Review: Oz The Great and Powerful

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If it’s true that every story, especially reboots, face pressure to be knowingly meta, Oz The Great and Powerful has a “get out of jail free” card. A prequel, of sorts, to the 1939 Technicolor musical, The Wizard of Oz, this extended metaphor about the magic of illusion and richness of fantasy has nothing to bring it back to the ground. The tornado that sweeps Oz and his carnival into the sky takes him away with no route or reason for return. (Of course, trips to Oz are best as one way ventures: Return to Oz is horrible.)

As clues from the black and white introduction make Oz feel revelatory (a dowdy pipe organ turns to whistling river reeds, Zach Braff becomes a cuter flying monkey) this magic land develops into a Nietzschean extension of Oz’s hopes/fears. Theodora (Mila Kunis) believes he’s a prophecy come to life, and he embraces the fame before he starts adding “reluctant” to his claim as “messiah.” Naturally it’s a woman (Michelle Williams, also a character from Kansas) who believes in him, despite his greater talents at disappointing her, and in a loving effort for the people she leads, she heads his campaign as Savior, providing him all the faith he needs to devise the plan she needs to keep the land safe. The premise change may seem slight, only a shift from Dorothy to the Wizard, but it’s more than just a gender reversal.

The Wizard of Oz has been a major gay fascination for decades with homages and revivals in the fashion, pageant and revue circuits—and that’s just what I’ve witnessed. About a girl stuck in an oppressive and drab Midwest town, Wizard represents liberation through dreams and promise in line with Pixar’s heartwarming “It Gets Better” video—somewhere over the rainbow everything is beautiful, even if the magician behind the beauty is only selling hope in a hot air balloon. The real answer is always within, and Dorothy has to learn the world of men is boringly technological; it’s women that inspire wonder. Great and Powerful extends the metaphor to film in more literal ways--and kind of suggest that if men made movies, the starlets made magic. If you liked Hugo you’ll be pleased with Oz’s coterie of zoopraxiscopes and praxinoscopes and zoetropes (Oh, my!).

Sam Raimi, the director credited with making Spider-Man more introspective, trades superhero origin for messianic parables in a way that's somehow trenchant. Oz is unsure of himself, thinks the route to greatness negates goodness and finds strength in a charisma he only uses to deceive people. While James Franco plays this with an occasionally unconvincing goofiness, there's something properly insecure about the way he embodies Oz. His emotional arc makes literal the process of becoming a leader: can he save the people? Can he rise to the occasion? Is he more than a bank of empty promises? Answers surprise but never stun, because even in this land of dizzying magic, where evil is horrifying (flying baboons!) and beauty is perilous (hot witches!), sincerity is what makes Oz Great and Powerful.

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About Sara Vizcarrondo

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Sara Vizcarrondo is a freelance film critic out of San Francisco. She runs Opening Movies at Rottentomatoes, teaches film/media studies at DeAnza college and writes on film for Popdose and The SF Bay Guardian.

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