Completing Dahl: Sometime Never - A Fable for Supermen
Friday Five: 5 (Family Friendly) Fanfictions

Film 101: Oz the Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi 2013)

Oz_-_The_Great_and_Powerful_PosterI've got Oz on the brain these days; I just reread the first six Oz books recently, having loved them as a kid but not reread them in close to two and a half decades. They're fun! I can see why I loved them when I was eight. I can see, too, why I outgrew them; they're imaginative but slight, and many have very little plot-wise to hold them together. And many are informed by Baum's complicated relationship to the material; on the one hand, the Oz books made him rich. On the other, they clearly bored him to tears.

But! Oz! Somewhere over the rainbow! Munchkins and talking animals and Kansas, oh my! Oz is such a part of the cultural fairytale lexicon that it still feels refreshing and fun and worth dipping into, more than a century after the publication of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and close to a century after the premiere of the classic The Wizard of Oz. I mean, hell, it's probably the preeminent American fairytale, isn't it? A restless midwest farm girl has a magical adventure; learns the value of home and family.

You can see why people just keep going back to the Oz well.

And you can see why Sam Raimi was attracted to it; he loves a layered post-modern challenge to an old storytelling trope. And, rather more crudely, I suspect Tim Burton's surprise - and unfortunate, for those of us who dislike 3D - success with Alice and Wonderland may have had something to do with getting Raimi's Oz film greenlit: cult-figure director with darkly whimsical sensibilities takes on robust fairytale; gives it a modern twist. Worked for Burton; will work for Raimi. QED.

Well, like Burton's Alice in Wonderland, it doesn’t.

I have regularly documented my feelings for Sam Raimi's directorial style, so I'm a little hesitant about this review. It's fair to argue that Raimi's films are simply not for me; that I should just accept this fact and leave well enough alone. But I can't, for a couple of reasons. To begin with, he keeps making films I want to see. More importantly, however, Raimi makes films that almost work for me. They're imaginative and ambitious and the fact that they haven't yet stuck the landing doesn't mean I don't think they someday will.

But I've tortured my metaphor long enough. To be totally clear: Oz the Great and Powerful, like every other Raimi film (I’d argue), is a mess, but it's an imaginative, sprawling, ambitious mess. And one of these days Raimi might get it right and finally make a sprawling, ambitious, imaginative success.

He’s going to work a little harder on his female characters, though.

Spoilers for the film follow.

 A quick run-down of the plot: James Franco's Oz (Oscar Ten Million Cutesy Middle Names Diggs) is a cut-rate sideshow charlatan magician who is 'in love' with Michelle Williams' pretty farmgirl Em (yes, she leaves him for Henry Gale, ho ho ho) but who really likes to have a little bit on the side, too. At, like, all times, with any girl who catches his eye. He gets caught out scamming the locals and, in running away, gets tangled up in a balloon and whisked away to a magical colourful CG wonderland.

He immediately meets Mila Kunis' Theodora, a beautiful idiot witch (seriously: so dumb) who tells him he's the subject of a prophecy about ruling Oz. Oscar responds by immediately seducing her (sex is gently implied). Theodora takes him to the Emerald City to meet Evanora (Rachel Weisz), her sister, who's ruling Oz. Evanora sends him off on a quest to kill the Wicked Witch of the West as an excuse to get Oscar out of the castle long enough to turn Theodora, who is goopily obsessed with him, against him. Oh, and also to rid herself of pesky do-gooder pretty blonde witch Glinda (Michelle Williams).

(It goes without saying that Evanora and Theodora are brunettes.)


Of course, Glinda WHO LOOKS REMARKABLY LIKE THE WOMAN OSCAR IS IN LOVE WITH explains that Evanora is the true wicked witch, and a usurper (having murdered Glinda's father); Oscar and Glinda and their ragtag band of annoying sidekicks (a flying monkey, a girl made of china (named The China Girl), form a plan to take back the Emerald City. Meanwhile Evanora has managed to turn Theodora against Oscar by saying he made a pass at her despite having professed his feelings for Theodora; Theodora freaks out and turns ugly and evil.

Oscsar and Glinda create a fake attack on the Emerald City which results primarily in Glinda being taken captive and chained up. Fighty fight fight; Evanora is defeated and also becomes ugly; both fly away. Oscar rescues Glinda, becomes ruler of the Emerald City and kisses his pretty blonde witch, because now somehow he's a better man than he was.

There is, of course, a sequel in the works.

Let's start with OtGaP's over-reliance on CG. Seriously, everything in this film is bursting with light and color and is so unbelievably fake and ridiculous that it's totally overwhelming. And maybe that's the point! The audience is being beaten into submission with the film's fakeness, its superreality. Because OZ IS A FAIRYTALE LAND OF HAPPY MAGIC. It is not the gothic dead forests and crumbling castles of so many recent fairytale reimaginings (Snow White and the Huntsman, for example.) It is OZ. OZ OZ OZ. Emeralds and yellow bricks and COLOR EVERYWHERE. Like, fine. Okay. CG is part of the cinematic landscape these days, and it can be and often is done well.

But it's not done well here.

Remeber that crazy 80s fantasy film trope, with the  stuff floating around everywhere?  At least that stuff was real stuff that, like, landed on the actors. In OtGaP it is all fakery mcfakerson. Again, this isn't necessarily inherently bad; everything in film is fakey mcfakerson! But the problem with CG is that it has no weight. It has no physical presence. Actors in a CG film are set an impossible task: to pretend the physical presence of an entire world. And then to make us believe in it. No matter how good the CG (and it’s not really that great here) the film will only work if the actors can sell the CG.

