Oz the Unfortunate and Underwhelming?

Should I throw myself into the latest Oz tornado? I’m reluctant. And most of the reviewers I trust — even those who are big fans of L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories — are frustrated with Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful.

If you’re looking for guidance, I recommend, above all, Steven Greydanus’s review. He writes…

Oz the Great and Powerful, is brightly colorful, sincere and meant for children. That doesn’t make it good, exactly, but at least it’s basically the right kind of movie, which is saying something these days, alas.

Where the other fairy-tale movies are all in some way deconstructions of their source material, in particular with feminist slants of one kind or another, this one is very much the opposite, sparing us the trial of Wicked-style revisionism, with Glinda as a snobby, sanctimonious Mean Girl and the Wicked Witch of the West as a misunderstood heroine. Unfortunately, what it does instead isn’t as preferable as might be hoped.

The Wizard of Oz, as I noted years ago in my review, had a positive feminine quality, the pivotal figures who advance the plot all being active female characters — Dorothy, the Wicked Witch, Glinda — and the male characters being more supportive than active. This movie turns the back story of Oz into a familiar male-centered epic, with nearly every female character swooning at one point or another over the shallow hero, and even going back to that overworked cliché of our times, the Prophesied Chosen One Narrative.

… [I]n Oz the movie’s magic soars for a while as the filmmakers create the kind of wondrous visions that Victor Fleming and company might have created if today’s technology had been available in 1939. When I look at it, I believe this is Oz; it’s only the story, characters and dialogue that fall flat.

It’s not awful. It’s misguided and uninspired, but competent and watchable, with some very pretty production design.

Elsewhere… Elizabeth Rappe writes:

Though Baum brushed off claims that Oz was at all political, he made a decided choice to make women front and center of the series. They’re princesses, ordinary farmgirls, witches (both good and bad), rag dolls, generals, pastry chefs, and problem-solving faeries. They have adventures, lead search parties, rescue one another, solve difficulties, and challenge the Nome King in combat. Perhaps most significantly, none of the characters -– not Ozma, Glinda, Betsy or Dorothy –- ever engage in romantic relationships. Baum made a point of avoiding such trappings as love interests, because he believed children would find passionate romance boring, and an emotional element which they wouldn’t truly understand. Perhaps there was a personal element in this as well, as Baum, conscious of what Maud sacrificed in order to marry him, allowed his heroines perpetual youth and personal freedom.

With such a rich tapestry on and off the Oz page, it’s depressing that 2013 finds our return to Oz burdened with a reluctant hero (the dominant kind in the 21st century), and not one of Baum’s plucky young heroines. In a bitter reversal of Baum’s stories, “Great and Powerful” casts the women as the sidekicks, standing by to aid the Wizard should he need it. No longer instigators of action, the witches Glinda, Theodora, and Evanora now clasp their hands at arrival, thrilled the prophesied hero has arrived (“Aren’t you the great man we’ve been waiting for?” asks Theodora, voice trembling. Actually, all the female dialogue seems to be on the wobbly verge of tears). Whereas Baum’s charlatan Wizard accidentally became ruler of Oz, making a mess of things in the process, now we have one who has a place carved out for him, and is hailed as the man “who can set things right” (silly witches, always making a mess of their kingdoms!). Who knew three sorceresses –- who were all-seeing and all-knowing in prior Oz tales -– were actually helpless compared to a man from Kansas? And helpless against him! Yes, Michelle Williams’ Glinda is smart enough to see through our hero’s lies and bluster, but otherwise she’s completely stripped of any real agency. “Great and Powerful” corrects Baum’s grievous abstinence, and reminds us all women must fall for a handsome traveler. The modern day Wizard now wins at least 2/3 of the onscreen hearts instead of being shamed as a liar.

The (newly married!) Justin Chang at Variety reports:

Quite apart from the question of whether the picture lives up to its various inspirations, however, “Oz the Great and Powerful” finally falls short by dint of a too-timid imagination. In straining for an all-ages simplicity, the script comes off as merely banal, full of flat, repetitive dialogue about who’s good, who’s wicked and, most incessantly, whether Oscar is a real wizard, an opportunistic scoundrel or perhaps both. Not until the third act does the film start to jell, with a couple of arresting setpieces that neatly demonstrate how pluck, resourcefulness and an endless supply of tricks can equal, and even overcome, real magic.

