Friday, March 8, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful [2013]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-II) Richard Roeper (2 1/2 Stars)  AV Club (C+)  Fr Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
Chicago SunTimes (R. Roeper) review
AV Club (S. Tobias) review

Oz, the Great and Powerful (directed by Sam Raimi, screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsey-Abaire, inspired by the L. Frank Baum's [IMDb] children's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz [1900] and the beloved MGM film The Wizard of Oz [1939]) is IMHO a surprisingly good (if often the key word here is "surprising"), star studded, Disney produced prequel to the much beloved story that offers parents/adults much to think about (and off-screen "intrigues" to contemplate/investigate) even as the kids just enjoy the show.

To give a sampling: Why did DISNEY make this film?  (Apparently back in the 1930s Disney was busy preparing to make L. Frank Baum's book into an animated feature when it discovered that Baum's family had sold the rights to rival studio MGM).  And why did DISNEY choose to use this prequel script by Kapner / Lindsey-Abaire where the focus is on the MALE character of the "Wizard of Oz," rather than one based on Gregory Maguire's novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West [1995] and the subsequent musical Wicked [2003] (ever an on-stage hit but as yet not put on the screen), which was a more feminist re-imagining of the original story and where the focus was on how Eldora (born green) came to receive (unjustly) her moniker as the "Wicked Witch of the West?"  (In Wicked, the "Wizard" wasn't exactly portrayed flatteringly...).

Part of the answer to the second question (Why "Oz, the Great and Powerful" as opposed to "Wicked?") can be found by taking a look at wikipedia's / the IMDb's listings of books and films/shorts inspired by L.Frank Baum's original creationWicked has been by no means the only spin-off from the original story (if IMHO in our time the most culturally significant).

Perhaps more positively, however (and I realize that there will be women reading this review who will be rolling their eyes as do so), while much of contemporary American culture "gets" Maguire's inspired critique in Wicked of Baum's original story / 1939 MGM film, today there may be a cultural need to "better understand" the (Male) wizard in the story than to simply continue to beat-up on him.  Already in the 1939 film, he was portrayed as something of a goof / charlatan.  In Wicked he was arguably a villain. Here I do honestly believe that James Franco does a surprisingly good job playing the 2-bit turn of the 20th century Kansas circus magician named Oscar (who knows he's a petty charlatan/fraud) but who after a turn of fate finds himself reluctantly in the role of Oz's "Wizard."  (There are certainly folks who don't like Franco as an actor, but honestly, I do believe he was perfectly cast).  Repeatedly, Oscar confesses to characters he meets in the Magical land of Oz that he's "no wizard," and repeatedly, he's told "we know that, but try anyway."  It's a fascinating take on contemporary male self-awareness / doubt.

Again, I realize that plenty of women who'd read this essay would roll their eyes ("Poor fraudulent 'male authority figure' surrounded by various clearly competent, arguably superior women...").  But here we are ... Bruce Willis' "Die Hard" character notwithstanding, the last truly "macho" "in control" traditional archtypical male roles in American cinema were created in the 1980s (and Willis' comes from that era) Even macho-man Steven Seagal found himself Under Siege [1992].  Since then, males have generally been portrayed as "bums" (Homer Simpson, Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas [1995], etc) perhaps more sympathetically more recently as "bums with stories" (Mickey Rourke's character in The Wrestler [2009], Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark in Marvel comics' Iron Man franchise, Liam Neeson's character in the Taken films) but still bums or people with many regrets.  In that cultural continuum, "Oz, the Great and Powerful" appears to be a plea to men to "step up" even to fake it if they have to, to "step up" for the sake of the greater good.

But is "faking it" a sustainable approach?  (And would women in the long term want men who have to "fake it" on a near continuous basis in order to keep above water?) These are some of the "big" or "deep" concerns that the film leaves adults even as the their kids watch smiling ear from ear a world arguably as magical as that of James Cameron's Avatar [2009] or Tim Burton's recent uptdate to Alice in Wonderland [2010].

