Oz the Great and Powerful

It would neither be charitable nor very productive to compare Sam Raimi’s new adventure film Oz: the Great and Powerful with the 1939 classic that shares its source material. One point should be enough: The Wizard of Oz’s heroine was a dewy-eyed young woman who moved through the film with barely contained wonder, only to learn that the object of her quest was nothing but a bunch of smoke and mirrors—that if she wanted salvation, she’d have to make it happen herself. The new film’s titular hero is the man responsible for the smoke and mirrors, a two-bit Kansas magician played with winking self-mockery by James Franco. He comes to Oz with the intent to deceive, and he does—first the country’s people, then, when his self-interest gives way to fellow-feeling, the tyrants holding them in terror. If in 1939 we were on the side of the moviegoer, then in 2012 we’ve moved behind the curtain.

The new Oz’s meta-level isn’t exactly subtext: this is the sort of blockbuster that doubles as an  explicit justification for its own existence, a celebration of big-budget, artificial movie magic. Franco’s Oz aspires to become a wizard like Edison, who made pictures that move—the same sort of pictures which, later in the film, will be beamed triumphantly into an occupied Emerald City to rile up the people and topple a pair of tyrannical witches. Oz obeys its own golden rule: it believes, unreservedly and uncritically, in itself. Its faith in itself is completely bound up with faith in the movies; on the other hand, its faith in the movies is entangled with its faith in itself.

I suspect this would be a better thing if Oz were simply a better movie. There is nothing offensive about it; in fact, it’s so innocuous it’s in danger of dissipating away. Its heroes, Franco aside, are harmless but uninteresting: a flying monkey who makes very considerate wisecracks; a china doll who has two modes, meek and assertive, but not much personality; a good witch nearly airbrushed out of existence by her own goodness. Often their exchanges seem written to fill dead space; Oz would function much better with much less dialogue. That would give Raimi a freer hand to do what he clearly does best: indulge in flights of visual fancy which dazzle in the moment, even if they leave little lasting impression.

But Oz’s primary stroke of inspiration holds the film to a standard it can’t possibly meet. It was clever of Raimi to identify himself with Franco’s charlatan, and risky of him to offer up his on-screen surrogate as an object of praise. His film isn’t just a celebration of the movies; it’s a hymn to a very specific and very modern sort of tech-driven spectacle. The trouble is that Oz has tasked itself with producing spectacles worthy of its own praise. Suddenly, the movie doesn’t have to be just a suitable afternoon diversion—it has to be the sort of film that could overthrow a tyrannical witch. And if it isn’t (how many films are?), it becomes not only innocuous but presumptuous—a greater offense.    

Oz the Great and Powerful James Franco Sam Raimi

It is getting harder to find adventure movies (or at least worthwhile ones) that are not about why we still need adventure movies; superhero movies that aren’t about the continued relevance of superheroes; Bond movies that aren’t about why Bond still matters. Has Hollywood lost its confidence? Why this defensive streak, this constant need to prove that, in these tough times, there’s still value in going to the movies? Skyfall was a good enough film that it did justify its self-worship, but it also shouldn’t have had to make excuses for its own existence. The Wizard of Oz may have also cast doubt on the magician’s smoke and mirrors—but it was also a Technicolor song-and-dance spectacle made in the middle of the Great Depression that believed in its own worth, without ever feeling the need to proclaim that belief.

Can we ever go back? Should we? If Oz falls short of justifying itself, it does almost too good a job at justifying its opposition. For the film’s first half, Franco scams and speechifies his way into the good graces of Oz’s citizens, and Raimi gives himself a challenge: maybe films like Oz don’t offer anything but big hopes and small rewards. Are they nothing but elaborate cons, attempts to wring money out of spectators by playing to their fantasies and dreams? When Franco’s Oz stands over an adoring crowd, he still has the royal treasury in mind: “Can you make them believe?” Michelle Williams’s good witch asks him. He pauses. “Will I still get that gold?”

There is one moment here that, lodged between the film’s twin extremes of self-promotion and self-doubt, feels refreshingly equivocal. Franco is saying good-night to an animated china doll in the wake of her village’s destruction. She asks if he grants wishes, and, without waiting for a reply, requests one: “I want my family back.”  He’s not that kind of wizard, he tells her sadly; his magic consists in dazzling people, entertaining them, and making them believe. She understands: “I’d rather you granted wishes, but that’s a good wizard too.” It’s a line that goes some way towards justifying the existence of movies like Oz—if not this one.