The Wonderful Shitbag of Oz

by Robinson L

Disney's “Oz, the Great and Powerful” is a spectacular failure on almost every conceivable level.
Two years ago, whilst visiting London, my mother, my sisters, and I went to see Disney's Oz, the Great and Powerful at the Surrey Quays Odeon. My mother is a huge fan of the “Oz” mythos, and the rest of us well-disposed to it.

Oz, the Great and Powerful, directed by Sam Raimi, tells the story of how the wizard came to Oz and became ruler of the Emerald City, and also gives the backstory to the Wicked Witch of the West. As such, it's a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. In fact, it specifically sets itself up as a sort-of but not exactly prequel to the 1939 MGM movie, right down to starting out with a sequence set in Kansas that's entirely in black-and-white (which admittedly, is a nice touch).

Unfortunately, it's also a complete trainwreck. The following review comprises a composite of my own reflections upon the movie, and points raised in post-mortem dissection with my sisters.

So let's take stock of some of the most glaring offenses this movie commits.

Problem Numero Uno: Dramatis Personae

James Franco takes on the role of the eponymous magician who goes by the stage nickname “Oz” because his real name—Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs—is too unwieldy. After a disastrous performance, he gets chased by an irate muscle man and makes his escape in a hot air balloon. He subsequently gets picked up by a tornado and blown to a magical land where he immediately meets a beautiful young witch named Theadora (Mila Kunis), who quickly identifies him as the wizard of the prophecy who will defeat the wicked witch currently terrorizing the land, and become the new ruler of the Emerald City.

He's also a gigantic asshole, and an egotistical cad. He mistreats the guy who assists him in his magic act and underpays him, too; he somehow charms numerous young women and tells each she's his one true love (more or less), and with one exception shows no concern whatsoever for their feelings and wellbeing; in fact, he can rarely be bothered to care about anyone else except in their capacity to feed or threaten his own aggrandizement; and he's so generally up himself that even when he's trapped in the middle of a tornado, begging an unspecified higher power to spare his life, he's still promising to do great things rather than e.g., to be nicer to other people and show them the respect they deserve. This was about twenty minutes into the film, and I was already rooting for the tornado to drop the git down a chasm and throw us a protagonist who's actually likable.

It's not that I have a problem with jackass protagonists per se—I'm all on board with Dr. Gregory House and Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man, for instance—but these characters only work if you give them some goals or personalities traits which the viewer can relate to and cheer for. Even if you take the view that House only cares about his patients inasmuch as their medical problems present him with a cool mystery to solve, ultimately he wants to make them better, if for different reasons than you the viewer likely want him to. Similarly, while you may take issue with a lot of what Tony Stark does—as indeed you are supposed to much of the time—you can sympathize with the fact that he's trying to make the world a better place as best he knows how.[1]

Even when you're doing a Christmas Carol scenario, where the whole point is that your protagonist is a terrible person who realizes over the course of the story how terrible they are and then shapes up, you still have to give the viewers something which will keep them invested in the character up to the point where they make the commitment to change their ways. Oz, the Great and Powerful, doesn't. I'll have more to say on this point a little later, but for now, let's move on to the other main characters.

Unfortunately, apart from the Wizard, the cast of the movie is comprised almost entirely of one-note characters. Glinda (Michelle Williams) is the most fleshed-out, being kind and wise and competent and a good ruler to her people, and inexplicably devoted to her father's prophecy that a Great White Savior wizard who is also called Oz will defeat the wicked witch, and become the next king of the Emerald City. She's perceptive enough to realize right off the bat that the Wizard is full of it, but puts all her faith in him anyway because of the prophecy and because of his Hidden Depths (and boy oh boy are they well-Hidden). With Glinda, we have the story of a woman who—despite being massively more qualified and more committed—pins all her hopes for liberation on the success of a man who displays no particular potential (let alone basic moral character), to the point of willingly laying down her life for him. On which point, yes, she does spend the big climax tied to a couple of pillars with the wicked witches just on the point of killing her off.

Theodora starts out as a complete ingénue, and precedes Glinda as a witch with more power than the Wizard who for some reason has to be rescued by him. She remains kind and unassuming and mind-bogglingly naïve right up until the moment Evanora reveals what kind of man the Wizard is to her, and gives her a poison that withers her heart away. Cue “You wouldn't like me when I'm angry” transformation sequence, and hello, Wicked Witch of the West. From that point on, Theodora is a snarling ball of hatred, obsessed with getting revenge on the Wizard, and no apparent goals beyond that apart from ruining everybody else's day. She makes an immediate, one-eighty degree shift from one-dimensionally sweet and innocent to one-dimensionally nasty and hateful without so much as a hint of gray at either end.

I was originally slightly interested in sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) because unlike ptolemaeus, I failed to pick out that she was a villain from the word “go”. Once that was revealed, it's obvious she's a scheming dictator with even less clear motives than her sister, but presumably having to do with accumulating power and taking over Oz. This comprises the entirety of her character.

