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Film Review: Oz the Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi, 2013)

March 11, 2013

It was with some trepidation that I attended Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful at AMC Kip’s Bay on March 9.  I had seen a negative post about its portrayal of women from The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation.  Gage was Oz author L. Frank Baum’s devoted and influential mother-in-law, in spite of anything you may have seen in Jack Bender’s 1990 telefilm, The Dreamer of Oz.  On the other hand, I was nine when Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 1985) was released theatrically–my parents cited negative reviews and dubious comparisons to MGM’s 1939 “original” (directed by Victor Fleming) and would not take me, so I didn’t see it until my father first rented a VCR to use at a business meeting, and I didn’t want to regret not seeing this in the theatre, in spite of my current economic affliction, as I do with that film.  I knew even then that the MGM film was not “the original” nor was it my first exposure to Oz, which was the Wonder Books abridgment illustrated by Tom Sinnickson.  Although this was the favorite of all my picture books, my mother deemed the Witch “too scary” and forbade me from watching the film until I was a first grader.  By that time, I had copies of the novel that I had read piecemeal and out of order, had heard various records of the story, including one read by Ray Bolger, and had even acquired a copy of The Marvellous Land of Oz [sic]–the Octopus Books edition from the UK with the Kevin Maddison illustrations whose Ozma was hardly “the loveliest queen the Emerald City had ever known,” especially to a young boy who didn’t know how he felt about girls yet and that book’s relatively disturbing climax.  (I discovered the other 12 Baum Oz books, one of which listed the entire 40 in the front, when I transferred to another school, which had them in the library, for second grade on.)

Add to that my fandom for Sam Raimi that began when a co-worker recommended Army of Darkness, which led to seeing the “Evil Dead” trilogy (the ladies of the first film (Sarah Berry of Evil Dead II has apparently disappeared into private life) all appear as Quadlings, while trilogy star Bruce Campbell plays a Winkie who takes abuse from Knuck and later, Oz himself–the trilogy is essentially 4 1/2 hours of Bruce Campbell getting comically abused) in reverse order and nearly all of Sam Raimi’s films, including four in the theatre–A Simple PlanDrag Me to Hell, and the first two Spider-Man films), and I had to see it despite my trepidation as, as you can see from an earlier post, a radical feminist (perhaps unusual for a straight male, but I do not know), as Matilda was.  I was immediately disappointed that what I paid $20 to watch in Imax 3-D was not a 70 mm film but a Blu-Ray that reminds you that it’s television any time the colors get bright or white–the same sorts of patterns one sees in a television tube become subtly but clearly visible.  Apparently, after looking at Metro, it appears that AMC Kip’s Bay is entirely like this, although the end credits do state that it was shot and printed on film.

While I did find the film sexist in many ways, I did think the attacks on it were overkill, though certainly deserved considering that it’s a reactionary and all too common way to adapt Baum.  I tell people to read the book and then compare the MGM film to Jeanette MacDonald in Love Me Tonight seven years earlier.  Hollywood certainly had it in them to make Dorothy as strong as Baum had made her if they had wanted to do so.  Perhaps that was considered too subversive for a film intended for children.

Raimi, in interviews, is a gentleman, not a sexist, according to Maitland McDonagh, who describes him as someone who never talks about “chicks” (her quotations). (He is now a husband and father–some of his children appear in the film.)  Similarly, his films like The Quick and the Dead (1995) and The Gift (2000) have been highly praised for their portrayal of women, particularly leads Sharon Stone and Cate Blachett, respectively.  It is not merely “aesthetic personality cult,” as Laura Mulvey describes it,  that leads me to look elsewhere for the source of the problem.

I have no familiarity with the works of storywriter/screenwriter Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards series and Romeo Must Die), and can do little theorizing as to his contribution to the material.

