Despite several new releases this past weekend, Oz: The Great and Powerful finished in first place at the box office again. With a domestic total of $145 million and counting, the L. Frank Baum prequel has already proven to be immensely profitable for its Disney overlords, and boy do the overlords know it. With word out that screenwriter Mitchell Kapner has already begun working on a purported sequel, questions of the Oz franchise’s direction have gotten mixed into the half-furor of movie blog-dom. Which characters might return? Is Sam Raimi coming back? What’s even left to tell?
That last question might be the most compelling of all, since the Oz franchise seems to be setting itself on a trajectory similar to the Star Wars Prequels. And that’s probably not a good thing.
Roses are CGI, Violets are CGI, EVERYTHING IS CGI
Oz’s most distinctive feature was its bright, gaudy visuals, no doubt inspired by Alice in Wonderland art director Robert Stromberg’s designs. Oz is certainly a magical place; gargantuan orange crysanthemums bloom like lion’s manes, and the Yellow Brick Road seems to have lost none of its pop and brightness. This world is smooth and everything feels so deliberate and precise, yet so little of it looks convincing. As comical as Zach Braff can be,it’s difficult to look past the fact that his Finley character is a computer-animated monkey in a bellboy costume. Dirt is never kicked up on any paths, and characters never seem engaged with their surroundings because the surroundings feel so synthetic and sterile — just like the Star Wars Prequels.
With each film, George Lucas lobbied in favor of green screen sets and a cast half-comprised of CG characters. In Lucas’ mind, “computers” meant control. Was he right? Sure. Dexter Jetster looks interesting, but does anyone actually believe Obi-Wan is interacting with this soggy, saggy four-armed diner owner? Or take Sith’s climax, where Palpatine’s guards rush a badly-burned Anakin to an emergency medical facility, where he’s mended and eventually placed in the iconic black suit everyone knows and loves and wears when they go to bed at night. Wait, is it the same suit? It’s hard to tell, since so much in the scene is digitally enhanced — all of the medical equipment, Vader’s helmet, even parts of Anakin’s face look computer-enhanced. Like Oz, there’s a clean sheen to everything, and exactly none of it is convincing. They may look cheesy, but a man in a Wookiee costume and little people in flying monkey suits still possess some semblance of physicality. So much of The Wizard of Oz was shot on sound stages, and admittedly it shows. But that was 80 years ago, not last weekend.
Our strong, important women are defined by stronger, more important men
Oz: The Great and Powerful may have passed the Bechdel Test, but just barely. It’s a shame, too, since its posters promised with three strong female characters. Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz are immensely talented actors, and Mila Kunis’ career is blowing the heck up. This should be great! Wait, why is everyone huddled around James Franco? It’s because Oz’s three witches — Glinda, Theodora, and Evanora — are all defined by their feelings toward Franco’s Oscar Diggs. THERE BE VAGUE SPOILERS AHEAD.
Weisz’s Evanora is intent on keeping her grip on Emerald City, and sees Oscar as an underqualified bumbling a-hole who must be destroyed. Williams’ Glinda is Evanora’s polar opposite, seeing the capacity for good in Oscar, and looking past his egotism and promiscuity. Kunis’ Theodora however, might be the most problematic character. Upon meeting Oscar in the clunkiest of introductions, Theodora falls head over heels in love for a bad pick-up line, a cheap music box, and some awkward slow dancing. That Theodora is completely taken by the corniest of bar come-ons paints her as naive. That she’ shocked to realize — long after everyone else — that Oscar is a huge jerk and a fraud makes it worse. Bitter and angry from a broken heart, Theodora takes Evanora’s magical apple and mutates into a green, cackling Wicked Witch of the West. Because of a broken heart.
Feeble women were right up Lucas’ alley, too, as evidenced by the slow dwindling of Padme Amidala’s relevance. In Phantom Menace, Padme is the frigging queen of an entire planet. She makes decisions, calls shots, even decides when to go to war with the Federation Viceroys. In Attack of the Clones, Padme is now a Senator, but she really just casts a single vote, before spending the next 90 minutes consoling men and skipping around in skimpy midriff outfits. Come Sith, all she does is look pregnant and cry. She even cries in Anakin’s dreams for crying out loud, reduced from a Naboo monarch to a doe-eyed baby vessel. Oh, and Theodora’s broken heart? That might sound familiar because the oh-so-scientific explanation for Padme’s death was the exact same thing. (You ladies really need to lay off the table salt.) In Sith, John Williams harkens back to Qui-Gon’s requiem during Padme’s funeral procession. It’s a sad moment, but mostly because of the score. And the chauvinism.