Finley (Zach Braff) is a nice flying monkey who looks like a chimpanzee (as opposed to the wicked witch's flying monkeys, who look more like baboons). After the Wizard saves him from a lion (gee, I wonder who that might be), he swears a Life Debt oath of eternal loyalty to the Wizard, who promptly gives him the task of carrying his heavy luggage case. I'm torn over how I feel about Finley: on the one hand, I'm disgusted by the way the Wizard abuses him—on the other, his “comedic” chatter is massively irritating, and I often wished somebody would just stuff a sock into his mouth already and put an end to his nattering.

The closest thing the movie had to a saving grace for me was the “China girl” (Joey King) whose name we never learn. Sure, she's a plucky little orphan girl for the Wizard to take under his wing as kindly patriarch, but she's cheerful and brave and assertive and the only non-evil character for the longest time who got the Wizard to do what she wants rather than what he wants. Hardly brilliant characterization, but for this movie, “somewhat complex” and “not hideously offensive” and “genuinely likable” is high praise.

She's also beautifully well-realized from a visual perspective. In every frame of every scene she looks exactly like a China doll that's been brought to life, to the point where you have to remind yourself you're looking at (I assume) a CGI creation. At a guess I'd say she's probably the product of a motion capture process similar to the one which turned Andy Serkis into Gollum—but the animation here takes things one step further by making their semi-CG character ten inches tall. This may not sound too impressive—until you get to the scene where she crawls onto the Wizard's shoulder, and it all looks utterly seamless. I still have no idea how they pulled that off.

Even with this character, though, the movie takes a tumble. The Wizard and Finley first meet the China girl when they rescue her from her village, which the witch's flying monkeys have destroyed. The Wizard reattaches her legs with some glue, and then she follows him and Finley on their quest to kill the witch. About an hour later, when the story has reached its low point and everything looks hopeless, the Wizard has a conversation with the China girl where they turn to the subject of her family, and how sad she must be that they're all kinda dead, and how sorry the Wizard is that he couldn't repair them, too. You'd think something that big and emotional would've come up a little sooner.

So much for the main cast.

Problem Numero Dos: Plot

The plot to this movie is cliché from start to finish. Young man from our world transported to a magical one where he's told that he is the Chosen One who must defeat the Evil Overlord and bring peace to the land. There's some tepid effort to mix up the formula a little by having him start out by getting taken to the Evil Overlord, who manages to hide her true nature and convince him to go out and kill the leader of the Resistance, and victory comes not from an all-out assault on the Overlord's fortress but rather by running a giant scam, but it's still bog standard. It has all the generic epic fantasy trappings presented in the same way you've seen them presented at least a hundred time by now, and without any particular luster.

Problem Numero Tres: Gender and Race

Oh god, where to start? I mean Ms. Magazine did a pretty good job—bringing up several points which my sisters and I all missed at the time—but that just barely scratches the surface.

First, I guess, because I can't emphasize this point enough: the Wizard is an enormous prick who thinks nothing of toying with women's emotions, and while the movie clearly doesn't support him in this, it takes a very cavalier attitude toward his misbehavior (as in all other instances). If you're being generous, you might consider that it gives him a slap on the wrist somewhere in there, but that's about it. In fact, it actively conspires to protect him from having to face the consequences of his actions—he escapes one misled girlfriend by getting carried away in the balloon, and the other turns evil so lucky break there, too. Imagine a gender-flipped version of Oz, the Great and Powerful, with a female Wizard treating other people this way, especially in a romantic context—she would be universally reviled.

Then there's the fact that so many women are presented as falling so completely for the Wizard's BS, where the skeeviness is amplified by but not reducible to his utter failure to display any great charm or sex appeal.

And hey look, it turns out the motivation for the Wicked Witch of the West, the #21 greatest cinematic villain of all time (as of 2007), is that she was wronged by a man and in response, turned evil[2]. Dig down far enough in a woman's motivation for doing anything important, and you'll find a man, and if what they're doing is also bad, you can also bet that the root reason is something blown all out of proportion as well. *gag*

Glinda, the most powerful and capable character among the good guys, is defined entirely by her relationships to men. From their very first meeting, she submits herself to the Wizard as her leader and savior because of her unshakable faith in the prophecy made by her father. Every action she takes which doesn't revolve around the Wizard revolves around the late king her father, to the point where it is entirely possible (if not probably) that she never even had a mother, but rather sprang fully-formed from her father's brain like the Greek goddess Athena. And, again, she spends the big climactic scene chained to some pillars at the mercy of the witches, but standing defiant because of her unswerving faith in the Wizard and her father.

There's also Glinda's final battle with Evanora, in which—despite proving herself a match for the other witch in terms of both power and skill—Glinda ends up defeating her opponent purely by accident. I think it was ptolemaeus who pointed out that whereas the (non-super powered) Wizard is allowed to be proactive in bringing down the villains, Glinda is only allowed to overcome one in a way where she ultimately exercises no actual agency.

Oh, and once her power is broken, Evanora's true form is revealed not to be the darkly beautiful Rachel Weisz (though not as conventionally beautiful as Michelle Williams) but a wrinkled old hag with a hooked nose. Classy move, Raimi.

