There are some really great things about Oz the Great and Powerful and some really bad things, but at the very least, it’s not the forgettable trifle I expected it to be.
I liked Oz the Great and Powerful, and I mean that only in the most defensive-sounding way possible. It’s hard to even write this review without coming off a huge Sam Raimi apologist. Raimi has this highly-saturated, schlocky aesthetic that’s a little melodramatic and not quite realistic, but never quite camp, which a lot of people understandably hate. Whereas Tarantino almost always puts clear signposts to indicate when he’s being serious and when he’s being tongue-in-cheek, Sam Raimi’s scenes are always sort of breakdancing on the line between the two. To me this approach has always seemed a bit rock n’ roll, a way to say “yeah, this is silly but I’m doing it anyway because it’s fun.” He seems so blasé about whether you think his films are “Important” or not, and it’s refreshing.
Oz the Great and Powerful is not a great movie, but I don’t think anyone set out to make a “great movie.” I usually hate when critics use this excuse to give a movie a pass. Just because you made a bad movie on purpose I’m supposed to ignore that it’s bad? But if I look at any “comparable” title – Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit, Snow White and the Huntsman – Oz is just much better. Even the simple idea that “Oz” might all be a figment of James Franco’s character’s imagination gives it a subtextual richness that the aforementioned films all lacked. All of them, Oz included, are essentially about magical faeries punching each other. But Oz at least hints at the idea that it’s not just about magical faeries punching each other.
James Franco plays Oscar Diggs – “Oz” is his stage name – a struggling sideshow magician whose ambition to become a cross between Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison keeps him from settling down and marrying his sweetheart, Michelle Williams, looking all soft and innocent in a gingham dress and push-up bra (blondes and boobs are kind of Raimi’s thing, in case you haven’t noticed). Being a bit of a player, a bimbro if you will, Oz gets chased out of his tent by the circus strongman after he gets caught trying to seduce his girlfriend, and flees into a conveniently-placed hot-air balloon (I mean, it is a circus). Oz flies away, despite the balloon having no apparent heat source for the hot air that’s supposedly powering it, but not before his assistant Zach Braff can toss him his trusty top hat and magician’s satchel (full of doves and scarves and shit, presumably). The balloon gets sucked into a tornado, and away we go, off to Oz.
When Oz gets to Oz, obviously everyone thinks he’s the emperor come to save them, because how else could you possibly explain that coincidence? It’s the same reason Hirohito named his son “Japan.” I kid, but the fact that Oz shows up to a mystical land named after him, where the good witch is played by the same actress as his gingham sweetheart, and where he almost immediately meets a flying monkey voiced by his former assistant who becomes his assistant in Oz, seems like a pretty clear hint – a bazooka that shoots a flag that says “HINT,” really - that the land of Oz is supposed to represent Oscar Digg’s internal landscape somehow. The film never really follows this idea through, but it at least makes you think about it a little, which is something.
From here, the film has basically two somewhat conflicting messages. The first is basically “we are what we pretend to be,” which is not only one of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut quotes, but a surprisingly not-f*cked-out sentiment to see in a Disney movie. Oz shows up in Oz where everyone thinks he’s their savior, and from there he has basically two choices: be the amoral shithead he’s been all his life, or be something more. And the only way to do that is to fake it until it’s true. For me, this is right up there with holding your friends closer on the way to the smelting pit in Toy Story 3 when it comes to surprisingly heartfelt symbolism from kids’ movies. The other great twist is that Oz’s power is that he’s not magic. He’s an illusionist and a liar. This gives the film a logic. How do you make the magical happen without a series of bullshit deus ex machinas like The Hobbit? Well, the first step is that you have to write something a little more intricate than “Gandalf says ‘abra cadabra.’” Oz isn’t Nam, there are rules.
The other sentiment of the film is a bit more problematic. Basically, every problem in Oz can trace its roots to three broads who can’t get along. Chicks, am I right? Theodora (Mila Kunis) and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) are feuding with their stepsister, Glinda (Michelle Williams). Oz rolls into town and first seduces the innocent Theodora, before eventually falling for Glinda (blonde, boobs, remember?). This is the shaky rationale for Theodora becoming the green-faced monster that the theater majors among you will all recognize from Wicked (her witch make-up is horrible, incidentally, and not dissimilar to Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin mask). Basically, the villain is the chick whose only crime was buying James Franco’s BS in the first place and then getting all bitchy when he dropped her for acting too clingy, and the “good’ witch is the one who goes along with whatever he does when he’s done nothing up to this point except be a dick. Also, she’s blonde and has boobs, so obviously he likes her more. Neither here nor there, but Oz is also super mean to the monkey for pretty much the entire movie for absolutely no reason.
Needless to say, this part of the message ain’t so great, to say nothing of the basic theme of pretty = good, ugly = bad running through the entire thing. Now, you’re going to think I’m joking when I say this, but I’m serious. I think the residents of Oz – the tinkers and the winkies and the munchkins – should all have been played by disabled people. Wheelchairs, cerebral palsy, crutches, Down Syndrome, dystrophics, cleft palates – it would’ve made the whole thing feel more magical, and it wouldn’t have made it feel so much like good, honest folk should all look like stock photo models. Oz is all too nice and sanitized. What is this, the fifties? Anyway, just a thought.
The movie eventually ends with two armies clashing (oh God, please, can we stop doing this one, pleeease?), but it at least does it in a more clever way than The Hobbit or Alice or Snow White. Because again, rules. And I’m actually glad they didn’t talk the evil chick out of being evil with a big schmaltzy speech like the ending of Paranorman. Baby steps, I suppose. Still, the fact that it’s a prequel that has themes and actually makes sense puts it above most of the movies in the same category.