erik lundegaard

Oz the Great and Powerful
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Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I’ll never be able to watch “The Wizard of Oz” again without thinking that the Wicked Witch of the West (here Mila Kunis, there Margaret Hamilton) only became that way—ugly, green, and evil—because Oz, the great and powerful (here James Franco, there Frank Morgan) fucked her and then dumped her.

Way to shit all over a classic, Disney.

What a sad thing this is. And yet it grossed half a billion dollars worldwide? Way to go, moviegoers.

Too bad. The trailer looked fun and James Franco seemed perfectly cast as Oscar “Oz” Diggs, the charlatan/magician who travels by balloon and tornado to reach the Emerald City in the Land of Oz (no relation). Franco is a good hollow man but here he overdoes it. He hits hard on jokes that need softness and kills them. They fall flat. The movie is littered with dead jokes the way “Magnolia” was littered with dead frogs. Wasn’t director Sam Raimi able to reign him in? Or was Raimi the problem?

The man who loved women

At the beginning of the movie, set in Kansas in 1905, and filmed in black-and-white with the classic 4:3 aspect ratio, Oz is trying to sweet-talk yet another girl, his new magician’s assistant May (Abigail Spencer), by giving her a music box he claims belonged to his grandmother in the old country. He’ll use this routine several times in the movie. Cad. Then he performs his Baum Bros. Circus magic act, which a few locals try to ruin by pointing out the wires holding up the girl. But he silences them. He cuts the wires and the girl still hangs in mid-air. Ta-da! Bad news, actually. A little girl in a wheelchair (Joey King), with wonder and hope and belief in her eyes, asks him to make her walk again. Surely he, a magician, can do it. Everyone encourages him—“Yeah, make the kid walk!”—but he backs off with a few feeble lies rather than one honest bit of truth: I can’t do that kind of magic.

As storms brew in Kansas, as they are wont to do, Oz has more problems with women. The girl, Annie (Michelle Williams), shows up at his trailer but with the news that she’s getting married to John Gale—which, one assumes, is some eventual relation to Dorothy. “He’s a good man,” says Oz, taken aback. Annie says the same thing of him but Oz waves her off. He says he doesn’t even want to be a good man, like the other men of Kansas, and like his father, who died young from hard work. No, he wants to be a great man—like Harry Houdini or Thomas Alva Edison. At the moment, of course, he’s neither. He’s a hollow man.

At this point, the Strong Man’s girl, crying, and with a music box of her own, fingers Oz, and the Strong Man comes gunning for him (grrrr). Oz gets away, barely, with top hat and valise, in his balloon, but right into the path of a tornado. As he goes down, he makes a promise, a kind of foxhole promise, to change, to do great things, although one could argue this is hardly a change. He should’ve promised to become a good man like his father.

Face heel turn

It’s in the land of Oz, of course, that the screen widens and everything turns colorful, and Oz, the man, meets a beautiful girl in a wide-brimmed hat. Her name is Theodora (Kunis). When he tells her his name is Oz, and he’s a magician, she realizes he’s the man her father prophesied: the wizard who would fall from the sky to save them all. He hems and haws but doesn’t deny it much if it’ll get him stuff: a kingdom, riches, Theodora. He gives her a music box. She gives him … well, the camera pans away discreetly.

In Emerald City, Oz meets Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who seems paranoid, then suspicious. She shows Oz the vault of riches meant for the King. But before he can claim it, he has to kill the Wicked Witch. And off he goes, kicking the dirt, petulant. A drag to be around.

Question: When did the character switcheroo become such a movie staple? Your ally is really your enemy, your enemy your ally. Imagine if, in the classic “Wizard of Oz,” the Witch was secretly allied with … the Scarecrow! Or Glinda! Or the Lollipop Guild! That’s how they’d do it now. Your enemy is who you least suspect! Here, even before Oz leaves on his quest to kill the Wicked Witch, we’re wondering if Evanora, or even Theodora, whose heart is breaking from Oz’s callousness, is the real wicked witch. (Psst. It’s Theodora.)

On the Yellow Brick Road, as often happens, Oz gathers partners who are reminiscent of people in Kansas. Early on, we heard him berate his assistant, Frank (Zach Braff), thus: “You’re just a trained monkey!” So in Oz, he saves the life of a bellhop monkey (Braff), who pledges unending support, but who is perpetually disappointed by Oz’s shallow self-interest. The girl in the wheelchair? She pops up as a girl made of china, whose legs Oz glues back together. The magic he can’t do in Kansas he can do here. And Annie? The girl? She’s Glinda, the witch he has to kill. But just as he realizes she’s not the wicked one, Evanora’s forces, those flying baboons, arrive, and they escape, via Glinda’s bubbles, to Munchkinland.

Believe it or not

There, everyone views him as a savior, and Glinda, who knows he’s no savior, encourages him to make them believe. That’s the theme, really: If people believe in the phony, it might become real. But Oz is having trouble. He doesn’t believe in himself. He knows he’s a phony.

That turns out to be his strength. Years ago, a friend told me I needed to write more “from my power.” Whatever it was that I was, good or bad, that’s what I should focus on. This, essentially, is what Oz does as he readies for battle. He realizes he’s not a great man, nor a good man; he’s a cad and a charlatan and a fake. So he uses these attributes to take on Evanora and Theodora, the latter of whom, in the interim, has eaten a poisoned apple, lost her heart, and gained green skin, a cackle and a broom. We first see the transmogrification in shadow. Smart move, because the makeup doesn’t make Kunis look scary, merely odd. Take away the hook nose and pointed chin and she’s ready for the cover of Esquire’s “Green Women We Love” issue.

But even as the people believe in Oz, Oz asks the Master Tinker (Bill Cobbs) to make a balloon with which to escape. Because he’s still a cad and a charlatan and a fake. And after they’ve lured the flying monkeys into the poppy fields, and after they’ve surreptitiously entered the Emerald City, and even as a captured Glinda is chained up like Faye Wray in “King Kong,” Oz fills his balloon with coin and abandons his newfound friends. From a distance we see the balloon floating away. From a distance the Wicked Witch, the woman scorned, destroys it with a fireball. Down it goes. Out pops his top hat, charred. Everyone mourns. Everyone mourns the passing of the traitorous man: their last, worst hope.

Can you see it coming? Can you see the wires? Of course you can.

Manufacturing his own death was part of Oz’s plan. And using the magic of early cinema—an invention of his idol, Thomas Alva Edison—Oz projects his image amidst flames, a la “The Wizard of Oz,” and spooks the Wicked Witch right out of Emerald City. It’s Oz’s now. And there he’ll stay. And there he’ll rule.

Brains, courage, heart

Question: Why does “The Wizard of Oz” work so well? What’s it about?

It’s about a girl who wants to get away from her family farm then realizes there’s no place like home. It’s about people who think they lack certain positive qualities—brains, heart, courage—but who, when the chips are down, demonstrate those very qualities. And it’s about uncovering the deceit of an all-powerful charlatan.

“Oz, the Great and Powerful,” in comparison, is about creating, and propping up, the deceit of an all-powerful charlatan. It’s about getting people to believe in the fake.

That’s the point of Hollywood, too, isn’t it? Getting people to believe in, and spend money on, what’s fake. But to make it truly work, to make moviegoing truly worthwhile, you need a few things “Oz, the Great and Powerful” lacks: brains, courage, and heart.

—April 18, 2013

© 2013 Erik Lundegaard

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