The racial dynamics are not as outright appalling, but they, too, have their own special little spots of skeeviness. For instance, ptolemaeus pointed out that having your protagonist's sidekick be a bumbling, comic relief monkey in a freaking bellhop uniform might just have some unfortunate racial implications. About the best I can say for this is that at least Zach Braff is white, but that just means Raimi avoided making the fail even worse.

I also cringed every time the Master Tinker[3] (Bill Cobbs), and Knuck (Tony Cox), the trumpeter, displayed subservience toward the Wizard, in a way that I don't whenever, say, Geordi La Forge or Worf defers to Captain Picard, or when Dr. Foreman defers to House, or when Gunn defers to Angel or Wesley. It took me a while after we left the theater to figure out why it bothered me so much, but eventually I realized that, beyond being a Straight Male Savior fantasy figure, the Wizard is quite specifically a White Savior fantasy figure. A white person transported to a strange land populated by slightly weird but basically decent natives who are incapable of solving their own problems and need the outsider to lead them in overcoming their adversity, and the outsider's unique capacity to deliver the natives from their plight is innate to him, rather than based upon any sort of practical utility he may possess. I've never seen James Cameron's Avatar, but on reflection, having seen Oz the Great and Powerful, I feel I may as well have, though without even the heavy-handed critique of imperialism and the military-industrial complex.[4]

Problem Numero Cuatro: Morality

I think I've made it clear by now that the Wizard 1) is a loathsome scumbag and 2) never receives any appreciable comeuppance or even an appropriate level of condemnation from the film. This phenomenon extends beyond his “romantic” conquests, in that he treats most of the other characters in the movie—with the exceptions (mostly) of Glinda and the China girl—quite badly most of the time. By the end of the film, he appears to have come around to a point where he's made the choice not treat other people so horribly (mostly) without ever quite acknowledging that his previous behavior was not at all okay, let alone apologizing for it and committing to make amends.

I have a high susceptibility for second-hand embarrassment, and so I hate the obligatory scene where the hero is confronted with just how wrong their behavior has been and they have to make a tearful confession to the companions whom they've wronged. However, I realized in Great and Powerful, that even this overly used and melodramatic sequence is better than no acknowledgment or taking of responsibility at all. Instead, the Wizard ends the movie a reformed but thoroughly unrepentant asshole, and while his treatment of others may have improved, his insufferable smugness and arrogance remain solidly intact.

This is clearly illustrated in the “Wizard dispenses gifts” scene at the end of the film, which I will discuss further in the following section. When Finley's turn rolls around, the Wizard bestows upon him a rare and precious gift, one which he has never given anyone before, “my friendship.” Not—as ptolemaeus pointed out—“you have given me a precious gift in your friendship,” even though Finley has displayed heroic levels of loyalty in putting up with the Wizard's crap and abuse through most of the film. But not only does Finley not get an apology or an acknowledgment of his immense generosity, but the Wizard still considers that he is the one bestowing generosity upon Finley by treating him now as a friend and partner because he, the Wizard, is a Great Man—and the film supports him in this outlook.

Another telling scene is the Wicked Witch of the West Theodora's flight from the Emerald City after her defeat at the hands of the Wizard and the resistance. As she leaves, the Wizard calls out to her, telling her that he knows her descent into evil was “not of your own choice” (or something close to that), and that if ever she turns away from evil, she will be welcome back into the Emerald City. To which the witch replies, essentially, “up yours!” and flies off in a huff.

Both ptolemaeus and I fixated upon this sequence, but for different reasons. She pointed out that the Wizard's words are phrased in such a way as to omit any agency in Theodora's fall to the dark side, including his own. Of course, he didn't cause her heart to wither away, but he did play a part in pushing her to that point, and even now, when he has supposedly shaped up and become a good man as well as a Great one, he refuses to own up to the way that he wronged her.

But she's evil now, so that makes his mistreatment of her retroactively okay, I guess? And it also makes her later treatment as a straight-up villain and eventual death okay, too. The point of the sequence is to make it clear to the viewers that Theodora is thoroughly evil now, and no longer deserving of any sympathy. I can let slide the cartoonishly black and white morality—if only because if I didn't, I'd have to jettison upwards 90% of the books, TV and movies I enjoy—but the sticking point for me is that I am being asked to ignore the fact that the only reason she's evil in the first place is because she was forced into it by her sister. This should make her a tragic character, but tragic characters inspire sympathy, and sympathy with the Wicked Witch of the West would make people feel bad about how she's presented and her future death at Dorothy's hands. And we can't have that kind of moral complexity. So the exchange here is meant to close down any interpretive space to read the Wicked Witch of the West as a tragic character, even though that is the most obvious reading of her character arc in the film.

Problem Numero Cinco: “Oz” as Prequel

I'll skip over the numerous minor continuity hiccups such as the geographical origin of the Winkies, Munchkins and etc. and the poppy field apparently being right outside the gates of the Emerald City in this version, because it's not a direct prequel, and because these points fade into obscurity next to the thematic breaks. I'll just mention in passing that at the end of the movie, the Wizard has gathered a small group of friends—one of whom he's upgraded to partner—whom we never see or hear from again, and he's also hooked up with Glinda, who shows every sign of intending to stay in the Emerald City; all of which is pretty hard to square with what we see of the two of them in The Wizard of Oz.

