Film Review: Oz The Great and Powerful

So I went off to see the Wizard this past weekend.

I was very eager to see it. I’ve loved The Wizard of Oz for most of my conscious life. I was introduced to it through the famous 1939 film that many know and love. Then I read as many of the books as I could to stay with my friends as much as possible. I also read and saw the Musical version of Wicked: the former of which I respected, and the latter of which I utterly loved.

Now, my two favourite Oz characters have always been the Scarecrow and The Wizard himself. I liked The Wizard because he, well, had a hot air balloon that took him into a magical land. I actually tried weaving a balloon (out of felt and other cloth, not completely aware of what materials a hot weather balloon actually required) but it never got far. Even then, in those days, I wanted to escape this world and go to a better one.

But later on, I liked The Wizard for other reasons. He lacked any magical abilities, but he was a master of sleight-of-hand, illusions and artifice. And for all of his manipulative and deceptive aspects, he just seemed like a kindly old man that actually helped Oz through making himself a symbol if nothing else. He was the one who taught me that the seeming of power can create the greatest form of hope to others. Also, I would like to posit that he was in addition to being a highly flexible thinker and canny stage magician that tricked others–including beings with actual magic–he also was a brilliant artificer: because I am pretty sure the Emerald City’s technological innovations were his doing from his knowledge of late nineteenth century Earth life.

Suffice to say, he was a crafty old man that created a brilliant show as The Wizard of Oz. The Wizard has been depicted in a few ways: as a charlatan, as a villain, and a hapless man trying to figure out what to do in a strange magical land. So I wanted to see what he would be like, as the main character and hero no less, in Oz The Great and Powerful.

Now, I would suggest that, if you do not like Spoilers, you stop following this yellow brick road any further.

All right. So when when we first come across Oscar Diggs, or The Great and Powerful Oz as his magician stage name goes, he is in this black and white world representing 1880s Kansas and looking not unlike the Impressionist world of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

As for Oscar Diggs … what can I tell you? He is supposed to be a complicated man: a rogue and a con artist, a consummate huckster, illusionist and magician, a master of misdirection, a womanizer, but also someone who knows that he is a bad man and feels powerlessness when he can’t help a child and acceptance when a woman that he actually loves is going to marry a better man.

Unfortunately, for the most part the slimy elements outweigh the charm and … he really just comes off as rather, well, less than endearing. Think … less humbug and more … scumbag. Even his jokes, and indeed a lot of the jokes in the world movie situated around him fall a little flat when you right down to it: so much so that you have to force yourself to laugh at them.

Structurally, the film is clever and deals with a lot of misdirection and hood-winks. Aside from the change from black and white to colour–a homage to the 1939 version of Oz–there is also the fact that most of the Wizard’s companions are Oz versions of the people he knew and met in Kansas: much like Dorothy, the farmhands, the travelling conjurer and the mean old woman Elmira Gulch. And then there was the matter of the villain, as far as I’m concerned the person who was becoming the star of the antagonist role …

All right. I liked the scene with the China Girl, Oscar laughing at the people pursuing him as he escaped in a hot air balloon, the little bit of misdirection that Evanora used to try and get Oscar Diggs to do her dirty work for her, Evanora’s green Force lightning, Glinda’s cleverness with the wind and the field of poppies, the Wizard’s scheme in making himself appear to be much more than human towards the end through his old friend misdirection, and some of the more touching scenes like Oscar admitting to what he is. I also really like the parts where he realizes that he has a great advantage over the Witches in terms of technological knowledge and trickery. Oscar asks Glinda, who helps him gather a group of farmers, bakers, inventors, and munchkins together how he is going to defeat the Emerald City’s armies with what he has. But the good Wizard, given the time period where he came from, should have remembered that the most powerful empire in the world at the time was at one point “a nation of shopkeepers”: carrying or having access to most of the resources to not only win a war, but rule a kingdom.

