Filmmaking in Fairyland: Oz the Great and Powerful

So by now, you’ve probably either seen or heard about the latest addition to Oz films: Oz the Great and Powerful, released in the U.S. last weekend and reviewed by Tor.com here. The sorta but not exactly prequel to the iconic 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz, this new Oz film tells the story of one Oscar Diggs, a carnival showman and magician who takes a balloon through a cyclone from Kansas to Oz. Once there, he finds himself meeting three lovely lovely witches and an overly talkative flying monkey, having conversations about whether or not witches need brooms, fixing little china dolls, facing lions who—conveniently enough—just happen to be cowardly, and alternatively trying to convince people that he is and isn’t a wizard and the prophesized savior of Oz. (Of the country, that is. Even most tolerant viewer probably won’t say he saves the movie.)

It’s bright and colorful (well, once it reaches Oz) with some awesome background details (pay particular attention as Oscar and the monkey leave the Emerald City) and has several fun jokes and laugh out loud moments and horses of many colors (yay!) and delightfully campy gowns (yay!) and a scene where someone dives into gold and never once has a thought about the effects of all that gold on inflation. And a bit of romance. Lots of fun.

But wow, do we need to talk.

First, let’s get one thing out of the way: director Sam Raimi and writers Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire may claim that they were thinking of the books, not the 1939 movie, but, er. No. It’s not just the multiple visual callbacks to the 1939 movie (I lost track of the rainbows we kept going over), but the film setup: nearly everyone Oscar Diggs meets in the course of his adventure is someone he met in Kansas, just as nearly everyone film Dorothy met in Oz was someone she knew from the Kansas farm. The Munchkins are small people who sing and dance. And of course the shift between the black and white world of Kansas (here definitely black and white to avoid any copyright issues with the sepia tones of the 1939 film) to the wider, colorful look of Oz is taken directly from the 1939 film. Oscar gives out cheesy prizes in the end. And as a definitive note, the Kansas scenes are set in 1905—five years after the publication of The Wonderful World of Oz. I did find myself thinking just how much fun the movie might have had if Oscar had arrived having read the book—or at least knowing about Oz, a conceit the Oz books frequently used. But that would have been just a touch too meta for this film. The conceit of the books—that no one ever ages or dies in Oz—certainly would have worked to allow Oscar to travel to Oz years earlier, but would have made it slightly harder for the filmmakers to cast someone considerably younger.

Anyway. As in the earlier films, Oz drops the occasional hint that this is all in Oscar’s head—we never see Oscar electrocuted or hit on the head, but most of the people Oscar meets in Oz are reflections of some kind or another of people he meets in Kansas, and Oscar’s immediate acceptance of “oooh, magic,” has a dreamlike quality to it. What makes this all mildly annoying is that unlike the 1939 film, which announced firmly that Oz and fantasy in general are nothing more than a dream and that you need to be satisfied with the grimness of life, or the 1985 Return to Oz film, which focused on the thin lines separating reality from insanity and dream, Oz the Great and Powerful abandons that thought, going for “Nope, it’s real.” And yet, it gives us a less convincing Oz than either of the earlier films, partly thanks to the CGI, which, excellent as it is (the main monkey is especially well done), still has an unreal quality to it, in contrast to the bright soundstages with paintings of the 1939 film and the puppets and soundstages of the later film, and partly thanks to lack of any real sense of peril and wonder.

Adding to the problem: by focusing on the 1939 film, Oz ignores all of the potentially rich storylines hinted at in the Baum books: the founding of Oz either by a band of fairies or a line of magical kings, the kidnapping and hiding away of the young princess ruler, the fights of the good witches to overthrow the evil witches, and so on. It also forces Mila Kunis (as Theodora) and Michelle Williams (as Glinda) to try to recreate their predecessors’ iconic roles. Williams does, barely, but Kunis does not.