This is ridiculous enough, but the thematic ties it attempts to establish with the 1939 movie are where the film goes completely over the cliff.

In an homage to classic film, this one starts out in Kansas, filmed in black and white, where the Wizard has less-than-nice encounters with his “partner” Frank, whom he verbally abuses and underpays; with an old girlfriend, Annie, whom he rejects so she can marry a “good man”; and a little girl whose legs he fails to heal in his magic act. These three are duly reincarnated in Oz as Finley, whom the Wizard ultimately partners with; Glinda, whom he ultimately hooks up with; and the China girl, whom he initially repairs by reattaching her legs with glue (ahhh, do y'see?) and ultimately makes her part of his family.

But unlike the 1939 film, in Great and Powerful this motif is inconsistently applied. The Wizard's female assistant, whom he cruelly manipulates and pays nothing at all, gets no such reprise and reconciliation; neither do the strong man or the clown who chase the Wizard to the balloon which takes him to Oz. In the original movie, part of the point was that everyone who plays an important role in the Kansas sequence (except Aunt Em and Uncle Henry) has a counterpart in Oz. And vice versa, too, but don't bother re-watching the Kansas segment trying to spot Theodora's and Evanora's originators, or Knuck's or the Master Tinker's, because they aren't there. This movie keeps the original's gimmick but ditches the thematic reasoning behind it.

And it ditches the reasoning in more ways than one. In the 1939 movie, Oz is a fantasy world which Dorothy populated with people from her own life and which she used in some cases to work through her relationships with these people (most notably, her dislike of mean ol' Miss Gulch, re-cast in Oz as the Wicked Witch of the West). The point was not what goes on in Oz, but how those events effect Dorothy's relationships with those people in the real world.

Whereas, in the 2013 movie, it's the exact reverse. The Wizard does not go back to Kansas (and, to be fair, cannot, without seriously breaking canon) and reconcile with Frank, Annie, and the girl with the paralyzed legs[5]. Again, what could be a tragic scenario is played completely straight, and the viewer is asked to take the Wizard's rapprochement with Finley, Glinda, and the China girl as making up for his failure to do right by their real world counterparts. This effectively flips the emphasis of the the original film: what matters is not what goes on in the real world, but how those events are addressed in the fantasy world. It doesn't matter if bad stuff happens in the real world, so long as it's sorted out in Oz. The fantasy world supersedes the real one[6].

Next point: I'm not going to belabor this all over again, but 1939's Wizard of Oz was a coming of age story in which Dorothy learned some important lessons about herself and became a better person as a result. You could argue the Wizard becomes a better person over the course of this film (though still a person you'd like to hit in the face with a brick for his smarminess alone), but he learns no lessons other than that he really is as great as he's always said.

Finally, Great and Powerful reprises the gift-giving scene from the original movie while completely missing the point of the exercise. In the 1939 film, the gifts the Wizard gave the lion, the scarecrow, and the tin woodsman were bits of junk, sure, but they were symbolic of the trait which was at the center of their respective character arcs. Part of the point of them being junk was that the items themselves are irrelevant: their importance is purely as symbols, and the crucial bit is what they symbolize.

Knuck and the Master Tinker in Great and Powerful have no character arcs to speak of, so their gifts from the Wizard literally are pieces of random junk he pulled out of his pockets, with no deeper thematic meaning. Finley's gift—the hat the Wizard holds onto throughout the film like a hugely less likable and moderately less racist Indiana Jones—does have some symbolic value, but not in regards to Finley's character arc (which he also doesn't have), but in regards to the Wizard's changing relationship with Finley where he goes from treating him like an annoying serf to seeing him as a friend and partner. His gifts to Glinda and the China girl are also meaningful, not in the sense of pointing to a trait which was part of their character arcs, but in the sense of being the relationships each has built with the Wizard over the course of the film. Giving them bits of random crap to symbolize that as he does with Finley might actually have been a semi-decent way to approach the gift-giving scene[7], but even if Raimi had done that (which he doesn't), the failure to give Knuck and the Master Tinker comparable symbols would still leave him with another case of thematic inconsistency.

Another problem with trying to make the movie a prequel to The Wizard of Oz is the casting. There are three major characters from the original who are also main characters in this: The Wizard, Glinda, and Theodora/the Wicked Witch of the West. In Great and Powerful, James Franco and Michelle Williams are clearly encouraged to go their own ways with the characters and make them their own, which is fair enough.

However, Mila Kunis' performance as Wicked Witch of the West is meant to invoke the character's 1939 incarnation, and this was a bad move. I have nothing in particular against Kunis as an actor, but whatever else she may be, she is no Margaret Hamilton. On Kunis, the green makeup effects are not exactly bad, but they don't evoke the same feeling of creepiness as Hamilton's. Also, Kunis' attempt to replicate Hamilton's screechy voice and iconic malicious laugh which have impressed moviegoers for decades is nothing short of pitiable. Raimi would have been wiser to fit the character of his Wicked Witch of the West around Kunis rather than attempting to stuff her into Hamilton's pointy shoes.

