Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Oz, the Great and Powerful

It can be said with certain confidence that there has never been a decent companion film, palatable sequel, or  acceptable film adaptation of the historic classic The Wizard of Oz. The most watched film in history has been often imitated, never duplicated. That being the case, it was a gamble on Disney's part to attempt a prequel to the iconic film, trying to tell the story before the story that every movie-watcher knows well. If anyone could pull it off, Disney certainly could.

Oz the Great and Powerful follows the classic format of the original Oz movie, starting in black and white, and then taking the viewer into a world of vibrant color and music. In the black and white world of Kansas where everything is as it seems to be, Oscar "Oz" Diggs endeavors to rise above the standard "good man" and be a great one. Somewhere along the way however, he has become a self-centered, money-mongering con man who charms women and swindles customers, using them all as stepping stones on his path to greatness. Oz is discouraged about his traveling circus gig, his inability to do real magic, and his life of trickery and rootlessness.

Soon, a twister takes hold of Oscar's escape balloon, and whisks him away to a land of wonder, glorious color, strange animals, and real magic. When he arrives, he is immediately hailed as the savior of the land of Oz-- the wizard who will be king and restore the land of Oz to its former fearless glory. His first acquaintance is the mesmerizingly beautiful and unfortunately named Theodora. She is young, naive, and idealistic, and when he uses his charms on her, she is completely besotted. His eloquent flattery, winning personality, and showbiz charm leave her dreaming sweetly of becoming his queen when he is the king of Oz. A dance and a kiss later, Theodora believes herself in love and declares to him that they belong together and will rule the land of Oz together as king and queen. As the audience, we have seen his ways back in Kansas, and know that he has no real intentions towards Theodora, but he has no real concept of the damage he is carelessly inflicting, though it is easy enough to predict the long-term results.

Oscar has a weakness for women, that much is clear. The minute he crashes into the land of Oz he charms young Theodora, but he jumps ship quickly enough when he meets the much harder-to-get Glinda, who is a reflection of the one that got away back in Kansas. As the audience, it isn't too hard to figure how things will turn out, but it is interesting to go that road with Oscar and see what he sees and watch him grow. He, like a few of the characters he meets in Oz, is a charlatan- a faker with an agenda, and he quickly learns he isn't the only one. But as he travels through the land, he realizes that true magic is resourcefulness and ingenuity, and maybe his brand of "magic" is just what the land needs.

One of the most interesting aspects of Oscar's growth as a character is how he learns to feel his own humble worth. In the style of the original Wizard of Oz, characters from the black and white world of Kansas reappear in the land of Oz, albeit in different forms. Most striking are two female characters that appear in both worlds, and bring Oscar to a place of humility and compassion. For example, back in Kansas a young crippled girl asks him to heal her and make her walk. Naturally, he can't, reminding him of his own insufficiency, and they call him a fake. But in the land of Oz when he encounters a live china doll whose legs are broken, he restores her to walking by gluing her legs back on. She calls him the great wizard. Also back in Kansas is a sweet country girl who is clearly special to Oscar, and not just another woman he has effortlessly charmed. In Oz, she is none other than Glinda the Good, who ultimately spurs Oscar to be who everyone believes him to be. With her help, he truly does become that man.

Not that the road is easy. The ramifications of Oscar's self-centered actions are far-reaching and long-lasting; lasting even beyond the movie's timeframe. Fans of The Wizard of Oz will easily guess the character development and evolution, but it makes it no less interesting to see how each character became who they will ultimately be defined as. For example, even the Wicked Witch of the West wasn't always evil, or green for that matter. She starts out rather nice, but she has someone (her less than innocent sister) whispering in her ear that she is evil at her core, and eventually she yields to that, albeit somewhat against her will.

Artistically, Oz the Great and Powerful does an excellent job of making the land of Oz feel familiar without imitating the original too closely. This Oz has creatures and characters that for all we know, were in Dorothy's experience, we just never saw them. The filmmakers do such a smooth job of recreating Oz, that at no point did I really feel like they reinvented it or wrote in details that were inconsistent with the classic telling. There are a few foreshadowing references here, but for the most part very slight, and such that Oz the Great and Powerful barely feels like a prequel at all other than the continuity of characters.

On a closing note, the biggest theme of Oz, the Great and Powerful is that goodness is greatness. Being a good man might seem too small for an ambitious person like Oscar, but by the time the credits roll, Oscar has chosen to become a good man, and in so doing, becomes a great man. Goodness is greatness, and goodness is power. When Oscar learns this and accepts being good, he becomes The Great and Powerful. As a movie Oz the Great and Powerful hit as a one-time popcorn flick for me. It was fun, and only remotely thought-provoking because I occasionally choose to look for such things in strange places. Great movie? Not really, but good enough. Not quite enough to make it to the DVD shelf, but then again... The Wizard of Oz doesn't grace my shelf either! 

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