My educated guess to the main problem; however, is screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire, who collaborated on the screenplay.  I have seen two of Lindsay-Abaire’s plays, As Bees in Honey Drown and Fuddy Meers, both of which were, in some ways, disappointing.  Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who is eventually revealed to be the Wicked Witch of the East is a very Lindsay-Abaire creation.  Weisz’s portrayal comes across as an overacted portrayal of a wealthy and pretentious society lady, virtually identical to Lindsay-Abaire’s Alexa Vere de Vere in As Bees in Honey Drown.  I have no idea if Weisz or Raimi have seen this play, but they almost certainly did not see the production at the Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis, with Zan Aufderheide in the role.  In spite of what one’s perception of regional theatre may be, Aufderheide is not an overactor.  When she played Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, her portrayal was exactly the opposite–so withdrawn that Demetrius and Lysander’s attraction to her is all the more comical.  The portrayal is clearly derived from the way Lindsay-Abaire writes the character.

Fuddy Meers is about an amnesiac woman who is abused by a hospital employee, but grows to love him anyway.  I found that play and its message very uncomfortable, in spite of many original comic moments.  It is clearly this authorial thread that makes for the film’s most uncomfortable elements.  Theodora (Mila Kunis), who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West, falls for Oz immediately.  She is portrayed as a weak airhead (thankfully not blond, since the stereotypes are not in relief that stark) whose appeal is more that of a childlike eccentric than a fully developed normal woman.  I am not altogether sure that this is unBaumian, however.  Baum does little to explain the origins of the Wicked Witch of the West, who rates a handful of mentions in the early Oz books but never comes back, but one element that distinguishes Baum’s work from that of later fantasy writers such as Lewis and Tolkien (and probably offended the sensibilities of conservative librarians who embraced those two) is that evil is not a power the way good is, but the result of selfishness and weakness.  The Nome King, Baum’s most recurring villain, is never evil for the sake of evil, but motivated by his belief that all gems are his, and by personal vendettas.  He is nothing akin to Sauron or Jadis, but more like a real person who does often terrible things without even realizing it, like many Wall Street billionaires today.  The Wicked Witch of the West is a complete coward in Baum’s novel.  Far from the perpetual darkness portrayed in the Witch’s realm by the MGM film, the Wicked Witch is afraid of the dark and will not take the silver shoes from Dorothy while she is asleep and has them removed (ignore the MGM scene), nor will she venture near when Dorothy has them off for bathing, for obvious reasons.  The film does a good job portraying Theodora as someone who loses control of her powers when she is angry, and who is frequently foolish and gullible.  These are certainly the characteristics of Baum’s Wicked Witch of the West.  In keeping with the MGM film, we never see how the Wicked Witch lost her eye, but we do see her being transformed green by a very Disney ‘poison apple from a relative.’

This leads into some further problematics in the portrayal of witches.  Theodora is clearly not a wicked witch when the story begins, yet, in anticipation of her death by water, her tears at realizing that Oz has betrayed her love sear through her own face.  This concept is a patently ridiculous waste of special effects.  Glinda touches water in the film, as well as sheds tears, and is completely unharmed.  These tears in Theodora’s face are repaired when she makes the transformation.  This is odd, because when Toto bites the witch’s leg in the novel, we are told that she has no blood because she is dried up to the point that only her magic is keeping her alive, which is essentially the explanation for why the witch melts.  It is odd that a physical transformation to her final form would lead to a miraculous healing of her face.

This element seems partially couched in the film’s reputed sexism.  The film’s climax, which depicts a battle between Evanora and Glinda (This is sexist?  It’s no catfight.) has Glinda accidentally destroy an emerald that keeps Evanora young.  Baum specifically states that Glinda uses magic to keep herself looking young in spite of the many years she has lived.  In Queen Zixi of Ix (1905), Baum portrays a 683-year-old essentially good witch who causes all sorts of trouble for her people because she wants to see in the mirror the beauty that she makes everyone else see with her magic.  The novel ends in her redemption and realization of the frivolousness of such a wish.  Yet, for all we know in the film, Glinda’s beauty is tied to her goodness, and not the result of any spell she may have cast.

