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.
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.
… 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…
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.
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.