Fifty years ago, in 1963, the notion of an epic surely meant a lot more than it does today: that was the year when Cleopatra dominated at the box office, raking in an astonishing $57.7 million (last year The Avengers grossed over $1.5 billion) as audiences poured in to see beautiful sets, exotic locales, and Richard Burton seduce Elizabeth Taylor in all its glorious Technicolor splendor.
Today, of course, Cleopatra looks quaint – or at least, average, especially when you compare it to the line-up of movies that have been released so far within the first quarter of this year: A Good Day to Die Hard (explosions, Russians, collapsing buildings – the works); Jack the Giant Slayer (an epic CGI-reworking of an aged fairy tale); Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (ditto); Emperor (a so far poorly attended but still epic depiction of a post World War II Japan); and now, Oz the Great and Powerful, yet another computer-generated twist on a beloved children’s fantasy story.
While computer technology has opened up the limits on what we can achieve visually in the movies, it has also caused audiences to expect extravagance and visual dazzle as a routine option in their viewing experience. Some may criticize the effect that CGI and 3-D has had on us as a collective audience, but if you look back even fifty years ago, you’ll see that people have always favored the big and spectacular – the difference is that audiences then couldn’t get as regular a fix of that spectacle as we do today. There’s a reason why the box office numbers are so concentrated on a handful of big showy movies at present, and why, when you look beyond the Cleopatras of the past, you see a far more diluted spread of box office gross: it simply had to do with the availability of bigness.
So now, going to see Oz the Great and Powerful, I couldn’t help but notice its own impatience in getting from one pretty image to the next. There are so many gorgeously designed and simulated scenic shots, yet the editing flitters each of them by after only a few seconds – perhaps to keep the youngsters satisfied with a brisk pace, as well as their Internet-paced adult guardians. The world moves at such a quick speed, you wonder if anyone takes the time to truly observe, and digest. The problem with having such a diverse array of simulated epics is that the audience loses sight of what the movies might actually be saying; this effect is not just present in Oz but in all movies – it has become constant and pronounced.
The plot of this “kids’ movie” takes advantage of both the public’s knowledge of the earlier, more faithful adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book while also featuring characters and locations that were scrapped in that earlier film. In 1905 Kansas, Oscar ‘Oz’ Diggs (the irrepressible and perpetually disheveled James Franco) is a traveling magician with a carnival show and, as we are led to see, a con-man of the first order. Surviving on his wits and the illusions he creates, he never actually strikes deep enough to find something truly worthy within his ambitious spirit. He longs for greatness, to be one among the great men of his day, like Houdini or Edison.
My primary problem with the movie begins here, as it becomes clear that we are dealing with a rather slimy individual; ‘Oz’ is not merely flawed, but he is a downright jerk, manipulating the women around him and mistreating his only approximate friend. Furthermore, after he is whisked off to the Land of Oz in a hot air balloon when a tornado strikes the carnival site, there is no return to resolve the wrongs he has done to the good people of Kansas – he conveniently gets away, forgetting his unfinished business, so that his arrival and ultimate stay in Oz means something a lot darker than its colorful backdrop would lead you to believe. There’s even more dirt that I’ll get to later on, and I focus on this aspect of the movie so intently because, as was apparent by the audience present at the screening I attended, this is a movie that has gained an audience consisting largely of children, and one has to consider the impact and implications involved in the movies they see.
So ‘Oz’ gets to Oz, an occurrence that was prophesized by the last king of the land before his sudden death. This little tidbit of information is related to us via the lovely and extremely positive Theodora the Good (played by Mila Kunis), whose innocent views of Oscar as the Wizard savior of Oz he accepts with typical slimy selfishness, lying to the girl as she openly envisions her place beside him, ruling together as the King and Queen of Oz.
She takes him to the Emerald City, where he meets Theodora’s equally gorgeous sister Evanora (played by the equally gorgeous Rachel Weisz), who immediately catches on to the fact that this guy is a phony, and sets him out to slay the “Wicked Witch” Glinda, the sister whom she claims is responsible for the death of their father, the king. If he does this, he’ll get the kingdom and all its riches. Now, personally, I’m not a fan 0f freeloading dudes who walk into palaces, take all the money and run with it, and for this reason Evanora is the only character I respect in this whole affair. But the lady is evil, and as it turns out she is the one who killed the king, and wants the pure-hearted Glinda out of the way so she can properly take over the kingdom.
