Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Oz The Great and Powerful, a Review

I saw this, in IMAX and 3D, for the biggest, most spectacular Spectacular method possible. And there is no denying that this is amazing to look at. The technology is hyper-realistic, color saturated, and overall a good match of subject and technology. There a are lot of special effects that are Very Special, and Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams are gorgeous to look at, and hold their own against the wonders of Oz. James Franco is perfectly fine, grinning and hamming it up like he's doing a satire of George Clooney's persona. If you are going to go see it, go ahead and see it in IMAX and 3D, because that's the reason to see it--to be blown away by the visual design.

Because, let's be frank, the story just doesn't measure up.

Look, I understand the appeal of looking at a classic work from a new perspective. There is a lot of built in excitement--how did things end up the way we "know" them? Why are there two witches who are sisters, but they live on opposite sides of the world? What made them Wicked? (Incidentally, Wicked, the book, does this in spades and from a very sophisticated perspective. The musical, not so much.) Why is the Lion so cowardly? Who made the Scarecrow? How did the Wizard get from being a carny from Omaha to the Ruler of the Emerald City anyway?

This movie sets itself the task of answering the first question, but fundamentally fails at it. Now, unlike Dana Stevens from Slate (who I like and respect a great deal, but disagree with on this movie), I don't think it's a fool's task to take on retelling this story. The Warner Brothers' movie is a "universally beloved classic," but it is also nearly seventy-five years old! So much has changed in terms of what can be done, and how we watch movies. I mean, just try watching an old kids movie, like Doctor Doolittle with Rex Harrison. Oh. My. God. The pacing! It is soooo slow--it's like an endurance test. Granted, Wizard of Oz holds up much better, but there's no reason to think that there is nothing new to say or see. And to be honest, the visuals are pretty amazing. Sam Raimi takes his movie into different places in Oz from the 1939 movie, so we get to see new things too!

But--and this is a big "but"--Oz the Great and Powerful fails to provide a story worth telling. I mean, we all know that the carny becomes the wizard, so showing us that he does just isn't enough. I wanted to see the How and the Why of it. What combination of circumstances and character created a man who was able to remain the ruler of a magical land for decades, with no magic of his own? And why does he stay? What is the fundamental truth about this character that makes this all work?

The answer is--nothing, really. He's a guy, he wants something, there are only women standing between him and what he wants, so of course he gets it. Of course he gets to be the Ruler of Everything, because he's A Man! And in case you doubt that as justification enough, there is A Prophecy! So really, that should answer all your objections about realpolitik and social contract and consent of the governed.

Plot summary in a thimble: turn of the century carny gets caught in a tornado while flying his hot air balloon, lands in Oz, has a few adventures, becomes the ruler of the Emerald City. Anything you didn't know already? No.

There are some conscious nods to the original, most overtly in the structure of the whole movie. The first part takes place in black-and-white in Kansas, where Oscar [many many middle names] Diggs is a carnival magician that everybody calls "Oz." While in Kansas, he has an assistant, a would-be girlfriend, and a devoted fan who believes in his magic, all three of whom show up again in the Land of Oz.

There is a contretemps with an adversary, this time the carnival strongman (who does NOT show up later) instead of Miss Gulch, a flight through a destructive tornado, and a crash landing in the technicolor landscape. There he meets a good witch who sets him on the path to the Emerald City, and he gathers companions on the way.  Once there, he is given the task of killing a wicked witch, this time by destroying her wand rather than bringing back her broom, after which he is promised great rewards. The biggest difference is that instead of going back home at the end, he stays.

This might actually be the platonic ideal of a sequel format--all the fundamentals are in place, so then we can enjoy the new parts. Sadly, the new parts are uniformly clunkers, story wise. Let's get into the spoilers.

The first twenty minutes of the movie show us Oz in his native habitat. Cleverly shown in a nearly square aspect ratio and filmed in black and white, the movie establishes itself as set in The Past. As the circus magician, Oz has a sort of oily charm, because he is James Franco, and we are placed firmly in his POV, aware that his job is to amaze and fool the rubes. However, the Oz is not so much a magician as he is a horn dog and he is also obsessed with getting laid. He pulls an obviously well worn routine on his newest "assistant," presenting her with a music box that "belonged to my grandmother" in exchange for a kiss and likely more later.

