Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Oz The Great and Powerful: Who has the Power in Oz?

Messing with an iconic movie like 1939’s The Wizard of Oz is not advisable and no remakes have yet succeeded. But the original movie did leave a question unanswered. How did that silly man, that phony Wizard with no real magic powers, who wasn’t even from Oz, get his position and reputation? After 60-some years Oz The Great and Powerful is a fun, (and funnier) film that attempts to answer that question.

The original movie, The Wizard of Oz, and the book by L. Frank Baum that it was based on stands out from other stories of that time by giving so many dominant roles to female characters. Dorothy is our heroine and with the aid of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North she defeats the villainous Wicked Witch of the West (after accidentally being responsible for the death of the Wicked Witch of the East when Dorothy's house landed on her during the tornado). The male characters in the story, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and the Wizard himself all have some weakness or disadvantage and need to rely on the female characters.

In Oz The Great and Powerful, director Sam Raimi manages to remain faithful to the look of the original film, while inserting a contemporary sexual component into the mix. Some have criticized the art and special effects as cheesy, but this was the level they were at in 1939 and their reproduction is glorious. The film is yet another visual wonder. As for the sex, well, the Wizard is much younger here and his skill is slightness of hand. The story is all about the real and the unreal, and in the world of men and women, finding the balance between those two is a game that’s always being played.

Oz The Great and Powerful slightly changes the lesson of The Wizard of Oz, which is “happiness is in your own backyard” to “all that you need is already in you.” It opens the same as The Wizard of Oz, in black and white, but in Kansas of 1905. Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a smalltime magician trying to pull a fast one on his audience, susceptible women and his friend and assistant Frank (Zach Braff) in the competitive world of sideshow entertainment. He bills himself as Oz The Great and Powerful. As he makes clear he does not aspire to be a good man, he aspires to be a great man and goodness can get in the way of that. He does not want to be honest, he wants to sell people the illusion of magic and make himself rich.
While escaping the wrath of a cuckolded husband Oscar takes off in a hot air balloon unaware that a tornado – yes, the same tornado that will return to Kansas in 1939 – is about to make serious changes in his life’s direction.

After much terror, screaming and prayers – with great special effects and changing everything to color – Oscar ends up in the Land of Oz. Theodora (Mila Kunis), a young charming Witch finds him, believes his flirtation, falls for him and wants him to be the superhero the Land of Oz has been waiting for – a wondrous Wizard whose name will also be Oz, and who will take over the throne of Oz and save everyone from a Wicked Witch who is devastating Oz.

The Wicked Witch, as it turns out is Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) who totally controls the insecure Theodora. But Oscar allies himself with Glinda (Michelle Williams) and havoc ensues. A flying monkey, flying baboons, a China Doll, Munchkins, Giant Winkies and Quadlings all join the fray. We even discover how the Cowardly Lion got to be so cowardly and meet Scarecrows with missing brains.

The workings of power that display themselves in this movie are a lesson for everyone. Evanora is evil because she loves power too much. She never wanted to love anyone, just make them submit to her. Theodora on the other hand wants very much to be loved but does not love herself very much. Her neediness makes it easy for Evanora and others to use her. To gain Theodora’s alliance against Glinda, Evanora convinces her that Oscar has abandoned her for Glinda. This turns Theodora’s love for Oscar into a murderous hate that not even Evanora can bring herself to feel. Nothing is more powerful than love that turns to hate and nothing more self-destructive.

Glinda, on the other hand, is not fooled by Oscar because she is very secure and grounded. She knows Oscar’s limitations and isn’t swayed by his charm. She doesn’t need him. She understands that underneath the bluster he’s a goodhearted man and just wants his help in protecting the vulnerable people of Oz. Her wisdom gives her the power to make strong and clear decisions.

The three Witches have all the real magic power but can’t share it with the people of Oz. Oscar has no magic powers at all. But Oscar, with his showmanship can energize Glinda’s followers to fight the two other Witches by harnessing the power of their imagination and a little pretend magic.

The stage is set for Theodora heading in one direction to become the Wicked Witch of the West and Evanora in the other where, as the Wicked Witch of the East, in a few decades Dorothy’s house will fall on her and kill her. Dorothy will finish what Oscar and Glinda begin.

James Franco brings a lot of genuine charm and softness to the role of Oscar, although he could work more on diction that does not sound so much like a dude. Robert Downey Jr. was the first choice for Oscar and he perhaps he would have been better at revealing a duplicitous huckster, but Franco is probably better at portraying Oscar’s underlying innocence vulnerability. Michelle Williams does not have much to work with in Glinda’s solid and predictable personality, which is one of the problems with playing someone who is supposed to be the essence of good. Rachel Weisz is affectively sinister but Mila Kunis probably has the best opportunity to display the most range in going from gentle and loving to hateful.

Altogether there’s more grand fun and silliness in Oz The Great and Powerful than a barrel of flying monkeys.


Links:  Oz The Great and Powerful trailersVideo Interview with Sam Raimi and cast of Oz The Great and PowerfulL. Frank Baum, his life and works,   Other theories of what The Wizard of Oz is all about.


  1. I wasn't impressed with this movie. I thought it was a ripoff of Wizard of Oz. James Franco doesn't do anything for me either. I wish the women were on longer. They all came across like lunkheads falling head over heels over this guy.

    Your article has made some good points I'll have to think about though. The sets were gorgeous.