In OtGaP… they don’t.

Let's compare two Oz films side by side. In a famous sequence from The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy tries to pick an apple from a tree in a pleasant orchard. Unfortunately, these trees are sentient, (and grumpy), and don't much like having their apples picked. So they throw them at her and her companions, chasing them away. In OtGaP, there's an entirely animated 'comedy' sequence in which Oscar, Glinda, the flying monkey and the China Girl nearly fall off a cliff. They grab each other and scrabble at the cliff-face and manage not to fall, and it's supposed to be cute and funny and lighthearted, and yet it fails. The sequence fails not just because it's simply not funny, but because the animators fail to capture the physicality of their subjects - the pull of a coat, the way a center of gravity moves when an upright character leans over. Without weight - even the illusion of it - there's no real sense of danger.


The Wizard of Oz's landscape is no less fake than that of OtGaP, but in The Wizard of Oz it's actors in rubber suits throwing rubber balls (or real apples!), and OtGaP it's just-absolutely-not-really-there greenscreen animations. Physical interaction makes the magical landscape of The Wizard of Oz - and, say, King Kong (the original), The Clash of the Titans, The Fellowship of the Rings - real in a way the hyperreal supersaturated colors of OtGaP couldn't hope to mimic.

But the actors can’t really sell the CG anyway. Franco is dreadful, Williams has nothing to do, Kunis returns to her screechy annoying spoiled teenager act from That 70s Show and Weisz overacts in the hopes of overcompensating for her undercooked character. Every one of these actors has shown real talent in other films and tv shows – Freaks & Geeks, Brokeback Mountain, The Constant Gardner, Black Swan – and exactly none of that talent is on display in this film.

But it is no surprise the OtGaP actors are all so awful, considering they must have spent the entire production traipsing around in a green-draped soundstage. Franco's sins (and they are many; he's so bad in this film) are partially explained by the fact that he spends something like a full quarter of his screen-time talking only to CG characters; if that's tough for Ian McKellen it must be murder for anyone else. But enough about the acting and the effects. Let’s talk about the characters.

Raimi's treatment of female characters is actually my biggest problem with the film. (Except the thing where the film is so boring, and there's simply no coming back from boring. But we'll get back to that.)

Now, look. We accept a lot of character development and motivation for women that we never, ever would for men. A lot of this stems from old fashioned ideas about how men and women are different: women are caring and nurturing and gentle and soft and give give give, while men are strong and violent and distant and take take take; gender essentialism blah blah blah and it's really just so very dull. I mean, seriously; in addition to being astonishingly outdated and gross and, oh yeah, total horseshit, all this stuff is just so boring. But these tropes still infect writing: books, films, comic books, blog posts, Twitter, Reddit, laws, whatever.

The female characters in OtGaP are especially undercooked; each has a single characterizing note and each has a single motivating factor (except for the China Girl, who has no motivation whatsoever). Let’s examine them!

- Glinda: She's good because that's... who she is. Good. There’s nothing remotely interesting or surprising or nuanced about her. And that makes her boring. Honestly, even Captain America occasionally questions authority! But it seems that Glinda the Good Witch exists primarily to prove to our protagonist that he can be a better person. That's characterization straight out of romcom 101, and it's deeply problematic.

-Theodora: Look, this whole thing with Theodora is so gross. She begins by having a fling with Oscar, and then gets really jealous because she thinks he also likes her sister. So she gets pissed and turns into the Wicked Witch of the West. Like, literally; she turns green and develops a hook nose and warts and a pointy chin and a cackle because...  she is pissed off at a guy she spent all of 12 hours with. She has so little going on in her life that this meaningless flirtation becomes the defining moment of her entire life.

- Evanora: Rules Oz while everyone else sits around waiting for a prophecy to come true (a prophecy about a dude who'll become king, of course). That Evanora is evil is endlessly repeated: she has an army of winged baboons, and they, we are told, smashed up China Town. Also we're told she poisoned Glinda's father, the last ruler of Oz. But the most evil thing we see her do is to manipulate her sister, who is really, astonishingly stupid, into thinking that Oscar is a womanizing bastard - WHICH HE TOTALLY IS, AS ESTABLISHED BY THE FILM'S FIRST HALF-HOUR, OH MY GOD. That Evanora is evil is taken as gospel truth and repeated ad nauseum, but the most evil thing we actually ever see her do is... try to keep her sister from getting involved with a really sleazy guy. Seriously, not a single person in Oz looks at all unhappy about being ruled by Evanora; at least the White Queen made everyone in Narnia really cold!

- The China Girl: She's the only survivor of a massacre perpetrated on her home, China Town. Oscar fixes her broken legs and then tries to send her to the Emerald City; she throws a temper tantrum and stamps her feet (F- for infantalizing stage direction) and eventually he relents and lets her come along on his journey. She contributes nothing to the adventure, the end. She doesn't even have a real name. She is literally objectified - a living, breathing object – and, again, infantalized; she’s small and delicate and must be carried about and protected at all times. There is no reason for this character to be in the film except that she's a reference to the books.

If you were counting, you’d have seen that I used the word ‘boring’ five times in this essay. ‘Dull’ cropped up, too. And that’s what everything amounts to, in the end: flat, poorly-done CG, mediocre acting and terrible characterization all combine to create a boring movie. This Oz has no magic.

Note: I began this review in December 2013 and then forgot about it, which is why it doesn't shouldn't count towards the Film 101 project. But then Jared changed the title, so, oh well.