Problem Numero Seis: In Praise of Great Men

Throughout the movie, the Wizard is obsessed with the need to become a Great Man. His conversation with Annie early in the film sets up a tension between being a good man and a Great one, with him favoring the second option, no surprise. His final conversation with Glinda (Annie's Oz counterpart) puts forward the conclusion that goodness is better than Greatness (still no surprise), but the Wizard is, in fact, both.

So, while the film ultimately comes out prioritizing goodness over Greatness, it still replicates unquestioningly the Great Man narrative of history[8]. And the primacy of goodness over Greatness is a superb example of telling rather than showing. The viewers are shown no examples of the Wizard overcoming obstacles through the goodness of his heart, and innumerable examples of him overcoming obstacles by the Greatness of his Ideas.

The Great Man narrative is odious enough in its own right, but its sheer arbitrariness has rarely been so blatant as in Great and Powerful. If ever a Great Man there was, the Wizard of Oz is not one because, because, because, because, because, because of the wonderful things he does, but because, well … he just is. There was a prophecy, he fits the bill, so that's it, he's our Chosen One, everybody quick fawn over every word he says, and be ready to lay down your lives for him at a moment's notice.

I exaggerate, of course—it's actually worse than that. For you see, the only people who act in the manner described above right off the bat are the wisest and most capable character in the film, along with, interestingly, the most gullible. All the other characters are suspicious or hostile towards the Wizard to one degree or another—but the good ones all come around once he manifests an actual Great Idea and proves himself to them as being a Great Man in truth. At this point, Glinda's unswerving faith in the Wizard is vindicated, and the less wise characters who expressed doubts about him are showed the error of their ways. (It's not rubbed in by, say, having a huge-ass lion roar in their faces a la the conclusion of the Prince Caspian movie, but there's the same sense of blind faith winning out over reasoned skepticism.)

In the end, Raimi and the film conclude, it is only by the genius of the Great Man that we will be saved, and woe to any that questions or rejects his infallible authority. He is our leader by dint of his status as a Great Man, and we peons need only accept his naturally occurring authority over us and obey his commands.

Faint Praise

Despite its' many glaring flaws, the film does have its virtues. I've already praised the character of the China girl, both in terms of personality and even more in terms of the visual effects which brought her to life.

The quality of the visuals is not restricted just to the China girl. The cinematography in this movie is gorgeous. All the money which Disney should have put into the script was apparently diverted into the special effects, and the results are certainly impressive. And sure, it's probably all CGI, which I get isn't everybody's thing—but for those who are open to being wowed by computer graphics, the various Oz landscapes on display in this movie are a wonder to behold.

Also, while the main story clashes wildly with both Baum's original style and that of the movie it pays so much homage to, the little background touches, the inconsequential moments of whimsy it showcases evoke a genuine Oz feel. Parts like the biting pixies in the river and the flower monsters in the dark forest feel like they could share a universe with Baum's creation, and they have a certain charm.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention that while my sisters and I all despised the film, our mother loved it. Overall, the movie is not incompetently executed, and if you take the story for what it is and don't apply too much critical thinking[9], I can imagine it holds up pretty well. Whatever their other faults, Raimi et. al. are very sincere in what they're doing with the movie, and if you can get into that, it's probably a fun ride. I've already given provisional props to many elements of the movie, including the climax. Sure, the story's cliché, but a lot of people like clichés, and the ones involved in here certainly could've been done worse. It's also worth noting that having the Wizard solve so many of his problems by use of stage magic is a pretty cool device, though rather underutilized.


Okay, enough with playing Devil's Advocate. I can sorta get why people like this movie, and I see nothing wrong with liking it for those reasons (and perhaps other reasons I may not have thought of).

That said, while for some Oz the Great and Powerful may be an enjoyable film, it is by no means a good film. It is atrocious, and the social messages which underpin it are nothing short of revolting.

I hated this film. It gave me enormous pleasure in that I had fun eviscerating it afterwards in discussion with my sisters, but that's about the most backhanded compliment I can think of for a movie.

The only reason Oz the Great and Powerful doesn't rate a spot on the Axis of Awful is because the second two books in the “Chaos Walking” trilogy (though no doubt superior in just about every conceivable respect) managed to raise my ire even further. But it was a near thing.