Oz the Great and Powerful was announced several years ago, and during that time, Robert Downey, Jr. was attached to the title role.  We get an inkling of what this would be like in the trailer for Iron Man 3 that preceded the film at the screening I attended.  Downey looks the role of Tony Stark (I have not seen any of the previous three Downey Iron Man portrayals), but he really came across as an actor who plays himself more than creating the character as I know him from comic books and animation.  Franco does a lot of phony grinning and mugging, and he really lacks the charm and charisma that it would appear to take to charm either Evanora or Glinda.  Danny Elfman’s score seems to keep restating, “wise men say only fools rush in”–whether unconscious or conscious, he may have noticed that the witches are all portrayed as fools, even if Glinda seems less scatterbrained in Michelle Williams’s portrayal than that of Billie Burke.

If the bellhop monkey, Finley (Zach Braff), had sounded as much like a Stepin Fetchit black (more than anyone, his face resembles Harry Doll/Harry Earles, the devil-horned Lollipop Kid who climbed out of a manhole in the 1939 film, who also portrayed the main character in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)) as his attire made my mind leap, I’m sure we would have felt that, too.  While, in terms of crowd scenes, this is the most multicultural Oz I have seen out of a stage production, in which I have seen consistently mixed casts for both John Kane’s The Wizard of Oz and William F. Brown and Charlie Smalls’s The Wiz, the largest role for a minority character is the unlikable Knuck (Tony Cox), whose name sounds more like “Monk” when he says it and is shown hitting someone, usually Oz, but also Bruce Campbell and others, in nearly all of his scenes.  In addition, we have a Master Tinker played by Bill Cobbs, who could have been developed into the important character, Ku-Klip (the smith who kept giving Nick Chopper tin prostheses until his body was completely gone), but he is very much a background helper until his is honored in the film’s finale as one of the few who still know that Oz is a humbug.  Cobbs and Cox are both African Americans.  We do see Asians, both East and South, among the Quadlings, but none has any real speaking role.

In terms of adaptation, the film draws little from any of the books beyond Wizard, in spite of an opening title credit that says “based on the works of L. Frank Baum.”  When Oz introduces himself to Theodora, he explains that Oz is short for Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmanuel Ambroise Diggs, which could have been found via Wikipedia or a multitude of other sources (in many cases put there by me) than Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, in which the Wizard explains that his politician father wanted him to have a grandiose name, but that he himself eventually discovered that the other names spelled “pinhead,” which he thought would mislead people about his intelligence.  Glinda is stated once to be Good Witch of the South, a line that passes so quickly that only a Baum fan would notice it.  Even so, there are still only three witches in the film, when there really ought to have been four or five.  Baum spends only a few sentences in Wizard with the title character’s defeat of the witches and construction of the Emerald City (already in existence here), while The Marvelous Land of Oz depicts him absconding with Ozma, daughter of Oz’s disappeared, enchanted ruler, and handing her to Mombi, the one who deposed and transformed Ozma’s father, Pastoria.  This would simply add to the idea that Oz is not the good man that Glinda eventually decides that he is, unless they wanted to pay Hugh Pendexter III for Oz and the Three Witches, a 1977 story (which I have not read) that absolves the Wizard of having knowingly given Ozma to a wicked witch.  Oz the Great and Powerful is yet another “Ozma who?” piece that is all too pervasive, to the point that even Roger S. Baum, Frank’s great-grandson, writes his books this way.  The previous King of Oz is here stated to be Glinda’s father. There are some man-eating plants in the Dark Forest, which may be a reference to a scene in Baum’s The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913), in which the protagonists are rescued from them by everyone’s favorite homeless man (other than me), The Shaggy Man. The film also shows Glinda obtaining soap bubbles for herself and the characters.  There is a town called Suds that tries to scrub Scraps, the Patchwork Girl, in Ruth Plumly Thompson’s The Gnome King of Oz (1927) to which this could be referring, although that would have to be wishful thinking on the part of the Baum fan, for which Glinda’s bubble is one of the MGM film’s more embarrassing aspects.  (Some years ago, The Baum Bugle published an article interviewing more senior International Wizard of Oz club members who had been fans of the books prior to the film’s original screenings in 1939, early theatrical reissues, or initial television broadcasts starting in the 1950s to reminisce on their initial reactions to the film.  The bubble was frequently cited, once using symbols to comically represent vulgar words.)  Seeing other people in bubbles besides Glinda, though, reminded me of the Wizard’s bubble making machine in The Road to Oz (1909), although it also reminded me of the Seta video game in which the Wicked Witch of the West has a green bubble that shoves Glinda out of the way, and The Angry Video Game Nerd, James Rolfe, making fun of that.