And Andrew O’Hehir at Salon says:

… saying that Raimi’s trip to Oz is adequate eye candy with a good heart isn’t the same thing as saying it’s actually good. I was charmed at some moments, profoundly bored by others and almost never felt genuinely excited or emotionally engaged. A lumbering, bloated spectacle with a weak script and a flat, awkward central performance by James Franco, “Oz the Great and Powerful” feels like a hybrid of “Avatar” and “John Carter,” meaning that it’s increasingly unclear what the point of the movie is, except to look great and make money. If it’s nostalgic for something, it doesn’t really know what, or why…

UPDATE:

And this just in from my friend Elijah Davidson, film reviewer for Reel Spirituality. (He posted these notes on his Letterboxd site, and I’m reposting them with permission.)

I’m so tired of watching the same movie over and over and over again:

1) Establish main character’s foibles.
2) Displace main character.
3) Gather friends.
4) Return home.
5) Battle antagonist.
6) Mano a mano showdown with lots of bright lights and people flying across the room.
7) Destroy, disfigure, dismember foe.
8) Set up for sequel.

SO BORING.

When I commented on it, he replied,

It seemed like every person who had any hand in making that movie was weary of having to make movies like that one.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Corey Newkirk

    i was conflicted about this movie, there was a powerful moment with the Wizard repairing the porcelain doll, maybe it seems a bit cliche but the porcelain child comforted and repaired by the wizard scene had more power than the rest of the story. I agree Glinda was not given as strong as a role but how does a circus magician defeat his enemies? How does one’s reputation grow so great as to keep a witch at bay? Also isn’t his sham of a reputation revealed in the movie when dorothy Gale arrives and pulls back the curtain? Critics have their points but I think along with the criticisms they should post their own alternatives or modifications. So do I agree it’s lacking… yes but I’ve always struggled with Raimi’s last few projects, his Legend of the Seeker and even his Spider-man Trilogy I felt was lacking. Both were a bit disappointing

  • C. Franken

    I’m sorry, but the critics you’ve selected sound like a bunch of cynics. This is a wholesome, dreamy movie that’s fun for the whole family. It’s old-fashioned. It wears its heart on its sleeve. That’s why critics are panning it. They won’t like it unless it’s dark and ironic. They panned Alice in Wonderland for the same reason, and others like The Best Marigolds Hotel and Le Miserables and The Hobbit. They shouldn’t even be reviewing stuff like this if they don’t respect the original “Wizard of Oz.” Why can’t they just relax and enjoy it?

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      “Why can’t they enjoy it?” I don’t think you understand. This is how they enjoy it. They take every piece of the filmmaking art seriously enough to consider it, discuss it, and see if it’s decent, respectable, excellent, or cheap, derivative, gratuitous, or insulting to a viewer’s intelligence. It is a pleasure to them just the way baseball fans love to talk about every little detail of the game, or the way foodies like to pay close attention to every aspect of what they’re eating.

      If you’d read Greydanus’s review carefully, you’d have seen that he is not objecting to its old-fashioned qualities or its heart. In fact, he’s complimenting those things. Further, he has great respect for L. Frank Baum’s original story. His critique shows how this film seems to misunderstand its source material to some extent. (Similarly, Rappe’s critique points out how this film actually works against some of the virtues of the original.) Greydanus’s criticisms are about lazy craftsmanship, not the spirit of the film.

      Sure, it can seem troubling when critics “nit-pick.” But if you or someone you love were covered in nits, you’d pick them too. Nit-picking is often a sign of love for one’s subject. When you take your car to the shop, don’t you hope that your mechanic will “nit-pick”? If doctors are scanning a patient for cancer, don’t you hope they’ll nit-pick? By caring about the little things so much, film critics learn a lot about the art, and that can make them capable of recognizing and appreciating goodness — even greatness — in places where they might not have seen it otherwise. And, if they write reviews, they pass the blessings on to us.

      That’s why my favorite critics are nit-pickers, not reviewers who merely report that they “like” or “dislike” something based on how it made them feel, or how “wholesome” it seemed.

  • Gaith

    Alas… so much for my shot at finally seeing the wondrous Weisz in 3D, then…


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