Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) starts, as must all retro films, with a black-and-white sequence in limited aspect as if it was somehow comparable to the original Yellow Brick road thing that everyone still talks about. This is not unsuccessful but, for once, the music by Danny Elfman is all wrong. It’s far too knowing and fails to grace the visual intention with period charm. So proving we really are in Kansas, we’re off with barkers calling credulous townsfolk on to the the midway which offers the talents of the small-time magician, Oscar Diggs (James Franco), playing to a half-empty tent. Inconveniently overcome by a sense of realism, he admits he can’t help a crippled girl walk. He’s a conman, not a miracle worker, rising up from a hick farm with dreams of being a great magician like Houdini. After a moment when he almost does the right thing with a girl who loves him, he runs away from the jealous strongman and into the hot-air balloon. Faced with death, he promises to do great things if only he can be saved from the twister that inevitably appears. Except the point of the original conceit was to show us that Dorothy was having a dream. That’s why the characters from the black-and-white preface show up again in technicolor. Yet in this prequel, our hero must move permanently into Oz so he can be there to meet with Dorothy later on. It’s therefore pointless to have the same people in both the human and the magical worlds.
Anyway, no natter what the justification, we’re into full colour as we enter the world of magic. Given the quick changes of scenery and the transformation of petals into butterflies, he quickly works out he’s somewhere different. The river fairies are pleasingly malicious in a slightly fleeting, non-threatening way. Theodore the Good Witch (with a bad temper) (Mila Kunis) then tells him of the prophecy that a wizard will come to free the people and become their King (with all the gold that goes with the role). He’s naturally attracted. Having saved Finlay, the flying monkey, from the lion, Theodora leads him to the Emerald City where he must convince everyone of his wizardly credentials. Waiting for him is Evanora (Rachel Weisz). He sees the treasure which is a good motivator, but the price of the throne (and the treasure) is that he kills the wicked witch. And we’re off into the quest bit of the film, but because this is a Disney film, the flying monkey is like Jiminy Cricket, a walking conscience (forget the flying bit while he’s carrying the human’s heavy bag). In short order we come to the China (Tea Set) City which is an interesting visual idea. The broken china figurine (Joey King) is a fragile and tragic figure with a broken leg and, unlike her human counterpart back in Kansas, is instantly repairable with glue conveniently imported from the human world. It seems the Wicked Witch sent her minions to destroy the city because the people were celebrating the arrival of the wizard. Our hero specifies no dolls on the witch hunt except she cries herself a river and gets taken along for the ride. And this is really the problem. Every film which sets off down this road has to strike a balance between cute and frightening. This is definitely unbalanced in the wrong direction.
The studio’s intention is a kind of conscious parallelism with the original 1939 classic musical which was cute (all that singing with Munchkins dancing militates against the fear factor rising). Ignoring the intellectual property problems in replicating the bits of cinema owned by the “other studio”, this modern band of copyright thieves with their own team of attorneys in action at every point, sets off down the appropriately coloured road to prequelise the original, i.e. borrowing just enough of the iconography to be a “Wizard of Oz” film. But the parallelists have a dilemma. They are not proposing to make a musical and they are including three witches, at least one of whom is wicked, so this could be scary. But if it’s really really scary, it might frighten the kids, so parents won’t bring them through the doors and make back the cost of production (which at $215 million is substantial with all that CGI). Actually it’s earned about $480 million worldwide, i.e. it’s not doing too badly. So what they’ve actually put on the screen is a cardboard version of a fantasy film. Even the least sophisticated of child viewers will yawn as they go through the Dark Forest. Worse, despite the occasional knowing comment, e.g. about stereotyping flying monkeys and their like of bananas, the script is leaden and the acting wooden (or bone china as the case may be). Eventually, our hero meets Glinda (the Good or the Bad or the not yet Ugly) (Michelle Williams) who suggests Evanora is the real wicked witch. Now there’s one of the twists!
Of course, when you get three sisters and a handsome if cardboard man, they can quickly grow jealous. But, predictably, the passage through the magic testing wall shows our hero to be hiding a kindly soul. So now comes the moment of truth when he ought to tell his audience that he ain’t no wizard, no siree! He’s weak, selfish, slightly egotistical and not at all what the Ozians were expecting to come and save them. Except Glinda, who’s seen through his transparent disguise as a real human being, urges him to continue the myth to maintain civilian morale. So the famers farm, the Tinkers featuring Bill Cobbs make stuff, and the Munchkins sing for ten seconds. But none of this motley crew can actually kill anyone or thing. That makes them the perfect army with which to fight the Wicked Witch (whoever she is). We then descend into mawkish sentimentality as our newly fearless leader decides anything is possible when you believe in at least one impossible thing before breakfast (that’s not counting the crispiness of cornflakes, of course).
So what is this hero actually made of? He’s a womanising bastard who loves them and leaves them. Indeed that’s one of the reasons why he almost immediately gets into trouble in the new world. Quite why the film-makers thought such a man would be a good influence on this new world is baffling as his bedroom eyes transfix each of the sisters in turn. Hey but this is a Disney film for children, right? That means no sex scenes just seduction with implied consequences. Oh yes, and because this is a Disney film, we have to include an apple scene (to avoid repeating the cliché, the victim does not immediately fall asleep — unlike the audience). In the end, this is a classic Disney family-values film in which even the China Girl gets her wish granted. All of which makes Oz the Great and Powerful one of the worst blockbuster films with which to start off the 2013 campaign for box office glory.