To be fair, Kunis has the unenviable job of a role that requires her to first be unbelievably naïve, and next attempt to follow Margaret Hamilton’s iconic performance as the Wicked Witch of the West. Reprising that role was probably doomed from the get-go—as I noted on Twitter immediately afterwards, playing over-the-top evil (complete with Evil Laughter) while still convincing the audience that yes, you really can get that little dog too is extremely difficult. Kunis is not much better in the first half, where the actress simply couldn’t portray that much innocence. I kept assuming—wrongly—that she knew all along that Oscar was a fake, since Kunis frequently has a knowing glint in her eye that suggests yeah, I’m not buying this either, but turns out, not so much. It doesn’t help that for copyright reasons her skin is the wrong shade of green, and that her character motivation, as we’ll get to, can most kindly be called inadequate.

James Franco doesn’t try particularly hard to recreate the character of the Wizard/Professor Marvel, but his performance feels constrained as well. Only Rachel Weisz (as Evanora), with the good fortune to play a character whose characterization in the previous film, such as it wasn’t, consisted of two dead feet, can and does make this role her own.

Choosing to focus on the film, instead of the books, also constrains the overall plot. After all, Oscar is destined to become not a real wizard (as he will in the books) but rather the man behind the curtain. As such, he cannot take a particularly heroic role, much though the film would like him to. This in turn means that the film has to give us all kinds of reasons why Oscar is not a hero—he’s mean to his assistants, lies to women and everyone in Oz, and so on—which in turn makes even Oscar wonder how he’s able to get through Glinda’s “good people only” barrier. He’s, um, good-hearted because Glinda tells him he is, and because he occasionally has his good moments.

It also leaves us with some awkward moments that will presumably be addressed in this film’s sequel: if Oscar is, as this film wants to say at the end, really good, what changed him from the sort of person who protects Dorothy-lookalike china dolls, to the sort of person that sends a girl out to face a Wicked Witch with only a Scarecrow, a clunking Tin Man, and a Cowardly Lion for protection? And—the question our entire audience was asking—what about the shoes? (“Copyright attorneys hid them” is just not a great plot device.)

The plot has several other weak or unexplored moments. For instance, Theodora wistfully tells us that no one has ever given her a gift or asked her to dance—a probable callback to Wicked, but also a hint of a deeper storyline here, or at least a better motivation for her later character change than “I was dumped by a man! LET’S GO EVIL!” But it’s left unexplored. Oscar has an entire bottle of glue, but we are never told or shown if he went through China Town looking for other broken dolls. (This lapse was brought to my attention by an upset four year old.) Also, someone—even a child—living in such a fragile environment has never heard of glue? It’s not exactly an American or even a modern invention. And why is Oscar so nonchalant about seeing real magic—and fairies—for the first time? And—ok, this one was just me—does no one in the Emerald City EVER consider security issues? No? Oh well.

Gender issues are a more serious concern. Quite apart from the fact that the Girl Power Oz stories have been turned into a film about a man, midway through the film the china girl indignantly asks (I paraphrase), “You’re just going to leave me to walk on this road to the Emerald City ALONE?” As then proceeds to weep, cry, and cling to Oscar’s leg until she’s allowed to join Oscar and the monkey.

As a critique of the book and film, which show the Munchkins and the Good Witches doing exactly this, it’s amusing and works well. But even as I laughed, I found myself wistful for the story where all of the characters, and particularly the little girl, were convinced that she absolutely could do such a thing, where nobody tells Dorothy that she needs protection, or that she can’t do things, giving Dorothy a wonderful self-confidence.

Few women in this film have that same confidence, and those that do are not necessarily treated well. The carnival assistant in the film’s first few minutes, for instance, has that confidence, apparently convinced that she has found her great breakthrough moment in entertainment and will have an awesome stage career, but the film goes out of its way to show her as naïve, easily tricked, and unable to recall simple instructions: she is hardly even able to play her role as an audience plant. The next woman in the film, Sally, comes to the carnival to ask Oscar—whose life until this point has hardly been a success on any level—what she should do with her life. Yes, she’s also asking for a proposal of marriage, but even though he’s interested, and she’s interested, she backs off when he tells her it won’t work. It’s not a mutual decision; it’s Oscar’s decision, although it’s to her credit that she accepts this without drama. Theodora is easily manipulated by both Oscar and her sister.