Up to this point, I have focused only on the film’s negative aspects.  However, the film, as with most Sam Raimi films, is a visual marvel.  The opening title sequence is like peering into a turn-of the century mechanical viewing device, abetted by a square-shaped image that pervades throughout the opening black and white sequence until Oz’s balloon floats out over Oz, when the film gradually expands into widescreen as well as color.  I’ve been told a similar effect was used in Galaxy Quest (Dean Parisot, 1999), but that that aspect (change) did not survive to the DVD presentation.  The 3-D effects are extremely well used and rarely annoying.  One of the best moments is when an Ash-like Oz has his balloon basket impaled with debris from the tornado.  (Critics have attacked this as unoriginal, but Baum did state that Oz came to Oz on “a current of air”–and only a tornado could enhance the spectacle while remaining mostly accurate–and that people thought that he was a wizard in part because the name of their land was on his balloon.)

The best performance in the film came from Joey King.  She plays a a survivor of an attack on China Town (Kapner and Lindsay-Abaire’s lame joke, in a film full of lame jokes that got only a few young men in the audience laughing (the screening I saw was a 4:40 matinee that was attended mostly by young couples until a large group of elementary age children came in just before the lights went down, whose reactions seemed generally favorable and never disruptive), for Baum’s Dainty China Country), whom Oz heals by gluing her legs back on.  In the America sequence, King also plays a girl in a wheelchair who believes in Oz’s magic, but Oz is unable to bring himself to explain that he is simply an entertainer.  He probably can’t see himself as simply that, aspiring to be, in his own words, Harry Houdini and Thomas Alva Edison in one person.  Edison’s invention of motion pictures, which he debuted 15 years prior to the film’s established 1905 setting.  Ultimately, Oz and Glinda become parental figures to a plucky little girl who proves able to rescue both of them, which reminded me of Baum’s use of the field mice to rescue the Cowardly Lion from the poppy field, in a mostly-untranslated scene that also proves the genius of the 4-day-old Scarecrow, who engineers a wooden truck when he has never even seen a wheel and axle.  I can’t begin to list the number of times lazy journalists take the Scarecrow’s claim of brainlessness at face value (and usually forgetting that the Tin Woodman states that he has neither brain nor heart, but misses only the latter, which kind of shows with a guy who completely maimed himself rather than get rid of an enchanted axe).  I should probably note here that none of Dorothy’s principal three friends appear in the film, although we do get tinkers, a lion that the Wizard scares off with his magic, and an army of non-living scarecrows operated by the Quadlings in the film’s steampunk climax.  Back to the China Girl, she did seem like a frightfully sexist portrayal the way she initially clung to Oz, but that element really wore off quickly after her manipulation of the situation was made clear, her general intelligence, and her willingness to accept Oz, Glinda, Finley, Knuck, and Master Tinker as her adoptive family, even before Oz makes the explicit offer, make her a lively and compelling character that drifts away from the stereotypical first impression we get of her.  The odd thing about this is that only Glinda ever appeared in a subsequent story.  Of course, the MGM film making the Guardian of the Gates and the Solider with(out) the Green Whiskers avatars of the Wizard rather than fully realized characters, seems to imply that the Wizard has even fewer insiders.  Speaking of the Guardian of the Gates, the Master Tinker does briefly give Oz spectacles with green lenses, which is ironic, since he is the only one in the Emerald City not to wear them in the novel, a policy that Tip, little knowing that he would eventually rule Oz, destroyed by barging into the city without them in The Marvelous Land of Oz. I found it interesting in conferring with a friend the next day who had also seen the film on the 9th that he also found the China Girl (who is given no other name) the most likable character in the film.

