Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful is turning into a box office gem. It has grossed $148.3 million internationally as of March 13, 2013. While it hasn’t met its $215 million price-tag, the movie is on track to exceed that threshold making it, in Disney’s eyes, one “great and powerful” movie. However, tickets sales don’t tell the entire story. Being number one at the box office only means victims people paid money to watch the film. It doesn’t mean they came out happy.
Oz is an unbalanced film that spends an inordinate amount of time flexing its CGI muscles and not enough time telling its story. The film’s photography is indeed spectacular including the computer generated images, the cinematography, the clever referential use of black-and-white photography and the entire artistic imagining of Oz. However, like a spoiled pageant queen, the film knows it’s beautiful. How many minutes did we spend floating in bubbles, spinning in balloons and walking on paths while the narrative nearly stops to allow us to gawk at what a super fine job the cinematographers have done? It was 3-D movie adventure ride first and a visual narrative story second.
The film skims along the plot without letting the audience savor dramatic intensity or dynamics. It shows us the story. It doesn’t tell us the story. For example, the river fairies are completely irrelevant to the story. Oz knew he wasn’t “in Kansas anymore.” The important Theodora-Oz exchange is overshadowed by the vivid photography. We pay more to her bright red jacked and lips than inter-character dynamics. As a result, I didn’t believe Theodora’s obsession. On the other hand, maybe the film’s discomfort with depth was meant to mirror Oz’s own superficiality? If so, this was done at the risk of entertainment.
The acting didn’t help. Rachael Wiesz (Evanora) lacked the bitter intensity that would have simultaneously attracted and repelled a viewer. When she unleashes electricity from her hands, it seems more like a parlor trick than the weapon of an truly evil witch. Perhaps she needs a few more lessons from the Sith School of Darkness.
After her transformation, Mila Kunis (Theodora) does display that deep bitter anger. But the quality of her voice with its gritty, strained school-girl whine upstaged those emotions. At times, it felt like the cast of “That Seventies Show” was playing “Wizard of Oz.” Additionally, her green face looked oddly swollen almost like a Henson Muppet.
Fortunately, the film’s powerful visuals save the Wicked Witch of the West’s reputation. I loved the use of shadow as Theodora first rises in her new form (which is later repeated in the village.) This was the ultimate homage to the original classic. I wanted to cackle myself. At that very moment, we all knew who Theodora had become. Moreover, Disney did a great job on her promotional poster as well. If only the characters were as well-conceived as their imagery.
The other actors, including the pre-green Theodora, were adequate enough. My favorite character was the adorable well-conceived CGI China Doll. Unfortunately, she is just a nifty plot device and a tribute to L. Frank Baum.
Now, those are the reason why I didn’t like the film. However, interestingly enough, within that emaciated narrative, Oz does manage to squeak out some underlying conservative, almost misogynistic, themes. One would think that these patriarchal-based pentimenti might have come from the original Baum stories. But they don’t. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) Baum appears to celebrate the internal power of women through Dorothy and her silver slippers. At the end of the story, both Dorothy and witches prove to have more power than the Wizard.
However, Oz uses a more typical Hollywood patriarchal construction that juxtaposes the good woman with an evil woman through their relationship to a man. ”Glinda the Good” (Michelle Williams) derives her powers only through her father and Oz. Taking that one step further, Glinda can only perform magic through a wand – a classic phallic symbol. As noted by Evanora, if that wand is broken, she loses her power. In this world, a “good” woman is powerful only when contained within the patriarchy.
As for the bad girls, they are also waiting for Oz. However, they want to kill him to ensure their own power. As expected, they are marked by dark dramatic clothing, dark hair and, albeit moderate, sexuality. Theodora’s inner rage turns her green, literally, with envy. In her new form, she no longer needs or wants the love of a man. She is now evil. As opposed to Glinda, these two witches wield magical power from their own body as electricity and fire balls. They do not need a wand. They do not need a phallus. They do not need a man.
The film is punctuated with Christian theological symbols and thematic constructions. Oz’s journey could be one of redemption with the Land of Oz is the gateway to Heaven. He must face his ethics to prove himself righteous enough to live forever in the Emerald City. The movie’s journey tests morality through friendship (monkey), the care for a children (the China Doll), the need for true love (Glinda) and the sacrifice of one’s own goals for the common good (the Wizard). In this configuration, the blonde haired Glinda, adorned in pure white and glitter makeup, plays the role of an angel who leads Oz to goodness. It is not surprising that she floats in bubbles and produces white puffy clouds.
There are several other similar allegorical constructions. Oz could be a Jesus figure who is the prophesized savior. Through death and resurrection, he achieves his glorious position above the throne in the Kingdom. The film’s narrative envisions Elenora as a devil character. She uses seduction, glamoury and magic to achieve her goals. When her innocent sister is pained with jealousy, she tempts the child to evil with a poison apple – the forbidden fruit. In eating the fruit, Theodora is cast out of goodness into evil and transformed into a beast.
Like all of those other eager ticket holders, my love for the Wizard of Oz (1939) is what sent me to the theater and is also what pulled me through the movie itself. I wanted to see how this movie reconciled its ending with the start of the next one. The references to the old film were abundant and amusing. But, overall, the movie is disappointing. It is beautiful but lacks the charm and dynamic power of the 1939 classic that still reigns as one of the best Hollywood films ever made.