I’m sorry, but those shoes look a little big for you
This one’s easy right? Plain and simple, Mila Kunis can’t hack it as the Wicked Witch. Margaret Hamilton’s classic performance was much more than some green makeup and a pointy hat; there was a physicality and a personality to it. In her memorable entrance, the Witch’s crouched gait made her look like one of her own monkeys as she scattered the denizens of Munchkin land. Her eyes narrowed in a patronizing way when she spoke to Dorothy, and her voice could drop in a single sentence, from the whiny “I’ll get you my pretty” to the gruff “and your little dog, too!” While Disney clearly attempted some loving homages to the character with the broomstick and clawed fingernails and badly-dubbed cackle, it all falls flat. Speaking of falling flat…
Blame Jake Lloyd for being nine years old. Blame Hayden Christensen’s acting range. Blame Lucas’ casting director. Heck, blame Lucas himself, who’s notoriously a shoddy director of actors. Just don’t pretend that the Prequels weren’t a bit of a letdown for Anakin Skywalker fans. So the man behind the galaxy’s ultimate bad ass is just some kid who misses his mommy? Hayden can’t pull off the sinister evil thing all too well either. Even the Darth Vader suit looks funny on him. Sure he looks like Vader, and he sounds like Vader. He certainly breathes like Vader. But like Theodora, it doesn’t really feel like Vader. That Frankenstein walk around Palpatine’s medical room looks ludicrous. Both Vader and the Wicked Witch of the West can be tragically evil figures, but those transformations deserve more than the costumes and makeup Kunis and Christensen are wearing, precisely because the storytellers think that’s all there is to them.
Haven’t we been here before?
Yes, the Land of Oz looks familiar, but what’s with all the in-references? Do we need a final showdown with scarecrows as dummy soldiers? Do we need another “twister” or that soporific poppy field? Do we need a Cowardly Lion reference literally throwing itself at the screen? Maybe Oz: The Great and Powerful does, if only because it offers so little on its own merits short of some water fairies and a half-baked “China Town.” A displaced character magically comes to the Oz via tornado where he/she gains the trust of little people and an insanely peppy witch. This character goes to the Dark Forest and gets chased by flying monkeys, before learning to appreciate the Oz’s strangeness for what it is, not what it isn’t. This character even defeats a wicked witch in the end. About the only missing similarity between Dorothy and Oscar was Franco donning the damn ruby slippers — and Disney was contractually obligated to exclude those.
This cycle of going through the motions is the Prequels in a nutshell. Like Luke, Anakin grows up on Tatooine, is a super dooper pilot and saves the day as the underdog in a big space battle. Like Luke, Anakin gets a lightsaber and becomes overconfident in his abilities, losing a hand in the process. Both Anakin and Luke fight to the death while Palpatine looks on and encourages their turn to the Dark Side. It goes beyond the lead heroes, too with R2-D2 and C-3PO returning in place of, oh, say new original characters. Boba Fett pops up in the second film, as does Chewbacca in the third movie’s large scale reenactment of the Battle of Endor. The Death Star shows up. Twice. As does the Rebel Blockade Runner and Jabba and even the Millennium flipping Falcon. Why? On The Phantom Menace’s bonus documentary, “The Beginning,” Lucas says these repeating elements are meant to rhyme, “like poetry.” But when does the poetry stop and the self-plagiarism begin? When do character arcs start repeating themselves? When does Oscar’s story cease to become his own? More importantly, where do any sequels go from here?
Stop the ride. I know where this is headed
Prequels are tricky, but they have been done right. Rise of the Planet of the Apes added thematic and philosophical weight to the original’s conflict. X-Men: First Class brought the mutants’ civil rights struggle to the forefront while refining Xavier and Magneto’s relationship. A prequel is successful when it adds or embellishes the existing material it’s coming from, even when faced with the inevitability that your audience knows the outcome of future events. In Oz, a lady gets green, the Wizard gets his floating giant head, and the Wicked Witch of the East gets real ugly, but it’s all table-setting for an outcome we already know. Knowing that Evanora was once a beautiful, conniving sociopath does nothing for some striped socks and curled up shoes. Maybe if the Wicked Witch of the West already had it in for Oz’s male population in the original, Oscar’s spurning of her advances would seem meaningful. But these arcs are about as meaningful as centering your movie around an inherently unlikable guy.
Making Oscar Diggs an egotistical jerk is nothing new, and it actually may have been the Prequels’ cardinal sin. Rather than focus on three characters, the Prequels could have centered solely on Obi-Wan Kenobi and his failure to train this creepy evil omen kid. Asking an audience to sympathize with a guy who chokes out his own wife, who murders children, who we know becomes the bad guy just seems like a bad idea from the get-go. And by the way, where is Oscar’s character going? The wizard is still a dick in The Wizard of Oz, because he’s revealed to be nothing more than a phony fraud behind a curtain. It’s telling both films rely on the tired crutch of a vague prophesy. To quote our own Josh Spiegel, there’s even a “mythical prophecy that exists mostly because big-budget fantasy films these days rely on prophecies the way we rely on oxygen to breathe.” Where’s the development? Where’s my interest?
It seems like Disney’s got a lot of work to do if the Mouse House is interested in making a lasting series of Oz films. Then again, I am extrapolating a lot from a single movie, and as we all know, Star Wars fans know nothing about overreactions.
– David Klein