In addition, I very frequently felt emotionally moved by the film, although when it got tears out of me, it sometimes felt like the artificial manipulations I often find in Steven Spielberg’s films. The film overall does take on a Baumian character, built around ideas of pluck and unexpected ingenuity ruling the day over anything anyone may expect, as well as a disheartening appeal to Thompsonian imperialism when Oz is told that he must kill since the people of Oz are forbidden (although he ultimately does not do this).

It’s still too early to predict the reception of this film.  It has done well in its first weekend at the box office, in spite of an array of negative reviews and a lot of badly researched press about Baum and the history of Oz adaptations.  The major question will be if the film has any sort of staying power, and if it does, can we expect more clones of the MGM movie in the future, since sticking with it rather than the books seems to have worked.  Many reviews have, however, compared the film favorably to another Joe Roth production, Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton, 2010).  I cannot agree.  That underrated gem was a wonderful feminist treatise as well as managing to assemble a coherent narrative out of Lewis Carroll’s trademark episodic nature.

I imagine Baum’s response to this film’s attempt at humor would be similar to his editorial page comment about who wrote the allegedly “western” (as Chicago was seen at the time) humor in the 1903 Broadway Wizard of Oz, a production he earnestly tried to shut down for deviating so far from his vision until it became impractical for him to continue to protest.  He might be more saddened by its portrayal of Oz’s women, devoted as he was to giving women equal stature, finding it unloving toward women to do otherwise.  On the other hand, had he been subjected to a hundred years of adaptations of his work, he may well have been pleased, by the exuberance of Raimi, cinematographer Peter Deming (also from Evil Dead II), and his regular effects crew (Kurtzman, Nicotero, and Berger), if nothing else.

  1. When I was a kid, I wondered what a humbug looked like because the word was in the book. I didn’t understand that the Wizard was just an ordinary man because the abridgment was too short to explain it.

  2. Marnie J. permalink

    Um, so much thought and time put into your theory, but David Lindsay-Abaire didn’t even write As Bees in Honey Drown. Douglas Carter Beane did. In fact David Lindsay-Abaire is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright known primarily for his powerful and complicated leading ladies. His last few plays have won major awards for the actresses playing the lead roles he created for them. Frances McDormand won the Tony Award for lead actress in Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People on Broadway. Cythia Nixon won the same prize (Tony Award for Best Actress) for the lead in his play Rabbit Hole, which also ran on Broadyway, and won the Pulitzer for the writer. Nicole Kidman was nominated for an Oscar for the same role in Lindsay-Abaire’s film adaptation of Rabbit Hole. Marylouise Burke won a Drama Desk Award for playing the lead in his play Kimberlyt Akimbo. Sarah Jessica Parker was nominated for the same prize for playing the lead in his play Wonder of the World. The list goes on and on. Say what you will about Oz, but at the very least do a simple Google search to fact check your theory before placing blame in the wrong camp. Fail.

    • I goofed. Thank you for correcting me. There is no excuse for me relying solely on my memory for that, when I could have looked at one of my own blog entries and determined that my memory had become muddled.

      I see from this that Fuddy Meers is the only David Lindsay-Abaire play that I have seen. I haven’t promoted it to a page because of the formatting problems, in addition to its lack of completeness…

      I still think Fuddy Meers is problematic in the treatment of its women characters. I was excited to see it because it was described as surreal, but found little about it all that surreal, and its female lead passive and controlled by others.

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