This is insulting, really. The "simple country girl" is being used and the moves are obvious to the audience, but somehow she doesn't catch on, being too dazzled by the glamor of her new role I guess? It's a profoundly offensive view of a woman, and doesn't make me like James Franco/Oz at all. Then he is abusive to his technical assistant (played by Zach Braff), and once on-stage, bedazzles a young girl in a wheelchair who asks him to make her walk again. Instead of turning the moment into a human one--"I wish I could, but my magic doesn't work like that" or something, he blusters his way into an early dropped curtain in front of an audience he has alienated. Once safely off stage, he again berates Zach Braff for not dropping the curtain fast enough to save him from the encounter with the crippled girl. Not at all a nice person, nor someone I have any reason to root for at all.

But it swiftly gets worse. Back in his caravan, a woman knocks on the door, and Zach Braff offers to "wind up another of the music boxes." In case you didn't see it as a practiced scam the first time he used it on a gullible young woman, you see. But this is Annie, who he has some history with. Annie is Michelle Williams, so she is very blonde and beautiful and gentle and pure and everything Oz is not. So what does she see in him?

(That's the problem with this film, and one I am tempted to explain as a Male Problem. I assume that the intent was that we would see things from Oz's point of view, would immediately identify with him and his desires, and take his part as the story unfolds. But since I am not a Male, I didn't default into a pro-Oz camp. Thus, as the life of the carnival frustrates him, I saw him not as a beleaguered hero, but as a squirrelly creep who had not earned my favor. When Michelle Williams turns up as his Dream Girl, I'm rooting for her to run far away from him, because he is neither kind, nor trustworthy, nor anybody she should waste her time with. Perhaps, if I had been more inclined to ally myself with Oz's worldview, I would have liked this movie better. As it is, I think Oz the man was unfairly rewarded for being a creep and I can't condone it.)

Anyway, Michelle Williams has come to visit, like she always does when he's in the county, and John Gale has asked her to marry him. So she is Dorothy Gale's mother? Which makes her doomed, right, because she's dead by the events of Wizard of Oz which is why Dorothy lives with her Auntie Em. Still, though, it's probably a better life than one spent with James Franco, the serial seducer of the circus.

Oz has a speech about the difference between being a "good" man and a "great" one. John Gale is a good man, Annie should marry him, while Oz still wants to do great things. This is news to us, the audience, because so far we've just seen him doing the barest minimum to meet his basest needs. He manipulates and disrespects the woman he's seduced, he's antagonized his audience and cut the show short, he's shortchanging his assistant in splitting the box office take, and now he says he wants to be "great?" Doing what? He's venal, greedy, lecherous, disrespectful, a phony through and through.

Then it turns out he's pulled the "music box seduction" on the strong man's girlfriend, and the strong man is determined to wreak some physical damage in retaliation. Don't even get me started on what's wrong with this one. Oops--too late. Men fighting over a woman like this entirely overlooks that a woman has her own agency and has to be allowed to make her own choices about who she loves. Nope--she is Strong Man's Woman, and Oz has poached her, so he must be punished. This is Men Folks' Business, honey, so you just stand out of the way. Because it's not like maybe she didn't want to stay with a man with such a violent temper or anything--she doesn't get a say.

So Oz hops into a balloon that isn't entirely his property. (Unidentified carny: Hey! That balloon's half mine! Oz: And the other half is mine! So now we can add property theft to his list of charming attributes.) He narrowly escapes the strong man, and gets tossed into a twister. There the items swirling in the cyclone are more threatening than Dorothy encountered, and Oz is nearly impaled by several piece of white picket fence.

(This is used for 3D effect, as the pickets come flying out toward the audience. It's also probably a commentary on his fear of commitment with Annie--nearly being crucified by the symbols of agricultural domesticity in Hardly Subtle.)

At any rate, Oz is reduced to a gibbering heap, frantically pleading with god to "Let me live! I promise I will do great things!" Despite being Theologically Suspect (God does NOT bargain with terrorists!), Oz gets to pratfall into Oz and land at the feet of Mila Kunis. Who for some reason (*cough*fanservice*cough*) is wearing tight black leather pants and boots, which provoke exactly NO reaction from Oz the Great Horn Dog, despite being as UNlike anything he's seen on a woman's body in turn of the century Kansas.

