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Film Review: Oz The Great and Powerful

Oz The Great and Powerful (2013; Directed by Sam Raimi)

Disney’s expensive and flashy reanimation of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz mythos is saddled by as many rosy cliches and saggy bromides as it is buoyed by wondrous visual imagination. But Oz The Great and Powerful is redeemed by its knowing winks at its own fundamental silliness. This abiding self-awareness is visible not merely in the broadness of its actors’ performances, as miles-broad as they often are. As the origin story of Oz’s man behind the curtain (this time, we are asked to pay lots of attention to him), the film is a fitting tribute to the classic magician’s act of illusion, misdirection, ingenuity, and, above all, flamboyant, old-fashioned showmanship. These are not only its textual themes (and ideological implications) but the basis of its technical cinematic element as well, as director Sam Raimi celebrates the theatrical flourishes, exoticism and makeshift trickeries of the carnival midway, transposed onto the frame of a blockbuster fantasy epic film.

But Raimi opens with that carnival midway, in a field in Kansas in 1905, leaving no doubt that his sympathies, his artistic inclinations, and his cinematic antecedents lie in league with the circus freaks, trick shooters, and showy hack conjurers of this vanished, romanticized culture. One such hack conjurer is our protagonist, Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a self-involved, egotistical, ambitious carnival magician who puts on under-attended, orientalist-tinged performances for hayseeds of varying degrees credulity. He treats his long-suffering assistant and his sole sort-of-friend Frank (Zach Braff) with cavalier dismissal, and leaves a trail of broken-hearted female conquests behind him. To the great credit of not only the grinning, rakish Franco but also screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire (from a story by Kapner), Oscar (“Oz” for short) remains essentially unreformed in his abilities, appetites, and personal foibles, even when circumstances demand of him not only the greatness he aspires to but also the goodness he feels he cannot achieve.

What are those circumstances? Well, as Oscar escapes in a hot-air balloon from the angry strongman husband of one of his scorned lovers, he is swept up in a towering tornado and begs whatever force summoned the avenging storm for a chance to prove himself to be worthy of survival (jagged splinters of wood jab through the walls of the balloon’s basket in this sequence, a playful 3D-era homage to horror imagery from the erstwhile director of The Evil Dead). Oscar does survive, and drifts out of the squared aspect ratio and black-and-white palette of the Kansas sequence into a widescreen technicolour land of marvels called (like him) Oz. This technical transition is an obvious homage to the legendary shift into colour of the 1939 MGM classic The Wizard of Oz, a film that Raimi and Kapner reference and rejig but whose actual contents must be tiptoed carefully around for legal reasons (although Baum’s Oz books are in the public domain, Warner Bros. owns the rights to iconic elements of the iconic film, and character likenesses in particular could not be replicated).

Copyright stipulations do not dissuade Raimi from making his Wizard’s entrance into Oz a memorable one, however. After a rollercoaster ride in the balloon basket over a waterfall (3D gimmick again), Oscar drifts past a wondrous visual and aural symphony of musical flora. Multichromatic flowers hang pendulously and ring out like church bells, crimson butterflies flutter past lilypads tapped gently like cymbals by dripping dew and strum sinuous fiddlehead reeds like violin strings, and segmented bamboo catches the wind to blow a woodwind’s welcome. Reveals of CGI-assisted wonder are a stereotypical element of these recent blockbuster fairy tales, and Raimi’s film includes several more of diminishing affect (in one later such moment, our aesthetic reaction is clumsily prompted by a character intoning “It’s beautiful!”, as if we are unaware that it’s supposed to be). But this arrival sequence is a genuine overture of awe that Oz never again quite matches.

Emerging from this quasi-dream, Oscar is met by the lovely Theodora (Mila Kunis), who immediately and without much prompting identifies him as the great Wizard prophesied to arrive in Oz, claim the throne as king, and liberate the land from evil and tyranny. Her good impression of him is further reinforced by his freeing of a trapped flying monkey in a bellhop uniform named Finley (voiced by Braff), who becomes his defacto sidekick. What she neglects to mention, however, is that her own black-clad sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) is the actual source of that evil and tyranny in the land, lording over the green Art Deco pinnacles of the Emerald City with her crystal ball, mastery of finger lightning, and armies of Winkie Guards and vicious flying babboons.