But there were points that really annoyed me. I mean, really annoyed me. For instance, when Oscar finds himself in Oz and hears Theodora talking about how she is a Witch, and then later seeing that she can throw a fireball, my first thought would have been acted out something like this.

Diggs: So … you are a Witch.

Theodora: Yes.

Diggs: And you can use magic?

Theodora: Yes, well, I can.

Diggs: Well okay. I showed you mine. Now show me yours.

Theodora: Um …

Diggs: Show me some magic.

Theodora: Oh ok.

Theodora throws a fireball at something. The Wizard’s jaw drops.

Diggs: That was … incredible …

Theodora: Oh, really?

She blushes.

Diggs: No I mean, you can throw fireballs. Effing fireballs. I mean, pardon my cussing and all, but … just … wait a minute. Just wait one moment. You mean to tell me that you could have thrown fireballs–fireballs–at the winged monkeys attacking us at any time–any freaking time–and you waited for me to sacrifice my poor bird instead?

Theodora: And it was brilliant magic. As expected from the Wizard of prophecy.

Diggs: Yes but … oh dear god, I faced a lion down with a parlour trick and you could have just thrown a fireball at …

The Wizard of Oz spends most of the time walking back trying not to bite through his own tongue at Theodora’s stupidity.

Or something like that. Not that I have anything against Theodora, mind you. She was naive, but really nice: almost unrealistically innocent and Oscar screwed that trust up pretty loyally. In fact, I had more sympathy for her than I did for him and turning into the fucking Wicked Witch of the West with a green apple seemed almost as much of a cop-out–and an excuse to place another major iconic Hollywood fictional figure into a movie to give it credence–as it was magically putting Anakin Skywalker into a freaking Darth Vader suit that just happened to be there in case he got amputated and burned alive. I mean … Gah!

I do like the hint of her nature and it works: that her own tears burn her like acid and she wields fire. There were hints and I erroneously believed she would be the Witch of the East at that point and Evanora was the Witch of the West.

In fact, I thought that Theodora was the North Witch and Glinda the South and Evanora the West with the evil Witch in the outlands being the Eastern one, but Disney decided–like the 1939 film–to just have three witches instead of the four from the books. What I can say: even before this film started I over-thought it.

But anyway, aside from the fact that Evanora could have probably had Glinda killed whenever she wanted, given that she could probably find her in the Crystal Ball, and waited for a man who she knew was a fake Wizard to do it anyway, and the fact that her winged Monkeys are freaking incompetent in not following Glinda and the others off the cliff they jumped from, I have another “What the hell are you doing, you are a Witch!” moment.

So yes, speaking of Glinda. She, Oscar, the China Doll, and Finley the Winged Monkey (what is he anyway, a less feral version of the Winged Monkeys of the Witches or another more docile species?) find themselves surrounded by Winkie soldiers and then the monkeys. So here is another hypothetical scene.

Diggs: So, we’re surrounded by soldiers and flying monkeys.

Glinda: Yes. That seems to be the case.

Diggs: Well, you are a Witch, right? I mean, I know you ladies aren’t warty or fly broomsticks but … you do have powers right?

Glinda: Well yes. Perhaps you have a power we can use here Wizard?

Diggs: … um, my powers work a bit differently from where I come from. Maybe you can do something?

Glinda: Hmmm …

So they run to the cliff and the Wizard freaks out about having to jump off a cliff after Glinda jumps. Then he follows them all and they come up in floating bubbles.

Diggs: Wow! Now this is impressive trick! Woooo! Hey wait … couldn’t …

He dodges a cloud.

Diggs: Couldn’t you have done this before!? You know, like when we were all on the ground running from enemies in the fog?

Glinda just smiles at Diggs.