[1]There are also protagonists such as Griffin Mill in The Player who are just plain horrible and you're not supposed to like, but you watch anyway because they're entertaining, or because they have an interesting story. This is definitely not the type of protagonist Disney and Sam Raimi were going for.
[2]Admittedly, there's also the bit with the poisoned apple and such, but the focus of the movie and the point which Theodora keeps coming back to is that the Wizard done her wrong.
[3]Whose name I initially thought I'd forgotten after exiting the theater, but on further investigation appears not to have been given one at all in the film.
[4]Also, if we imagine the wizard as any other race than white, then his treatment of women would bring to mind any flavor of vile racial stereotype about men who are [insert any racial group other than white here].
[5]Not to mention everyone else he's screwed over.
[6]Ironically, in the original book, Oz was a real place, and more important than plain ol' Kansas. In a sequel book, Dorothy, Aunt Em, and Uncle Henry move permanently to Oz, leaving Kansas behind. But as we've established, Great and Powerful situates itself as a prequel to the 1939 movie, not the book, so it's in that context I'm assessing its thematic resonance, or lack thereof.
[7]Though it would also emphasize the point that these characters are important because of how they relate to the Wizard rather than as characters in their own right—then again, if you're going to tell a story like that, might as well be forthright about what you're doing, no matter how odious.
[8]i.e. that all social, philosophical, technological, and spiritual change in the world is caused by Great Men who articulate some vision which lots of unimportant little people then scurry about doing all the unglamorous work bringing into being.
[9]While I believe critical thinking is important, it's every person's choice whether or not to engage in it, and it's perfectly legit to opt-out for the sake of an enjoyable movie-going experience.

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Comments (go to latest)
Ashimbabbar at 12:36 on 2015-06-07
it's a long time I read the first Oz book, but I distinctly remember the wizard confessing to be an impostor without power at the end; I've just looked it up and he did so as well in the 1939 movie.

So the very idea of making him some sort of savior hero strikes me as preposterous crap.
Arthur B at 12:25 on 2015-06-08
It almost sounds like the film could have been great if it were constructed as a savage satire of Oz and the hunger for celebrity and and privilege that drives him. It could have been all about how Oz abjectly fails to actually solve any of the problems he encounters in the Emerald City on a long-term basis, merely turning the Wicked Witch and himself into obstacles to be later overcome by Dorothy, and how Oz is basically nothing more than a huge spin doctor. (For instance, in the original book the Emerald City isn't even green - it's just that Oz convinced everyone they had to wear green-tinted spectacles when looking at it to protect their vision from the intensity of its green-ness.) You could even turn it into a study of colonialism its use of propaganda, religious dogma and outright lies to enable a colonised majority to accept the leadership of a colonising few, with Oz frittering away his chance to be the one to put the land to rights in favour of living his personal The Man Who Would Be King pipe dream.

Unfortunately, it doesn't sound like this is that film. Having Glinda basically endorse everything Oz does seems to me to be the absolutely fatal stroke, given that she's the moral voice of the stories (especially in the movies). Had she shown any doubt about Oz's actions then there might be more room to suggest that we're supposed to be suspicious of them, whereas it sounds like we're not really meant to question them any more than we're supposed to question whether dropping a house on a magical dictator is the best way to bring democracy to Munchkinland. (For all we know the Lollipop Guild is a hive of corruption and power-broking that'd put Tammany Hall or FIFA to shame...) at 02:11 on 2015-06-10
I haven't seen this movie, but is it really fair to blame Sam Raimi for this whole mess? I mean, the man was executive producer for the entire run of Xena and Spartacus, both shows well-known for being pretty feminist, so it seems out of character. According to IMDB, he was neither a writer nor a producer for this movie, just the director, which I understand to mean that he was paid to put the actors (which other people chose) through the motions and make decisions about editing and cinematography and such. I highly doubt that he could have changed the script much, if at all. It seems to me that he was just hired because he is a household name as a director of fantasy B-movies, and if he thought the script stinks... Well, people need to pay the bills. Plenty of big name actors do roles in movies they know will suck just because of the paycheck, so why not directors? And he hadn't directed anything for like 5 years, before this.
Arthur B at 12:20 on 2015-06-10
He always had the option to Alan Smithee the thing if he didn't stand by it.
Arthur B at 12:23 on 2015-06-10
Huh, looking it up I see the actual Alan Smithee name has been retired.

Either way, Raimi wrote and directed Spider-Man 3 so I can 100% believe he dropped the ball on this one all by himself. (I'm also frothing in cineaste fury at the idea that "putting the actors through the motions and making decisions about editing and cinematography and stuff" doesn't have much influence on the aesthetic outcome of a film.)
Robinson L at 20:30 on 2015-06-15
Sorry for the late response, everyone, it's taken me a little while to get my thoughts all in order.

Ashimbabbar: I distinctly remember the wizard confessing to be an impostor without power at the end; I've just looked it up and he did so as well in the 1939 movie.I distinctly remember the wizard confessing to be an impostor without power at the end; I've just looked it up and he did so as well in the 1939 movie.

He totally does, and that's an excellent point.

I mean, the climax has the Wizard pulling a scam on the citizens of Oz as well as the witches, where he pretends to have supreme magical powers, so he's still an impostor in that sense. And actually, having him really be a savior hero, just of a different variety from what everybody thinks he is could potentially be an interesting spin on his portrayal in the book and the 1939 movie. It's also something I could more easily see Disney backing than Arthur's proposed satirical scenario, as compelling as that sounds. Either one would likely have been better than the actual film we got.

Arthur: Having Glinda basically endorse everything Oz does seems to me to be the absolutely fatal stroke, given that she's the moral voice of the stories (especially in the movies).