That leaves us with Evanora, who by all appearances seems to have done a wonderful job of running the country and tricking everyone into believing that Glinda is the evil witch (Glinda’s habit of hanging out in fog covered, haunted graveyards is not helpful here) all while keeping the treasury glistening and full, demanding bureaucratic work for which she gets a reward of massive aging. Interestingly, the Oz Oscar encounters is generally more prosperous and less perilous than the Oz Dorothy later encounters while Oz is under—sorta—the Wizard’s control. Hmm. And Glinda—who has been told by her father to wait for a man to arrive before she can take her throne.

While I’m on the subject, it’s not at all clear why anyone needs a Wizard at all—the final battle shows that Glinda could always match Evanora; teamed up with Theodora, they easily could have taken down the Wicked Witch. Oh well.

The film does a better job handling disability issues. In the real word, Kansas, Oscar can’t heal a little girl using a wheelchair. He lies to her, guilt written all over his face—and in a nice touch, he’s called out for it, with his assistant noting that the girl deserves to know the truth. Oscar completely evades this point, saying that if he had admitted to being a fraud, he would have lost all of the money made in the show. In Oz, he can heal a little girl made of china by using glue—but it’s made obvious that he can only do this with people who aren’t completely human, and the two background people in wheelchairs remain in wheelchairs. Their presence, a positive inclusion of disability, is somewhat erased by making both of the Wicked Witches hideously ugly by the end of the film, a return of the “ugly” = “evil” motif, but we can’t have everything.

If, as has been suggested, Oz is no more than a wish fulfillment hallucination in Oscar’s mind, perhaps Oscar deliberately created something that he could heal—just as his mind deliberately turned the woman he abandoned quickly into someone evil, to alleviate his guilt, and created a scenario to allow him to be worthy of the woman he loves. This also explains the plot holes—it’s a hallucination, not a well-thought-out story. In which case, it’s somewhat odd that Oscar isn’t able to do more in his own creation to help others—but it seems that only that one girl haunted him.

But I think the real key to the film appears in the opening credits, where the camera moves through the doors of the Disney castle (fake) and in the climax, where Oscar saves Oz through a series of camera tricks and entertainment. (The fireworks show he puts on is suspiciously similar to the one currently running every night at Walt Disney World’s Epcot center, down to the blown out torches and the single white firework that sets off the rest of the show, not to mention the heavy smoke from fire and images projected on a globe-like thing in the center. Half of our Orlando audience missed it; the other half burst out laughing.) It’s both cynical and hopeful message, in one way, emphasizing the fakery of everything we’re seeing, but also hopeful, assuring us that entertainment—provided, of course, by Disney—is the key to ridding the world of deception and evil.

Even when—as in this case—some of that entertainment leads to later deception and evil. Let’s try not to think too hard about what this suggests about Disney.

Or I’m just reading too much into the opening credits. You decide.

On a cheerier note, the special effects are awesome—no wonder Disney thinks special effects can save the world. The movie has several laugh out loud moments, and for all of its focus on the 1939 movie, Oz the Great and Powerful does have a few blink and you will miss it references to a few of the other Baum books (notably Ozma of Oz and Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz), fun for Oz fans. Some early scenes featuring a magic lantern and an elephant can even be taken as an obscure reference to Kabumpo, although this is probably stretching things. (It’s definitely stretching things to read anything into the early appearance of a clown; circuses have clowns.)

It wasn’t the Oz movie I would have wanted, or the Oz movie it could have been, and I don’t see it climbing to cult or beloved status. But as a few hours of entertainment, and a chance to experience some of the brightness of Oz, it mostly works.


Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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