The current film, Oz, the Great and Powerful, actually offers an even bigger challenge (or source of anxiety) to religionists, like myself, because it's not hard to see that "The Wizard of Oz," deep down a fake/charlatan though he may be, plays a God-like role in the Land of Oz.  Are we, religionists/priests, deep down ... fakes...? (Boy, as a Catholic priest, do I hope not ;-) ;-).  Nevertheless, the question has been "out there" for a while.  Interestingly enough, L. Frank Baum, wrote his The Wonderful Wizard of Oz [1900] (Amzn 1, 2) about midway between Friedrich Nietsche's proclaiming "God is dead... and we killed him" in Also Sprach Zaratustra [1885] (PDF), and Franz Kafka's writing his nihilistic horror The Castle [1922] (Amzn) in which, after much struggle to finally reach "the Castle" which was always in Inspector K's view, but always "unattainable," he discovers that "no one's there."  So there is, actually, an unsettling religious backdrop in the Oz story. 

Va bene ... okay, after all these high-minded musings, let's get to the movie itself.  How does the current Oz story play out?

Set in 1905 (some twenty years before the 1939 film), we meet Oscar (played by James Franco) a scheming 2-bit traveling circus magician in Kansas, who soon finds that he's deceived one one many young ladies.   Barely escaping the clutches of a jealous husband (or vengeful family member) he jumps a ride on a hot air balloon just as a powerful thunderstorm is arriving.  Like Dorothy in the 1939 film, he gets sucked into the vortex of a tornado ... and when he comes out of it, finds himself in far away from the dreary two toned world of Kansas and in the eye-popping colorful world of Oz. 

Among the first people he meets is a nice, somewhat naive (and dressed in red, perhaps like "little red riding hood") young lady named Theodora (played by Mila Kunis) who introduces herself to him as a "witch" though a "nice one."  Since Oscar's a stranger and his name begins with Oz, she immediately suspects that he may be "the One." What does she mean?  Well it was prophesied that "a Great Wizard" was going to arrive in  Oz to restore harmony after the death of Theodora's father, the last "Wizard of Oz." 

Seeing a good looking young lady and needing her help and two-bit con-artist that he's been, Oscar takes advantage of her kindness as he tries to regain his bearings.  "Wizard? why not?" he had been a magician after all.  So he accepts her invitation to join her on the "yellow brick road" and travel the Emerald City to "do what he can" to fulfill the prophesy.

When he gets to the Emerald city, he meets a green dressed sister of Theodora, named Evanora (played by Rachel Weisz).  She's not nearly as naive as the red-dressed Theodora, and immediately sees a use for the good old wizard (who she understands to probably be a fraud from the get-go).  She sends him on the errand to go and capture/kill their evil sister Glinda (played by Michelle Williams) who Evanora says (and Theodora believes) killed their father.  Much ensues as the Wizard heads from the Emerald City to the Dark Forest to take care of Glinda, among these is both his/the audience's realization that Glinda doesn't come across as all that evil after all.  What's going on?  Could there be lying/deceit in the Land of Oz?

Finally, while all three sisters -- the red dressed Theodora, the green dressed Evanora and the turns out white dressed Glinda -- are actual witches with actual supernatural powers, Oscar's remains, as always, someone who survives only by his wits.  What to do?  And how to restore peace/tranquility to Oz when all one has is THE REPUTATION of POSSIBLY being "The Wizard of Oz?"  Great story ;-)

There is honestly a lot in this story: Oscar strives for "Greatness" while it's clear that all that Glinda (and the girl that she reminds him of back home in Kansas) really want of Oscar is "Goodness."  And while Oscar finds himself repeatedly overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy, he _is_ able to (and repeatedly) perform small (and yet profound) miracles: faced with a weaping/orphaned "broken china doll" (voiced by Joey King) he finds THAT HE REALLY HAS a "magical elixir" in his bag (glue ;-) that can "put her back together" :-) ;-).  Little "aw" events like this occur throughout the story, and do over time leave someone like me in my own at times precarious profession in awe.

And indeed, there are those who do know me, especially from back in the days when I was stationed in a lovely parish in central Florida where I repeatedly said that I felt like Jesus' disciples encountering themselves in an impossible situation with only "five loaves and two fish," and yet MIRACULOUSLY the situation turned out well.  I was telling young people quite often back then that "You can actually do a lot with only 'five loaves and two fish.'"

It may be then, that a similar message can be found in this story.  James Franco's Oscar finds himself REPEATEDLY almost "empty handed" and yet HE IS, IN FACT, able (yes, often with the help of others) perform miracles and thus be for the community "The Wizard of Oz."

Remarkable, huh? ;-)  What a neat (if perhaps initially surprising) contemporary adaptation of a beloved children's story!

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