Oh, definitely. She's the one who, at the end, delivers the final word on the film's theme:

Glinda: I always knew you had it in you.
Wizard: Greatness?
Glinda: No, goodness. (dialogue paraphrased)

@cheriola: I'll admit to being lazy in putting the blame on Raimi for the movie's abject failures; I didn't dig too closely (read: at all) into the production history, and just used Raimi's name as a shorthand for the main creative force behind the shaping of the film's narrative. I do the same thing with Peter Jackson's name when discussing the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films, and I'll be the first to admit it's rank sloppiness on my part.

However, my (admittedly very limited) understanding of the moviemaking process is that even if directors do not get the final say on a film, they exercise a great deal of creative control, more so than most actors.

There's also this pair of interviews, where Raimi implies he had a more than token role in the creative process, and that he was enthusiastic about making the movie. Some sample quotes from Mr. Raimi:

"I wanted to make OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL a movie that Walt Disney himself would have been proud of ... I wanted the whole family to go see this movie, for it to be sweet and uplifting, for it to be a little scary, but mostly be a very special experience for the family as a whole to go see it. "

"More than anything, the strength of this script was the humanity in it and that’s the strength of the great classic WIZARD OF OZ movie."

"I told them [the folks at Disney] very early on, after working on the script for a couple months, 'I’m committing to this picture. I intend to make it. I’m going to put everything I’ve got into it. I really believe in it. I love the characters and I saw where we could take the characters.'"

"I read the script and it was a love poem to that movie, or those books, that I didn’t know at the time. I felt that it was someone who so admired the movie and they were trying to enhance it and, for me, it never took away."

Also, re: point comma missing the:

"In my mind, Oz is an alternate dimension that this gentleman has actually travelled to and there it’s a land of second chances. He finds himself in this new place, like someone coming to America." (Elsewhere in the interview, Raimi confirms that this movie was meant more as a prequel to the 1939 film than the original book, which he didn't even read until taking on the project.)

And here's how he sums up his thoughts on Great and Powerful. To Raimi, the movie is:

"the story of all of us who are capable of doing good and the hero being made because he recognizes that ability within himself and he grows to do something greater than himself. He grows to take part in a cause that’s more important than his selfishness or his greed. He learns the true value of the gifts that he’s been given as a magician. They can be used, not just to entertain others and for his own profit, but to uplift others, to set them free and to, in this case, drive off the most dreaded villains of all, the Wicked Witches."

Of course, it's possible Raimi is just putting up a front, for any number of insider business reasons - depending on the specifics of those hypothetical reasons, I may be doing him a disservice. But I think it's much likelier that Raimi got excited about a story which is not actually as good as he (and, to be fair to him, ~60% of movie-goers) thought it was, and simply failed the unfortunate implications of that story. Even the best of us screw up, and screw up badly, sometimes.

But yes, it was a bit unfair of me to single out Raimi for blame like that.

(I still haven't seen Spartacus because it all looks too grimdark for my tastes, but Xena is a treasured show which will always have a special place in my heart.)
I dunno, the absolute fatal stroke for me was that, x years from the end of this movie, Oz is going to send a little girl up against the Wicked Witch.

He's an irredeemable arsehole, and that this movie tries to paint him as a lovable con-artist with a heart of gold, ho-ho what shenanigans will he pull next... ugh.

It's a pity, because a movie about a sleazy con-artist with no magical power using fast-talking and sleight of hand to take over could have been such fun. A Grifter in Oz.
Robinson L at 00:36 on 2015-06-16
the absolute fatal stroke for me was that, x years from the end of this movie, Oz is going to send a little girl up against the Wicked Witch.

Excellent point, and, as one review I read recently pointed out, it's implied that Anne (Glinda's real world counterpart) is Dorothy's mother - meaning the little girl he sends to kill the Wicked Witch is the daughter of his ex-girlfriend.

To be fair to the movie, this part was also a problem in the 1939 film (and possibly the book - it's been years since I read it), where the Wizard, once he's revealed, is treated like a lovable rascal despite trying to use a kid to take out someone he fears to confront himself. Then again, Disney just had to go and make it worse.

It's a pity, because a movie about a sleazy con-artist with no magical power using fast-talking and sleight of hand to take over could have been such fun. A Grifter in Oz.

So many potentially good ideas for where this movie could have gone - none of which were what we actually got.
Orion at 10:46 on 2015-07-12
Nostalgia Chick, previously seen here hating on The Mortal Instruments, also has thoughts about Oz. This video is a top ten list, but Oz is the first one discussed.
Robinson L at 03:30 on 2015-07-15
Orion: Nostalgia Chick ... also has thoughts about Oz

Okay, I've watched the beginning of the video, including the part about Great and Terrible Powerful Terrible. It's short, but it's pretty much in agreement with everything my sisters and I concluded about the film, so I've nothing really to add.