Still, the naive Theodora falls for the handsome, flirtatious putative Wizard (Franco revels in his character’s slippery, indulgent charms) and believes him to be not only the saviour of the land but of herself as well. Ever the nomadic cad, Oscar betrays her faith not only in his ability but in his affection for her alone as well. This precipitates the scorned Theodora’s turn towards a wickedness equivalent to (if not greater than) that of her sister, which, without giving away too many particulars, has a distinct chartreuse tinge to it. Both Kunis and Weisz give themselves up to the camp value of their villainy, though Weisz’ subtle sarcastic nastiness is more amusing than Kunis’ overt cackling badness.

At any rate, Oscar must stay a step ahead of these malevolent sisters, who dispatch him to earn his throne by venturing into the Dark Forest (is there any fantasy realm that doesn’t boast one of those?) and slaying a Wicked Witch who turns out to be a Good one: Glinda, Good Witch of the South (Michelle Williams). Glinda’s kind and generous father was the last King of Oz before being usurped and killed by Evanora, and his daughter rules the last remnant of Ozians resisting the Wicked Witch’s domination, protecting them from Evanora with her bubble-magic. At Glinda’s urging (though she knows full well that he’s no Wizard), Oscar is to take charge of her citizens, a doughy petite bourgeoisie of Quadling farmers, aged tinkers, and singing Munchkins, and forge them into an army that can defeat the Witches’ forces and free Oz from their tyranny. Though he has his doubts about their value as soldiers (they are rather portly and decadent), Oscar does realize that they are well-adapted to pull off an ambitious plan of trickery much more in tune with his talents for misdirection and sleight-of-hand.

Oscar’s grand scheme is grounded in precisely the tinkering technical creativity and arm-sweeping carnival showmanship that Raimi romanticizes and identifies with in the opening scenes, and is associated with Oscar’s American contemporary “wizard” hero, Thomas Edison. For all of its computer-assisted technology and grandiloquent Hollywood thematic material of good triumphing over evil and belief in ideals trumping deceptive appearances (about which more in a moment), Oz The Great and Powerful is conceived of by its director as a direct spiritual heir to the turn-of-the-century travelling cavalcades of wonders that captivated the same emerging mass audiences that embraced the modern fairy tales of Baum’s Oz novels beginning in 1900. Few current big-name directors are so well-attuned to precisely the mix of greasy histrionics and ingenious stagecraft demanded and reified by this particular material as Raimi is, and he mostly strikes just the necessary balance.

Ideologically, mind you, the effect of Oz The Great and Powerful is not only different but perhaps even directly contrary to the old-fashioned entertainment impulse being lauded. Indeed, the film encases Oscar’s ultimate triumph, achieved as it is through makeshift artifice exploiting mass belief in the grounded terms of power and governance, in fundamentally Straussian assumptions. Oscar is the enlightened elite that sells a seductive lie of magical power to the gullible Ozian masses, an ingenious mustering of ideological propaganda in service of the common good. The decent and well-meaning Glinda not only tolerates this illusion but enables its establishment, and the egotistical stage performer Oscar Diggs embraces his new role as a symbol, a disembodied spectacle of hegemonic power. They both believe firmly in the power of belief (of ideology, as Slavoj Žižek would probably say) as an essential conduit of control and direction of the energies of the masses, even if that belief is based on a lie whose deceptive truth they both fully realize.

These implications lay an interesting framework for anticipated events in the established mythology of Oz, namely the arrival of Dorothy Gale (whose future involvement in the narrative is hinted at subtly in the marriage-taken surname of one of Oscar’s Kansan ex-sweethearts) and her unmasking of the Wizard’s hegemonic illusion. But this promise is tempered. Raimi’s film relies too heavily on the good-evil binaries and banal quest narratives of contemporary Hollywood fairy-tale adaptations; it’s no surprise that Joe Roth, who oversaw similar-pitched products like Alice in Wonderland and Snow White and the Huntsman, is the lead producer here.

Straussian neo-conservative implications aside, Oz The Great and Powerful boasts neither the sociopolitical complexity or moral ambiguity of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked books, and its production, release and commercial success likely procludes those superior literary Oz adaptations from receiving the serious cinematic treatment they richly deserve (a film version of the proscribed but popular Wicked musical remains likely, and a miniseries version of Maguire’s first tome at least has been rumoured to be in the works at Disney’s television arm, ABC). But for its imagination, humour, and dedication to anachronistic, carnivalesque showmanship, Oz The Great and Powerful, despite its foibles, still deserves to take a bow, if not a very deep one.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. August 16, 2013 at 8:47 am

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