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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

If you were to cover a billboard with the names of all the main characters to appear throughout Frank L. Baum's Oz series, and then blindfold yourself and throw a dart at the board, I'd say there would be a 70% chance that you would hit the name of a female character.

To say that the Oz books have feminist subtext is not an exaggeration. Baum's mother-in-law was a renowned woman's rights activist, and Baum himself was the secretary of Aberdeen's Woman's Suffrage Club. It's no coincidence that the most powerful characters in Oz – for good or evil – are women, that most of the societies there are matriarchal, and that its chief explorer is a Plucky Girl from Kansas.

So naturally, Hollywood decided to forego all this girl-power nonsense and concentrate on the backstory of the Wizard instead.

Railing aside, I watched Oz the Great and Powerful after writing my meta on Glinda and Elphaba, out of sheer interest in what this film would do with these characters. Let's keep this short: it's bad. Not just how they characterize the Witches, but the whole film in general.



Like so many stories these days, from Gotham to Merlin, Star Wars to Clariel, this is a prequel. And like so many Wizard of Oz adaptations, it has no idea whether to take its cue from Baum's novel or the MGM film. Do people even know the difference anymore? Here the visuals (the Emerald City, the Witches' appearances) are clearly adapted from the 1939 film, though there are several nods to book material: Winkies and Quadlings exist alongside Munchkins, and Glinda is correctly referred to as the Witch of the South (though there's no sign of the elderly Witch of the North).

Oscar Diggs is the man who will be Oz, eking out a living as a stage illusionist in a travelling circus. This involves handing out cheap music boxes to pretty girls, treating his assistant like dirt, and declaiming that he wants to be a great man, not a mere good one. One hot air balloon and a tornado later, he's moved from sepia tones and 4:3 ratio to brilliant colour and widescreen as he lands in Oz.

It's at this point that beautiful Witches start fawning all over him, declaring him their prophesied saviour. Because despite having  boundless magical power, none of them can do a damn thing until a dude shows up. Actual line: "The King's prophecy was true! He said that a great wizard bearing the name of our land would descend from the heavens and save us all. And here you are; here to claim your throne."

One good, one evil and one hanging in the balance.
It doesn't matter, James Franco will hit on all of them!

As fatigued as I am with the prequel format, there's one trope I'm even more exhausted by: The Prophesied Chosen One. At this point it's the laziest way of kicking a plot into gear - by taking a protagonist and grafting a destiny onto them, through no effort or decision-making of their own. I miss the Frodos of fantasy-fiction: the ones that aren't controlled by the workings of a prophesy that caters especially to them, but who make a clear and conscious choice to take action and do the right thing.

Here, practically every move Oscar makes is due to a woman taking him by the hand and telling him what to do.

As it happens, the film makes an effort to conceal the true identities of the three Witches (and by proxy, their eventual fates), here called Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and "the Wicked Witch" (Michelle Williams). Of course, the movie poster will instantly clue you in to who Michelle Williams is really playing, but the misdirection is not a totally bad idea – at least until the time comes to resolve it.

SPOILERS

Eventually, the so-called "Wicked Witch" turns out to be Glinda (the victim of a smear campaign), Evanora is the Witch of the East, and Theodora ends up the green-skinned Witch of the West. And how does such a seemingly sweet and naïve young woman become such an iconic embodiment of wickedness?

Oscar breaks her heart.

Seriously. He goes out of his way to charm her, realizes it's getting too serious, takes off on his "mission" without saying goodbye, ends up realizing Glinda's true identity and makes the moves on her instead. Even Angelina Jolie's Maleficent would roll her eyes at this tosh.

I don't pretend to understand the hat. And that's not
even touching on the leather pants she's wearing.

So after the lovelorn Theodora wails about how the guy she's known for all of three minutes has destroyed her heart forever, Evanora offers her an apple which – for some reason – transforms her into the hook-nose, green-skinned witch of the MGM film, with a personality transplant to match. So not only is Theodora's transformation down to a bad breakup, but also a magical spell that she apparently never breaks and has no real control over.