On the other hand, I didn't actively dislike Star Trek: Into Darkness (minus the whole part about whitewashing a classic Star Trek character), and I did actively enjoy Desolation of Smaug, even though I can see where people are coming from with the criticism.
Orion at 21:28 on 2015-09-29
Even when you're doing a Christmas Carol scenario, where the whole point is that your protagonist is a terrible person who realizes over the course of the story how terrible they are and then shapes up, you still have to give the viewers something which will keep them invested in the character up to the point where they make the commitment to change their ways.

Out of curiosity: with the Christmas Carol specifically, what do you think gets the reader to buy into Scrooge? His vulnerability, maybe? That's all I can think of.
Arthur B at 23:54 on 2015-09-29
I think there's two things in A Christmas Carol itself which get you invested in Scrooge turning things around:

- Dickens spends the first part of the book introducing you to a whole heap of people whose lives are measurably worse because of how awful Scrooge is. We want Scrooge to turn his life around because if he starts behaving like an interconnected part of the social fabric rather than some awful libertarian Redditor it will be genuinely best for everyone.

- Then you have Jacob Marley upping the stakes by reminding us all that Scrooge's eternal soul is at stake and the ghosts are going to try and save it. Even if you aren't a Victorian churchgoer of the sort who can't get enough of sinners sorting their shit out, the whole "It's too late for me but you can escape an eternity of chains with this ONE WEIRD TIP" bit is great for setting the stage.

- On top of that, the Christmas Past section makes sure that you end up seeing another side of Scrooge early on in the process; in particular, you get to see him as a much more sympathetic young man, and how the ways of the world end up making him this bitter old coot who's behaved so badly in the opening chapter of the book, so you know that he wasn't always like this and you want to see if he can still turn it around.

- Next up the Christmas Present bit once again underlines the stakes others have in Scrooge's salvation or damnation by introducing Tiny Tim and pointing out how horribly sick he is.

- Finally, the Christmas Future bit points at a fate for Scrooge which, even if we dislike him, we can't help but shudder at.

So Dickens is constantly pulling at your heartstrings to remind you that there's big stakes to all this throughout the story. The one-line answer for what gets you to buy into Scrooge? Shameless emotional manipulation, the bedrock of just about every sentence Dickens writes.
Robinson L at 00:00 on 2015-09-30
Well, I've never actually read the original Dickens short story - I've seen plenty of retellings, but they often take liberties with the Scrooge character (sometimes, he's not even the protagonist). So I'm afraid I can't help you there.

Is Scrooge in the original funny? That's one way readers will buy into a character, even if they're a horrible person.
Arthur B at 00:09 on 2015-09-30
Oh yes, he's basically the Eric Cartman of Victorian London.
Robinson L at 22:00 on 2015-12-01
A very belated follow up, but while I still haven't read the original Dickens story, I recently read a bit of analysis on A Christmas Carol which bears on your question, Orion. Basically, the author of the analysis backed up Arthur's point about the Ghost of Christmas Past. Seeing Scrooge's unhappy youth—and that the unhappiness is not wholly Scrooge's fault—evokes sympathy in the reader.

Oz, the Great and Powerful arguably tries to do something similar in the Wizard's interaction with Annie, Glinda's Kansas-counterpart. Here, at least, we see him actually give a crap about someone other than himself, and even put her wellbeing ahead of his own happiness: he tells her to marry the other guy because he'll be better for her. The way he defends his desire to be great rather than good is also downright melancholic—he pretty much admits it's less about craving glory (although he does) and more about his fear a life without meaning.

This may stoke some sympathies, but it doesn't last, for a couple of different reasons. I think one is that this is the first, and last, we see of Annie, so we don't really get a sense of how big a sacrifice it is for him to let go of her. Second, Annie disappears after this scene, and it's a loooooong way into the movie before we get another instance of the Wizard truly showing that level of genuine tenderness and willingness to prioritize someone else over his own selfish desires. Third, unlike Scrooge, the Wizard's woes as they're presented in the film come across as entirely of his own making—we don't see him being hard done by, we only see him callously using and misusing others for his own selfish ends. Fourth, the Wizard's fear of meaninglessness never comes up again; it's not enough to set up a sympathetic motivation like that if it doesn't get explored. In the end, the Wizard is rewarded with both a meaningful life, and the glory and recognition for which he screwed so many people over.

A smarter film would have shown the Wizard discovering there are other ways to achieve the meaning he craves, and having to sacrifice a chance at the glory and adoration he's been seeking all this time to get it. Or a darker version would have him achieve his glory and adoration, only to find it just as hollow and meaningless as the anonymity he feared. Actually, that second scenario would work great with the original Wizard of Oz and you could still have a happy ending by flashing forward to the time when Toto exposes him as a humbug, and he finally realizes how he can lead a truly meaningful life when he offers to take Dorothy back to Kansas with him in his old balloon. Unfortunately, Oz the Great and Powerful is none of those films. (I'm sorry, I appear to have strayed from the point. But yeah, basically, what Arthur said.)
Robinson L at 20:02 on 2017-05-12
I’ve been working through an audiobook recording of The Once and Future King by T. H. White, and was struck by this quote by Merlyn in The Sword in the Stone, which makes for an excellent commentary on this movie’s protagonist and his character arc:

“Only fools want to be great.” Well said, Merlyn, well said.
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