Oz, because in this world Princess Ozma does not exist*. She’s beautiful, which we know because everyone keeps telling us all the time, and she’s got all sorts of magic abilities but mainly she just uses them to float around in a bubble. But her entire purpose is to facilitate Diggs in his journey to the top.

Once she’s done that, she makes sure to remind the wicked Evanora that beauty and goodness are inextricably linked and that the absolute worst thing to happen to a woman is that she can age and/or become ugly, before she kisses her prince.

The rest of the female cast don’t do much better than Glinda, either. Witness:

  • Theodora  becomes evil (and ‘ugly’ of course) because a boy was mean to her.
  • Evanora displays similar traits to Diggs, but in her they are unforgivable signs of a black heart as opposed to a cheeky signs of lovable roguery.
  • Of all the other female characters in Oz, and there are lots, the only other one that Kapner and Lindsay-Abaire have chosen to make use of is LITERALLY MADE OF CHINA.

I’ve said before that Disney really isn’t too keen on the ladies, and here it is again. Really, ’nuff said.

Oz the Great and Powerful has some shiny, larger than life CGI. It’s a spectacle. The environments are lush and colourful, the costuming great. But ultimately, Oz the Great and Powerful is a miss. Don’t even wait for the DVD.

See also:

For fun, here’s a hilarious right wing review of Oz the Great and Powerful that clims the film is full of anti-white proaganda (content warning: anti-semitism)

An animated film entitled Legends of Oz, starring Lea Michelle and Patrick Stewart, will be released in 2014. I’ll be giving it a miss.

Bonus material: A Cheat Sheet, in which I do your media studies homework for you**. 

Raimi’s creation is a hodge-podge of references. Presented as a prequel to the 1939 film,  it sticks sylistically to its predecesor, with the spiralling Yellow Brick Road at the centre of Munchkin Land, an art deco Emerald City and hyper-realistic environments making up the various lands of Oz. Some aspects, however, are taken from Baum’s series of books. Here’s a handy guide to which is which.

MGM

  • Theodora’s green skin after her transformation into the Wicked Witch
  • Theodora’s costume is reminiscent of MGM’s witch, rather than the wizened old hag of Baum’s imagination
  • Likewise, Glinda’s appearance is much more similar to MGM’s imagining of her than Baum’s
  • Glinda travelling by bubble, Theodora travelling by fireball
  • The Wicked Witches are sisters
  • Michelle Williams character in Kansas, Annie, wears (blue?) gingham. It is hinted that she is an ancestor of Dorothy
  • Raimi uses several techniques from the film, such as the change from black and white to Technicolor  and the doubling of characters
  • the Wicked Witches broom gets its own, rather sweet, origin story
  • multicoloured horses graze outside the Emerald City, a reference to the MGM’s Horse of a Different Colour

Baum

  • The Scarecrow is built to scare off people, not birds (alluded to)
  • The Tin Woodsman is built by the Master Tinker (alluded to)
  • Glinda refers to herself as the Good Witch of the South
  • The Winkies and Quadlings appear
  • The troupe visit China Country

Extra credit

  • China Girl accompanies Diggs on his journey. In Baum’s mythology, any inhabitant of China Country that leaves the village lose the ability to move and speak, in essence becoming ornaments.
  • The Tinkers do not appear in the Oz books, though they may be based on Mr Tinker, an inventor whose story is told in Ozma of Oz.
  • Glinda is a redhead in both the MGM and Baum versions of Oz. Her blondness may be a reference to the revisionist novel Wicked, or it may just be that Michelle Williams is blonde. Naturally, the wicked witches are brunette, because them’s the rules.

 *Now, I’m pretty sure that Kinging as an occupation is hereditary, so Glinda should, surely, have taken the throne. But no. The throne of Oz is currently empty – with no discernible detriment to the country, I might add – until a manly man of manness can come and sit on it.

**But if you want them in any kind of order you’ll have to do that yourself, as I’ve put them down as they’ve occurred to me. I’ve probably missed a few, too.

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