Somewhere out there Hayden Christensen's Darth Vader is face-palming.

For the record, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams are good (not great), Mila Kunis is fine up until she's forced to channel Margaret Hamilton (and then gets terrible) and James Franco is James Franco. To his credit, it's not like he acts self-conscious in the role. I can think of a few actors who would be visibly embarrassed to be in such nonsense, but at least Franco looks like he's trying.

So after establishing that despite all of Glinda's magical powers, she still needs the help of a side-show conman to defeat the wicked sisters, a coup is organized to wrest back the Emerald City from their control.

At one stage they have to reduce Glinda to a Distressed Damsel just to give Oscar the room he needs to remain relevant, and to rub salt in the wound the film ends with the two of them making out behind the infamous curtain in the throne room. Glinda and the Wizard? A couple? That's just wrong.

At this point it's clear that the script really wrote itself into a corner regarding Glinda.

In which Glinda saves our hero from certain death.
Oz is so lucky that he finally turned up!

On the one hand she's in possession of immense magical powers and is thankfully allowed to defeat Evanora all by herself. But on the other it makes no sense that she would need Oscar's help at any point during the battle against Theodora and Evanora. There's nothing he does that couldn't have been achieved just as easily (if not more so) by her magic.

I guess that's what happens when you side-line powerful female characters in stories that should rightfully be theirs: plot holes the size of train tunnels appear.

***
There are a couple of good bits. In particular is the depiction of China Country, which to the best of my knowledge has never been included on film before. In the book it's a random location that Dorothy passes by on her way to Glinda's castle in the south; so random in fact that it made it onto TV Tropes' Big Lipped Alligator Moment page:

The first book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, has the China Country, where all the inhabitants are made out of china. Some of them, such as the singing china clown, have been broken and mended several times. They neither help nor hinder Dorothy and her friends, they are introduced out of nowhere and have nothing to do with the story, and they're never mentioned again in the book afterward (or in any of the later Oz books, for that matter). A surviving earlier draft doesn't include this adventure at all, and it may have been added just to pad out the book.

But the place certainly had the potential for a vivid rendering on the big screen, and the film certainly delivers on this score. Oscar wanders through the destroyed remnants of a tiny china village and finds a half-broken china doll. She's beautifully realized, right down to the hairline cracks you see on the surface of most porcelain, and though she doesn't get a name, she's easily the most appealing character in the whole story. Her inclusion is a nice nod to the original text, and in bringing to life something that's never been visualized before.

See? Adorable.


The film also references the framing device of the MGM film by giving a few characters dual roles in both Kansas and Oz – particularly Michelle Williams as both Glinda and a woman called Annie, who comes to see Oscar and tell him she's on the verge of accepting a proposal from farmer John Gale... unless Oscar can give her a reason not to.

On meeting Glinda in Oz, Oscar notes the resemblance between Annie and Glinda – only for nothing more to be said about it. And since this version of Oz isn't a dream, it goes completely unexplained as to why these two women are identical.

The eerie thing is that in my essay about Glinda/Elphaba, I pointed out that Glinda is the only significant character in the MGM film that doesn't get a Kansas counterpart, and conjectured that perhaps she represented Dorothy's absent (presumed dead) mother. And what do you know, here the Glinda counterpart is in fact the future mother of Dorothy – if we assume that she went ahead with her marriage to John Gale.

So I guess in that respect, the film contains an intriguing little addition to the Oz mythos.

But ultimately, Oz the Great and Powerful is a grab-bag of some of the most wearying fantasy tropes of all time. To call them clichés at this point would be an insult to clichés, and I can pretty much guarantee that despite the stunningly bright visuals, there is not a single plot development that you won't see coming a mile away. Evanora is blandly evil, Glinda is blandly good, and Theodora has, hands-down, the WORST villain origin story I have EVER seen.

In short, it's not so much bad as it is simply uninspired. And sometimes that's worse than being bad. At least you can have a good time laughing at the bad stuff, whereas this leaves you wondering why anyone bothered.  

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