Oz the Great and Powerful is a good film but not a great one, and is in fact fairly interesting, though not perhaps for the intended reasons. It’s an unfortunate fact that any Wizard of Oz related story, particularly a prequel, is going to be compared to the musical, Wicked, and will most likely suffer from that comparison. I went into Oz with an open mind, even if I had low expectations, and I came away having generally enjoyed it. It’s neither as deep nor emotional as Wicked, but you shouldn’t expect it to be. It’s fun and funny, and while it has its faults, I’d still recommend it, especially considering my larger impressions that I’ll get to in the analysis section after the review.
Oz the Great and Powerful tells the story of the man behind the curtain, whom we all know previous versions of the story to be a fraud. The wizard we’re presented with in this film starts as Oscar Diggs (James Franco), an illusionist at a travelling circus in Kansas, who’s presented as a womanizing con man. Oz, as his “friends” call him, recruits attractive young ladies to be in his magic act, abuses his assistant (Zach Braff), and perhaps holds a tiny flame for his former love, Annie (Michelle Williams). Oz actually seems to be a gifted illusionist and inventor, a master of sleight of hand and misdirection. He shows a fondness for Thomas Edison and his creations and weaves creative bits of deception into his act.
Oz, however, also dreams of being a great man, not just a good one, but is stuck in his current situation. One day, at the end of a successful performance, a girl in a wheelchair begs him to make her walk. He spent the show telling the audience that if they simply believe that he can perform magic, then he’ll be able to, and she says that she believes in him. When he admits that he can’t, he’s pelted with vegetables and flees, only to be confronted by the angry lover of a girl he’d been wooing. He escapes aboard a hot air balloon, is immediately drawn into a tornado, and winds up in the land of Oz (where all tornadoes in early 1900s Kansas apparently lead).
After arriving in the land that shares his name, he encounters Theodora (Mila Kunis), a witch upon whom he immediately puts his standard moves. She falls both for his charms and for the possibility that he might be the wizard king foretold in a prophesy who will defeat the Wicked Witch. She leads him to the Emerald City (rescuing a flying monkey along the way, who swears to be his servant) and introduces him to her sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who sends him and the monkey away to conquer the Wicked Witch and thus become king and have infinite riches. The Wicked Witch, however, is not what he has been told.
To say any more would give away the plot, such as it is. The story is full of “twists,” none of which are particularly surprising, but I’m still hesitant to spoil them. We all know how the story will end, with Oz as the “wonderful wizard”, Glinda as the good witch, and someone covered in green with a pointy black hat and a broomstick, and unfortunately Oz’s story is its biggest weakness. Wicked used familiar settings and characters to explore human nature and the question of “are people born wicked or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?” It’s perhaps unfair to compare a dramatic stage musical with a lighthearted, effects-driven family film, but Oz just doesn’t give us much in the way of depth.
None of that means that Oz is not fun or enjoyable. Oz’s greatest strength has to be its director, Sam Raimi. He brings with him his unique, skewed sense of humor and style, and he makes the most of the comic bits of the script. He also crafts sympathetic performances from the actors, making the characters somewhat compelling even if they’re not especially deep. Franco shows Oz’s disappointment in himself, and his belief that a great man is lying just under his surface. The witches are more hit or miss. Glinda makes for a compassionate leader, and shows a deeper understanding of Oz’s nature (both the man and the land). Evanora comes off as mostly uninteresting, while Theodora is interesting to watch even if her motivations seem rather shallow.
The film is a visual marvel, particularly in 3D. 3D films have mostly done away with sight gags and images flying at the audience, but Raimi makes good use of the old tricks in Oz. The effects enhance the story, in a way I’ll discuss more after the review. The opening of the film is especially creative. Much in the way the 1939 Wizard of Oz began in sepia before transitioning to color, Oz starts off in black and white, 4:3 Academy Ratio and mono sound while in Kansas, before opening up to color, widescreen and surround sound when Oz lands in Oz. But even in the opening, the onscreen action occasionally breaks out of frame, such as when a firebreather’s jet of flame escapes the image and flows out into the black space alongside. It’s a clever and creative vision, which can be said for the entire film.
The ending, too, is especially good, and the combination of effects and storytelling work wonderfully. If the middle of the film is somewhat less interesting, the movie doesn’t suffer much from it. For fans of the various Oz incarnations, from the books to the 1939 movie and beyond, there are lots of references to the other stories, beyond just the obvious setting and characters. Just like in the 1939 MGM film, some of the actors play roles both in Kansas and in Oz. Also, most cleverly, the girl Oz loves in Kansas, Annie, has been proposed to by a man with the last name Gale, a clear reference to Dorothy’s name and a possible hint at future stories to be told. In the end, Oz the Great and Powerful may not be a masterpiece, but it’s a fun film, with an offbeat sense of humor, a creative beginning and a stellar ending, all while making great use of 3D. Oz learns in the film that sometimes it’s more important to be a good man than a great man, and while his movie isn’t what I’d call great, it is most definitely good, and sometimes that’s good enough.
What I really want to talk about as far as Oz the Great and Powerful is concerned is how I’ve come to interpret it. (Warning: spoilers below.) Oz begins as a stage magician. We see him levitating a girl in his act, and fills the act with pyrotechnics, sound effects, and mystical jargon. At one point, one of the audience members stands up in outrage, pointing out that he can see the wire holding the floating girl. This however, turns out to be all part of the show, and Oz’s assistant tosses him a sword with which he cuts the wires, leaving the girl still floating above the stage. It’s a cleverly written and directed moment, using one of the best of all magic tricks: convincing the audience that they know how a trick is performed, only to prove them wrong and deepen the sense of mystery.