Why does she wear black leather pants anyway? Nobody else in Oz dresses like that--the other witches wander around in ball gowns, and the female citizens of Oz wear outfits that would meld seamlessly into a Dr. Seuss book. But Mila Kunis skips along in her dominatrix gear, topped with a crimson jacket and enormous hat. She's Mila Kunis, so of course Oz hits on her, but he's actually less interested in her than in The Prophecy and the promise of wealth. Because, of course, about the first thing she says to him is "The Prophecy was true! You are here to become our King and return Oz to its former greatness!"

Does anybody else immediately flash back to Ghostbusters?

Dan Akroyd: No?
Gozer: THEN DIE!!
Ernie Hudson: When somebody asks if you are a god, you say YES! 

Exactly like this--more than once.
Everybody in this movie:"Are you The Wizard?"
James Franco: "Maybe? But probably not."
Everybody in this movie: "But if you are then you get gold/a throne/the girl/popular adulation!"
James Franco: "Yes! Yes I AM THE WIZARD!"
So, as he wanders around Oz, there is talk about a "terrible curse" and how the Wizard is supposed to "save the people" and "return us to our former glory." But frankly, it's hard to see anything wrong in Oz. Colors are hyper-saturated, fields are stuffed with corn, horses are many different colors, and there's a Smaug-sized gold hoard in the Emerald City vault. Oz totally does a Scrooge McDuck and rolls around in it even.

The only--and I mean THE ONLY--evidence of a problem is the appearance of the flying baboons, who are pretty destructive, but they are deployed because The Wizard has arrived. There's no evidence of oppressive tactics, or general unhappiness, or even irritable civil servants. Everybody is well fed, well dressed, racially integrated, and capable of breaking into elaborate choreography at the drop of a hat. Sure, there's some talk about "The Wicked Witch" and "The Curse," but what's the problem? Honestly?

(There is the matter of China Town, which was reportedly destroyed by the flying baboons on the orders of the Wicked Witch--and this is where James Franco meets the same little girl who can't walk that he met in Kansas. The China Girl says "we were all celebrating the arrival of the Wizard when they came." Again--not clear that there was anything wrong with Oz before James Franco showed up.)

Once in the Emerald City, he meets Rachel Weisz as Evanora, who is apparently the Cardinal Mazarin of the place, keeping the place running for the indeterminate amount of time between the death of the former king and the arrival of James Franco. We know she is evil because she's not willing to turn over supreme executive power just because he fell out of a hot air balloon. She wants some proof that he's a legitimate candidate before she turns over all governmental authority and an enormous amount of specie to some moistened wanker who is capable of forming the words "I am the Wizard."

I know! How unreasonable!

She also has the temerity to tell her sister, the dangerously naive and gullible Theodora (Mila Kunis) that maybe, just maybe, she shouldn't be ordering her coronation wardrobe just yet, because James Franco doesn't seem to be the commitment type. He just might not have actually promised that Theodora will rule as queen--which is pretty darn savvy of Evanora, because hello! That's exactly who he is.

Well, Mila Kunis overreacts, because the twenty minutes she spent with James Franco has rendered life unliveable without him--I'm skeptical. I mean, she is a witch, presumably she has a day job of witchery, right? She does something other than waiting around for eligible bachelors to fall out of the sky so she can maneuver them into marriage and rule the kingdom, doesn't she?  Anyway, she sees him walking next to Michelle Williams (now as Glinda), and she goes full-on psychopath. Anything is better than watching him on the crystal ball cam, busily not killing the blonde witch. Because there are no other men in Oz, apparently. Or maybe there's an obscure marriage law that requires men and women captured on the Oz equivalent of a security camera to be irrevocably affianced. It's also a personal rejection, a message sent intentionally by James Franco, to signal his lack of interest in Mila Kunis. She's not "Theodora the Good," she's "Theodora the Whack Job." I mean, Bro! Beeyotches be cray-cray, amirite?

(Not of fan of this characterization--can you tell?)

