Saturday, March 9, 2013

Oz is so pretty, oh so pretty... vacant.

"We're off to see the witches, the wonderful witches of Oz," I sung to myself as I settled in for an opening night showing of Oz, The Great and Powerful.  And there were witches... but not much wonder to be had. 

It's rare for me to go to a movie and not enjoy something about it.  I'll happily re-watch movies I know to be terrible because they're aesthetically interesting to me (see: Hannibal), or because the lead actor makes great eye candy and there are some great performances wrapped in crap (see: Wolverine: Origins), or because they're just ridiculous and fun (see: Shoot 'Em Up, Bring It On, Transporter 2).  Most of the time I can find something about a movie to enjoy.  So it was a weird feeling to be sitting in that theater last night feeling completely disconnected.  Bored, even.  The Land of Oz should never be boring, and neither should anything involving Sam Raimi and/or Rachel Weisz.  But this movie somehow manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. 

From here on in there will be spoilers, so consider the page break your warning.  Follow the yellow brick road at your own peril...

There are a few problems with this movie.  There's the feminist problem, which Jezebel articulates better than I could.  I do have a few thoughts on this, but I'll get to that in a minute.  Because it's not my primary complaint.  My greater issue was that the whole thing was so... joyless.  The visuals – which are gorgeous, and shiny, and impeccably rendered – mask an empty shell of a movie that is as cynical as it is nonsensical.  There's no wonder, no fear, no... anything, really.  Just very pretty pictures. 

Then there's the protagonist.  James Franco was reportedly not the first choice for the lead (rumored above him on the list:  Johnny Depp and Robert Downey, Jr.), but he's actually sort of perfect for the type of character the Wizard is here.  He's a smarmy con man who uses people (women, mostly) and cares for no one but himself.  He says himself in the first ten minutes that he could be a good man... but he doesn't want to be.  He answers all problems with a snake oil grin and a cruel joke, and though he stumbles into doing the right thing, there's never any sign that he's grown as a person or developed any sense of ethics.  Even when he saves the day, he only does it to yield the accolades and spoils.  He's unlikeable, and you really don't care if he wins or loses or disappears entirely.  You can make an unlikeable protagonist work... but not if you want your audience to rally behind him. 

The Witches of Oz, reduced to fangirling.  I'd go wicked too.
And certainly not when your entire supporting cast spend your movie fawning over this unlikeable git like he's the second coming of Elvis. 

You've got Glinda, who is supposedly powerful, has popular support and a solid claim to the throne... but who spends the whole movie waiting to be saved by a man she knows to be a narcissistic charlatan and then ultimately gives him the crown he's never shown he has the responsibility to wield.  You've got Finley the flying monkey, who seems to adore the Wizard in spite of his constant cruelty and abuse.  And then you've got poor Theodora, who isn't so much a character as an assemblage of "things the plot needs to have happen" wrapped in pretty costumes and Mila Kunis. 

Theodora is a big problem.  She shows up, falls hopelessly in love instantly and for no reason at all, hints at a backstory that is never addressed again, and then flails around helplessly before taking a villain turn all because the man she knew for one day broke her heart and her mean sister is mean (for reasons also never explained).  There's no character arc.  There's no character.  

The best character in the film doesn't even have a name.
In fact the character who inspired the only real emotional response from me was the entirely animated Little China Girl.  The effects work on her is really pretty breathtaking, and she's voiced really well.  But it says something when the actors onscreen are outdone by an animated character who has limited facial movement. 

I guess that's sort of a good metaphor for the whole movie, though.  The visuals are stunning, but anything beyond of that is sort of a big mess.  There's nothing that makes you really care about who wins or loses, and there's nothing that makes any of the main characters' actions make any real sense.  In a world filled with powerful women possessed of real magic everyone stands back and wrings their hands helplessly until a con man awes them with smoke and mirrors (literally).  And he only saves the day because he wants the reward, so he ends the movie utterly unchanged. 

The whole thing is a heartless exercise that winds up being exhausting when it should be exhilarating.  But it sure is pretty.

Post title paraphrased from this Sex Pistols classic.


  1. Great review!

    Have you ever seen the reputedly terrifying Return to Oz?

  2. To be fair, the original adaptation is not all that "loose" like Jezebel claims. I've read it, the sole thing I remember is that it's not just "Lions and Tigers and Bears!" but also "Griffins".

  3. Also disappointing, the beautiful visuals were swallowed in the concept of "visuals for the sake of visuals" or worse, "visuals for the sake of 3-D." A gorgeous movie is most gorgeous when the scenery exists in the background, popping during brief moments when it's given wings. Random rides on flying instruments for the sole purpose of showing what a beautiful digital landscape the artists have created is just a waste of time.