If It Only Had A Heart
There’s something inevitable about Oz – The Great and Powerful. Inevitable that Disney, that great cultural recycler, should have wanted to make it, after all it’s the purest, most family friendly property in Hollywood; inevitable that they’d hire Sam Raimi to direct it when he’d turned in three perfectly bland Spider-Man movies that showed that he was quite prepared to strip his work of style and corrugated humour if the budget was grand enough and the audience broad enough, and inevitable that the corporation whose business plan of late has been to buy up each and every last square foot of pop-cultural real estate and outfit it with their own branding would provide a climax that looked like a live action retooling of their studio logo: a magic kingdom that erupts with fireworks, just like the run-in to every Uncle Walt spectacular.
It’s funny that the prequel to one of the best-loved movie fantasies ever made should open with a carnival magician peddling cheap tricks to gullible patrons: it’s neat shorthand for the movie’s strategy in managing audience expectations. You may be dazzled by the flames blown by a circus performer streaking out beyond the confines of the digitally desaturated 4:3 frame; a bit of technical grandstanding that marks everything that follows as a pastiche from the pixel age. You may be charmed by James Franco’s huckster with his vaudeville moves and shit eating grin. You may even gasp when the story expands into colour-drenched widescreen, brushed with digital vomit. But to be impressed by any of this is to fall for Oz’s low rent illusions. Raimi’s movie doesn’t have the charm or innocence of its illustrious forebear. It bends over backwards to fake it, like so much post-Pixar House of Mouse product, but we’ve seen enough to know how it’s done: it doesn’t take long to spy the copper under the gold paint.
Of course Raimi will argue that his trip to Oz has heart to spare. He’ll talk about its simple, formulaic arc of redemption that sees Franco’s shyster become a better man in a land that enables him to use his dubious skills to great effect while helping the characters conceived as proxies for the ones he’s disappointed back in Kansas (reusing The Wizard of Oz conceit of having the actors from the real world portion employed in dual roles). You can say this is a reasonable idea; perhaps enough to power a story; you can even say it’s a tale told simply and well; but Oz’s retinue, destined to become a family lest the target audience leave crestfallen, compromised of a talking monkey and a china girl (a character that would have made Ibsen’s head explode), are self-consciously kooky enough and ironicised enough to make tin men of us all.
With all the original film’s tropes repackaged and sold on to a new generation oblivious to the wholesome ingredients that made the old that much more palatable, there’s little to crow about on this return to Oz. All that’s left are the kinds of questions that weigh on the mind like a house that’s fallen on your head. Did we really need an origin story for The Wizard of Oz? Did anyone watch the 1939 movie and say, “it was good but I’m not satisfied that I know enough about the Wicked Witch of the West’s early years”? If it’s impossible to uglify Mila Kunis is she really the right person for that part? But perhaps most pertinent of all is the question of whether this knowing revision inadvertently does to the franchise what Dorothy did to the old wizard – pulling back the curtain to reveal the shoddy mechanics that power the show, when what we really needed was a touch of the old magic.