So Oscar goes out, finds Glinda, discovers that she’s good (and also very pretty – played by Michelle Williams), and after a brief chase scene involving Evanora’s army of flying monkeys, floats off in a bubble to Munchkinland, to form an army that can take down the real wicked witch. Meanwhile, with her crystal ball and some magical resourcefulness, Evanora reveals to Theodora that Oscar is not in fact the man she thought he was, that he is simply a careless heartbreaker who has fallen for the charms of Glinda. Well, Theodora goes wild, crying tears that burn (literally) and with a little help from her wicked sister, becomes the scarred, green-skinned beast that we all know and love.
The rest, as you might say, is history, but not before a big battle sequence made up of deceptive tricks and slights of hand defeats the suddenly intimidated Evanora – who quickly realizes that she’s got way too much trouble on her hands. So “magic” is what wins out in the end, but with Oscar as the new king, Theodora is banished to become an outsider, left to form her own army and wait for the day that a little girl with ruby slippers will dump a bucket of water over her poor, troubled head.
Here I expand on my personal problem with this “hero”: as we come to see in this truly smart arranging of events that lead to a tie-in with the original film, Oz is responsible for the Wicked Witch’s wickedness. Just as he was thoughtless and rude to the women back home, he lies to Theodora and breaks her heart, turning her into a monster and letting himself become – what, a king? It is all on his hands, until in the very end he passively suggests, “if you ever decide to forgive me, feel free to come back to the Emerald City,” to which the poor one-time innocent cries out, “Never!”, so that the fault is permanently hers. But he never does say, “I’m sorry”, and that eats at me. What example does this set for ambitious little boys?
Also, seeing the foolish naiveté of Glinda in this movie reminds me of how annoying Billie Burke can be on certain viewings of The Wizard of Oz: Glinda really is a silly creature – pure and beautiful, certainly, but she maintains her belief that there is something worthy and great in Oz despite all that he ever shows her. The movie builds around this dynamic between Oz and Glinda by pulling the same move that was pulled in the earlier film by having Williams play a woman in love with Oz – but whom he could never commit to – in black-and-white Kansas, before transforming her into an alter-ego of sorts, the “good witch”, once Oz arrives in the land that bears his name.
The whole thing is rather Freudian, and we gather through their Kansas scene together (a scene which makes clear the fact that the screenplay was co-penned by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire) that Oz, who is dead-set on becoming a sensation, cannot remain with this woman of simpler needs. She believes in him, but commitment is not his game; one gets the sense that Lindsay-Abaire might have made something interesting of Oz’s character if the project had been a play rather than a commercial movie, so instead the faults are manifested in unpleasant ways on the road to glory, rather than faced and then dealt with – because in the end, Oz is not led to believe that his deceptive ways are personal problems but personal attributes, and he is rewarded for his ability to trick people; he is never challenged. And so he can have his love at the end, but a fantasy one, one whom he hasn’t been required to sacrifice for, one whom he can enjoy selfishly, as an approximation to the real thing. It is a movie’s happy ending – without moral, as would be true of any fairy tale.
It is disheartening to consider the convoluted nature of movies such as these, which avoid moral repercussions for the sake of the spectacle. This is not to say that I don’t value haziness and blurred lines between good and evil in the movies I see, but I regret the fact that this movie does not point out that fuzziness more clearly; as a movie geared towards children, it could be unique if it asked kids to consider the implications of Oz’s actions (without getting too grim, of course), but it instead brushes any question of moral depravity under the rug so Oz can get the girl and the gold, no questions asked.
It would be striking to hold this movie up against the 1939 Wizard of Oz, perhaps in a double billing, and to see just how less manic, more concentrated, and how tremendously effective that one is against this newer, jazzier, more technically perfected attempt. It says something, too, that in 1939 Dorothy had to return to her black-and-white family, her dismal home life, and to receive it as her protection, her reality, and her true life; today, we, as with Franco’s Oz, remain in the Emerald City, led con-ishly into believing that this is our new home, our reality – a world of constant wonder, a passive escapist’s kingdom of superficial comforts.