Or later when we see that Glinda’s wand can Force push or block magic. You know, a good Force push might have been excellent against, well, an army. Of course, we can be nicer about this. Glinda did mention later, much later, that no citizen of Oz can kill anyone. I would imagine that the Wizard and anyone outside of Oz is exempt from this geis: this magical rule that keeps all of this from happening? Maybe Theodora also knew this or was too self-conscious to use her destructive magic to defend her and the Emerald City’s potential saviour. If she did, she and Evanora neglected to tell him that. And, for that matter, if no one in Oz can kill anyone, doesn’t that just neutralize the point to an army of Winkies or Winged Monkeys? Does Glinda mean that Oz is a world that prohibits killing, or is Oz just concerned to be the land around the Emerald City and killing happens everywhere? Also, wouldn’t the destruction of the China Girl’s whole village be considered killing? Or the murder of the original Wizard King of Oz?

Perhaps I was missing something. I have been told that the Witches, while they are also citizens of Oz, are also exempt from this rule due to their unique nature. But let’s operate on the assumption that Oz–in this film–prohibits killing from its residents and the Wizard can in fact kill. There is one scene where the Wizard is teaching engineers how to make black powder. Black powder is used–as it was in the film–in fire works, but also as gunpowder and … explosives.

If the Witches’ army if hand-held ornamental weapon wielders and winged monkeys encountered a group of people with muskets and hidden explosives, they would have been decimated. Period. If I had been Diggs and I was being threatened by Theodora *coughtheWickedWitchoftheWestcough* I would have shown no hesitation in destroying their armies. And maybe Oz Witches are immune to explosives or guns, but considering how the Witch of the East got squashed by a falling house and the other one would have to avoid rainfall and I am sure that Glinda knows their weaknesses (such as she did with Evanora), this could have been a whole other kind of story.

Of course, this was supposed to also be a child-friendly film and Disney had to follow certain legal matters. You know, the ones that kept the ruby or silver slippers from being on Evanora: the Witch of the East. It also makes me wonder if that’s why she didn’t have the Golden Cap: the artifact that allowed the Wicked Witch of the West to even control the Monkeys to begin with … although the 1939 film didn’t have that one. I also feel somewhat sad about those cynical ideas above because I would never have suggested them being implemented in the books or the 1939 film.

But this film just … I really wanted to like it. But it is getting a 3/5. I liked the art and the structure and I recognize what they tried to do, but the Wizard was less a lovable scoundrel and more of a douchebag, Theodora’s transformation was forced, and as a friend of mine stated it didn’t have that resonance of a gauche “camp” feeling that is identified with the film and the Wicked Musical too. It is its own world and it wouldn’t really fit into the main series of Oz, but it was an interesting attempt to make a new story.

Even so, I have to state that in the end, if you have followed the old film or the books, there is no place like home.

3 thoughts on “Film Review: Oz The Great and Powerful

  1. Movie review aside for a second, I felt compelled to comment on this observation: “He was the one who taught me that the seeming of power can create the greatest form of hope to others.” Have you been told lately that you’re brilliant? If not, consider yourself advised of such. You’re an amazing young man, Matthew. Ok, the review – Haven’t seen the movie yet but read through the spoilers anyway. I’m always distrustful of new takes on old favorites because they usually don’t live up to my childhood memories and perceptions. Oz is a sacred place, dammit, and deserves much better treatment than this movie accords. Your review confirms my misgivings, so I’ll just skip this latest incarnation entirely. One can only hope that if there is any redeeming feature found in this movie, it will entice viewers to explore the original book and movie. Thanks for the heads up!

  2. Well, thank you Hill Billy Zen. I appreciate the compliments. 🙂 The thing is, as I said there were some really nice details in this movie. And for the most part I think that Disney really tried. But it’s like making a bit of poetry or a rhythm that is a little … off. And it jarred the whole thing for me. I didn’t like The Wizard and I just felt that the few parts that shouldn’t have been rushed and were placed in there just for iconic and audience recognition value should have somehow been given more time. I was expecting something of a different movie. But it will hopefully encourage some people to read the books and the original film, or the older film versions even … and Wicked. 🙂 In any case, it is definitely nice to hear from you again.

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