The movie pretends to have a twist--which witch is the wicked one? Of course, if you've been paying any attention, there are plenty enough clues. For one, Theodora and Evanora are sisters, which means they are the witches of the East and West. Also, they are brunettes, and Michelle Williams is blonde, so that's proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Anyway! Theodora and Evanora tell James Franco that Michelle Williams is the Wicked Witch and must be killed. And he believes them, because. . .because Rachel Weisz tells him he can't have the gold until he kills the witch, which he has to do because Prophesy! (Do we ever actually hear this prophecy? No, we don't. Just pieces. As convenient to get the plot to the next beat. Personally, I think everybody is just making all this up as they go along.)

What is the one thing we know about the "wicked witch" who is so oppressing Oz? She has flying baboons. Where do the flying baboons come from? Well, the many times they get sent out, they come flying out in an enormous black cloud--from the Emerald City.

Is Michelle Williams in the Emerald City? No, she's been banished to the Dark Forest, allegedly for killing her father, the king, so she could rule. So she's been exiled, she's far away, and nobody wonders who's running the flying baboon circus since she's been gone?  PEOPLE!! USE YOUR BRAINS!! THAT'S WHY YOU HAVE THEM!!

So, in case you are surprised, Rachel Weisz has been running Oz and doesn't want to give it up to somebody who's major qualification seems to be the ability to bounce when dropped from the sky. James Franco fails to kill Michelle Williams, because he notices that she's blonde, and he realizes that she can't be evil. So he cooks up a plan to use his stage magic to scare the witchy sisters out of the Emerald City so he can get the gold.

There is a half-hearted attempt to make him into Han Solo from the first Star Wars movie, setting him up as a guy who is going to take the gold and run away--honestly, do we think we don't remember there is a Wizard in the Wizard of Oz movie? There is running around, there are steampunk goggles and a face projected onto smoke, and the true proof of evil--Rachel Weisz is actually old and ugly! It was just a spell that kept her looking like that! See! Old people don't deserve to rule!

Honestly, it's just such a mess. It's in no way clear that James Franco has any reason to rule in Oz--there is almost nothing about him that is anything other than self-interested. There is an odd sort of pacing too, as though large swaths of the movie were just left out--the journey with Theodora and Oz to the Emerald City starts with them walking, then suddenly there is a carriage with a military escort. How? Why? How much time has passed anyway?

Nor are the themes well parsed. The little girl in Kansas who wanted to walk again was disappointed, but James Franco manages to repair the broken china legs of the China Girl. But that was just a matter of having glue--there wasn't any change of heart, or particular sacrifice involved. It wasn't even magic--it was just glue.

Nor does he change his relationship with Zach Braff, who is a flying monkey in a bellhop uniform in Oz. He starts out the movie manipulating the monkey for his own convenience, forcing him to carry a heavy bag that keeps him from being able to fly. Then--they just stop interacting? The bag goes away somehow? There's literally no resolution to that subplot.

In summary--apparently, Oz needs a ruler with a Y chromosome, because women in charge just ruin things, even though there's not really any evidence of things being ruined. (There is the matter of murdering the king, which apparently happened, and Evanora did, but not clear how, or why, or what the rules for succession were, or ANYTHING.) Just take it on faith--women can't run a country, and nobody inside Oz has any claim, and they are all perfectly happy to let a foreigner come in and take all their gold! Because he's a man?

And there is a completely spark free kiss between James Franco and Michelle Williams--so Oz and Glinda were a thing? Really? And how did that work out? Not well, judging by the lack of passion between them.

And it could have been good! Really!

But it is gorgeous to look at. Just don't think about it too much.



Dan O. said...

I think that the problem most people might have with the movie is that there aren't as much references to the original Wizard of Oz movie as one might expect. Legally, they can’t, but they still throw some stuff in there every once and awhile and that was worth a fun watch. Good review Cate.

Amy Robertson said...

" (Incidentally, Wicked, the book, does this in spades and from a very sophisticated perspective. The musical, not so much.)" Amen!

As always, great review & fun read.

Amit Shayar said...

The film is a visual marvel, i felt like i was in heaven while watching the breathtaking scenes . it takes your imagination to unexplored depths. Brilliant use of technology.