Oz desires to be a combination of Houdini and Edison, and his caravan is full of inventions and tricks that reflect the two geniuses. Of particular note is a praxinoscope, an early moving picture device, which he tinkers with and fixes. When he ends up in Oz, with one small bag of tricks, the things he takes for granted become magic to the Ozlanders (Ozians?). He frightens away a lion with some flash powder, and he fixes the broken legs of a girl made of china with simple glue. The China Girl is a callback to the girl in the wheelchair from Kansas (they’re both played by Joey King), and is a great moment in the film. But Oz’s biggest accomplishment comes at the end.
Oz eventually joins up with Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, whose father was the king of Oz and was poisoned by Evanora, who then framed Glinda, branding her the “wicked witch”. Glinda brings Oz to Munchkinland where the citizens are thrilled that the prophesied wizard has finally arrived to take back the throne. Oz confesses to Glinda that he has no powers, but she already knows, however she needs him to be the Wizard if they’re ever going to have a chance of winning. He devises a scheme using sleight of hand and technical wizardry and confronts Evanora and Theodora in the town square of Emerald City.
It’s an elaborate and beautiful scene. He fools everyone (even those on his side) into thinking he’s going to run off with the treasure in his hot air balloon (proving that he’s not a good man after all), but Theodora (now the true Wicked Witch, looking as she did in the classic 1939 film) destroys the balloon and it crashes in flames to the ground. But as they gloat in his death, his face suddenly appears in the smoke, taunting them and saying that in death he is now more powerful than anyone. They attempt to destroy his floating head image, but he’s only smoke and it causes them to fear him. Upon saying that he will bring out the stars, Munchkinlanders launch fireworks into the sky and at the wicked witches, frightening them away for good. Throughout the whole scene (or at least after the balloon crash) we watch Oz inside a caravan controlling the magic, using everything from a large version of his praxinoscope to the cheesiest of sound effects from his old magic act.
You see, while the point of the show was to drive away Evanora and Theodora, the real objective was to convince the citizens of Oz that he really is the powerful wizard that has been foretold. He has to make everyone believe in the Wizard of Oz in order to defeat the witches and keep them away. Being able to make people believe is Oz’s gift, though he views it as a curse in the beginning. He is so successful in his magic act that the girl in the wheelchair believes that he can fix her. He doesn’t help the situation by opening his act stating that their belief is what gives him power. However, in the end, his ability to make the Ozlanders believe is what drives the witches away and what gives him real power to do good. Oz the Great and Powerful’s greater message seems to be that belief can be more powerful than power itself. (I’m sure there’s a religious metaphor in there, about how belief in God, whether there really is one or not, is the more powerful thing. But I’m not interested in that discussion at this time.)
While that’s interesting, there’s something even more interesting that Oz may be trying to say (or possibly I’m imagining it, but it’s still interesting). There’s a scene in the middle of the movie, after Oz has confessed to Glinda that he is a fraud. He’s feeling low about himself when China Girl asks him to tuck her in. As he does, he tells her a bedtime story about Thomas Edison, “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” who could take bits of wire and glass and make people believe. It’s the moment that inspires his fantastical plan and convinces him that he has something to contribute.
What’s so interesting about this? Well it’s this scene that made me realize that Oz the Great and Powerful is a metaphor, and a rather brilliant one, for the idealist power of cinema and the current state of the industry. Oz’s magic act, in the film’s intro, sells very few tickets, much like ticket sales have generally been dropping recently. Those people who do come to the show are cynics, quick to point out the flaws in his act and far more interested in the metaphorical “man behind the curtain” than in the show itself. Even once he plays their skepticism against them, by cutting the wires, things don’t go as planned. They demand even greater proof of his power, and when he fails to make the wheelchair girl walk they chase him off the stage.
Even in 1939, reviewers didn’t find The Wizard of Oz wholly convincing, with some saying that only kids will be fully sold by the images onscreen. The wheelchair girl’s wide eyed belief contrasts with the adults’ skepticism. It’s easy to go to a film today and say, “Oh, that was motion capture, and that was filmed on a greenscreen, and that’s an actual set,” and so on, especially considering the amount of behind the scenes material available. One might say that there’s no magic left in movies anymore, because we know all of the tricks. Some would say that’s a good thing, that skepticism keeps us from being taken advantage of. Oz, himself, is a con man, particularly with his interactions with women, and the movie seems to point that way in the beginning.
The ending of the film seems to tell a completely different story, however. We know exactly how Oz pulls off his deception, conveniently involving an early form of motion pictures, yet it doesn’t make the moment less magical. It represents the power that film can have to inspire, if only we could believe in it. It’s the reason people of all ages love to go to places like Disney World. It’s not to feel like a kid again, but it’s to believe again. I’ve never been one to associate belief with childhood, as if it’s something to grow out of. Knowing how the trick is done can sometimes make the experience even more rewarding. Oz’s final show is the work of hundreds of Munchkinlanders being directed by one man’s vision, just as films are the work of hundreds or thousands of artists and technicians fulfilling the vision of the director. Knowing that can bring a sense of weight to the film, making it more than just an image on a screen.
WALL-E is one of my favorite films of all time, and when it came out I really thought it could have the power to change the world, if only people could believe in it. I was actually so disappointed by the reactions to it that I quit writing my review halfway through in disgust. It was universally praised as an emotional and stunning work of art, whose technical attributes had no equal. But that was it. Now, not every film is supposed to change the world, and there are some films that should most definitely not have any kind of power. But if we can no longer be inspired, to believe in something bigger, and to use that inspiration and belief to change things, then what’s the point? Film will never just be images on a screen to me. There can be truth in them even though they’re fake. We don’t need to pick everything apart in order to see how they work. Sometimes it’s more important to believe.