Goodness is better than greatness. This is the ultimate theme of “Oz the Great and Powerful.”
There are also subtler sub-themes: for instance, that good and evil are not always obvious, and that casual selfishness can destroy lives as easily as outright cruelty. These are unusual themes for a children’s movie and even more unusual for an adult fantasy-adventure-comedy, and they are the main reason I enjoyed “Oz” as much as I did.
“Oz,” in fact, has its moments of brilliance, primarily when tipping its tall top hat to the 1939 “The Wizard of Oz” movie, which it often does. Like “Wizard,” it opens in black and white, and stays that way for so long that the little girl next to me in the theater asked her grandmother, “Is this movie in completely black and white?”
Oh, grandmother, why didn’t you show her “The Wizard of Oz” first? It made “Oz” all the more delightful to watch—enjoying the transition from black and white to color, which hearkens back to that extraordinary moment in the original movie. Watching out for all the little details that show you’re in the same world as “Wizard,” like the hairstyles of the people in the Emerald City, the genesis of the Wizard’s tinkering with mechanical objects, the attention to detail in the Winkies’ physiology, the reference to pre-Dorothy-Gale Gales. The young woman on the other side of me exclaiming under her breath, “The horses!” and drawing my attention to Horses Of A Different Color calmly grazing in a field. It was clear that the people who made “Oz” loved “Wizard.”
Another area of brilliance is the expansion of the original Oz world. “Oz”’s Oz is a land of beauty and wonder, Dorothy’s Oz updated for a digital audience. The vast sweeps of landscape are beautiful, and the intimate details are delightful: trees that are butterflies, fish that are birds, flowers that are bells. The grand and glorious Emerald City, all Art Deco up close. The lovely touches of home in a smashed teapot house in China Town. Perfect ball joints on a living china doll. The creators of “Oz” created an Oz rich in detail, with something delightful to see around every corner and at every edge of the screen.
One subplot delighted me above all the others: the revelation of the Wicked Witch of the West. For fully a third of the movie, precisely who the bad guy (lady) might be is kept hidden. There are three witches; each accuses at least one of the others of being The Evil Witch, and the audience (hopefully) doesn’t know which Witch is which for a good, long time. One witch is good, one is bad, and one . . . one is human and changes from good to bad.
This entranced me most, because our fairy tales tend to be flat black and white and to miss out on the subtlety of humanity. All people have good and evil inside them, and all are offered a choice to reject good and choose evil, or to reject evil and choose good, and even to change their mind once they have made their choice. One witch chooses to turn from the good she has always embraced and cast herself into the world of evil.
There are depth and subtlety in her reasons for making this choice. As with many humans who have surrendered themselves to evil, she is led there by manipulation by one character; by the careless, lighthearted selfishness of another character; by her fear of the pain caused by that character’s selfishness; and by her desire to take revenge rather than offer forgiveness.
Alongside these moments of brilliance, “Oz” has moments of what I can only call epic fail. Though the art and digital departments made an incredible landscape, many times the live-action actors don’t meld well with it. They look like precisely what they are, actors acting against a projection on a green screen. Where they have sets to work in, they work in them beautifully. Where they don’t, they really look like they don’t.
In addition to this failure of actor against landscape, I was strongly disappointed in the main character, the Wizard himself. In the first place, I hated him—though it’s true the audience was supposed to at least dislike him at first, because he too goes through a transformation, as all good characters should. But in the second place, I thought James Franco failed completely to make him believable. I did believe him as a fake, insincere conman, because the acting seemed fake and insincere to me.
Two other things disappointed me. One was a subplot of justified deceit, connived at by the Wizard and the Good Witch. In order to defeat the Evil Witches, the innocent and non-militaristic people of Oz have to believe that the Wizard is really a Wizard, rather than the shoddy conman he truly is. Together Good Witch and Wizard deceive them and continue deceiving them past the end of the movie, right up to the end of the original “Wizard” movie. This is necessary for the development of the Wizard of “Oz” into the Wizard of “Wizard,” because the latter is a deceitful but good-hearted old man, but, as I say, it’s disappointing.
The final disappointment was that the level of scariness in the movie doesn’t seem consistent with its being a movie for children. I didn’t at first expect “Oz” to be a children’s movie, until the light, amusing, sometimes simplistic, innocent tone of it struck me, especially in the first Oz sequences. And once it did, I didn’t expect certain subsequent sequences to be as frightening as they were.
“Oz” is no horror movie by any stretch of the imagination, and maybe the scary bits wouldn’t actually be that scary for today’s children who are so used to watching movies and television made for adults. But if I had seen it as a child, 20 or 25 years ago, I know I would have had nightmares about certain sequences involving the Wicked Witch of the West. As in “Wizard,” but more gruesomely, she appears out of fire on the Yellow Brick Road and causes pain, fear, and mayhem. And the scene of her transformation into the Wicked Witch is intense and shocking. Also, the two Evil Witches torture the Good Witch in a manner reminiscent of the Emperor from Star Wars. Those who want to take young children should simply be prepared for these sorts of scenes, and aware of what the children can handle.
Overall, I highly enjoyed “Oz the Great and Powerful.” It made me laugh, it made me rejoice, and it gave me great enjoyment in its reflection of the original “Oz” movie. Most of all, it made me think about good, evil, selfishness, and how good characterization in fiction can reflect real life.
Image copyright Disney.
Christy McDougall is a Web developer, writer, and aspiring missionary with bachelor's and master's degrees in Christian theology.
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