Oz the Great and Powerful: a reminder that Mickey Mouse Owns Your Childhood

Summary:  Today Locke Peterseim reviews the latest revisit to Oz, as Hollywood continues not so much reinvent stories for each generation as strip-mine our cultural reserves. Modern marketing tools make quality unnecessary. “The House of Mouse learned long ago that it’s far too risky to try and give the people what they want … it’s much better off telling the people what they want and then selling it to them.”  Watch it to see in microcosm what our corporate machinery does to America.

Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz the Great and Powerful: Mickey Mouse Owns Your Childhood

By Locke Peterseim.
From the film blog of Open Letters Monthly.
26 March 2013. Reposted with his generous permission.

Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful is neither an unwatchable, awful film, nor is it anything that anyone not dragged to the theater by coat-tugging children has any need to see.

I’m not a hard-core fan of the original Victor Fleming/Judy Garland film (though I certainly don’t dislike or disparage it), and I’ve never read any of L. Frank Baum’s original Oz books. I’d guess devotees of the former will find this Oz prequel a mildly entertaining, harmless diversion, while those dedicated to Baum’s books will come away disgusted by the new film’s obvious efforts to spin literary delights into eye-popping lucre.

I’ve also had friends ask me if Oz is worth seeing from an aesthetic angle. They want to know if directer Sam Raimi — one-time genre daredevil turned blockbuster manager by the first Spider-Man franchise — has somehow managed to turn a movie created solely in the Disney Franchise Labs into something weird and wonderful, perhaps a phantasmagorical delight in the vein of Terry Gilliam. But of course he hasn’t.

Oz the Great and Powerful is Disney and producer Joe Roth’s blatant, “not even worth denying” attempt to replicate the billion-dollar worldwide box-office haul they scored with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland three springs ago, and just as Alice absorbed, assimilated, and co-opted whatever stylistic juice Burton still has left while amplifying the director’s laziest, sloppiest tendencies, so Oz uses Raimi.

Witches in "Oz the Great and Powerful"

When working outside the Hollywood Hit Machine, Raimi has made films that range from the absolutely tremendous (A Simple Plan) to the enjoyably entertaining (Drag Me to Hell) and the downright legendary (Evil Dead and ED II). In Oz, the enfant terrible of Evil Dead gets in a handful of personal touches — including his arch, theatrical love of ol’ timey fright shows (manifested through the witches’ flying baboons and a few dutch-angle zooms) — but Raimi learned long ago how to deliver studio product, and those minor flourishes feel less like stylistic choices and more like “I’m still here, somewhere deep inside all this CGI spectacle!” cries for help.

There are a few nice bits dribbled throughout Oz’s two-hour-plus running time. It opens with terrific steampunk puppet-show credits and a solidly carny-esque, black-and-white prologue from Kansas, and there are several nifty tips of the top hat to both Houdini and Edison. But for the most part, Oz features slapped together card-board-thin character development that only serves the plot, which in turn only serves merchandizing and franchising potential.

At the center of the film’s narrative and its marquee, James Franco’s Oz is all pose and artifice. That makes for the sort of mild amusement that quickly wears thin. When he’s emotionally and artistically committed to a project, Franco gives it his staggeringly impressive all (in projects like 127 Hours and the recent Spring Breakers). But when he knows something is a meaningless lark, an ironic exercise, or a brazen cash grab – like hosting the Oscars, acting on General Hospital, or Oz – the talented actor’s incapable of hiding his winking, dismissive goofing. Here his misplaced Wizard showman is all grins and grimaces and little more.

Rachel Weisz as Evanora

Meanwhile, the actresses playing the film’s three witches deliver varied results. Rachel Weisz (Evanora) gives it a solid go, adhering to the long tradition of British thespians slumming for paychecks in Hollywood genre trash (after all, she got her big break in the Mummy movies) while maintaining a professional dedication to not embarrassing oneself on stage or screen. Mila Kunis (Theodora) can do great work, but she needs a strong script and a fully invested actors’ director — here she’s abandoned to capricious plot and character twists and attention-grabbing make-up that leaves her with the skin of an Orion slave girl and Jay Leno’s chin.

Only Michelle Williams, as Glinda the Good Witch, manages to believe in all this, turning in a nuanced performance that is so much better, richer, and deeper than the paper-thin character she’s working with that it almost unbalances the rest of the film and its cast, further highlighting everyone else’s cynical mugging.

Michelle Williams as Glinda

And so Oz the Great and Powerful plods on down the Yellow Brick Road, weighted down by the chains of commerce, and never feeling as light on its feet or as a clever and charming as it wants you to think it is.

Instead it displays the sort of dogged determination and dedication found among ledger clerks and galley rowers. Most of the film’s “jaw-dropping” magic quickly feels prosaic — like the Wizard’s tricks, it’s all empty CGI dazzle and clattering, hollow spectacle built to feed off several generations’ love of the original 1939 flick and its iconic cultural ubiquity.

And yet people have dutifully gone to see Oz the Great and Powerful, making the movie is a success by every measure that matters to Disney. The House of Mouse learned long ago that it’s far too risky to try and give the people what they want — left to their own mewing devices, the people can be frustratingly and financially devastating in their fickleness. Disney found that it’s much better off telling the people what they want and then selling it to them.

James Franco and Michelle Williams as Oz and Glinda

And that’s what Disney does: It snatches up familiar properties with maximum nostalgic appeal to parents — like the Muppets, Marvel superheroes, Star Wars, Alice in Wonderland, and now Oz — and perfectly packages them to be fed into a (usually) dauntingly impressive marketing pipeline that ministers to captive pre-teen audiences, including non-stop cross promotion on multiple Disney Channels and online “activity” hubs.

Yes, every Hollywood film is made to make money, including the original Wizard of Oz, but Disney has gotten so good at it, so polished and professional in how it processes product, that something like Oz the Great and Powerful never feels like a genuine entertainment experience, let alone something wonderful. It feels like it was a business proposition first and an artistic idea a very distant second.

Presented with a precision born of spreadsheets rather than sketchbooks, Oz doesn’t fully disappoint in a “We took the kids and we all liked it” way, but it doesn’t delight, either. Throughout it all, in every scene, every pleasingly composed fantasy shot, you hear the ringing of the cash machine and never shake the feeling of buying product instead of enjoying a movie. Happy endings, happy consumers, and happy, straining purse strings.

Click here to buy the DVD of Oz the Great and Powerful.


About the author

Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves — and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.

Some of his other reviews:

  1. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” asks if you want a Revolution.
  2. Transformers 4: the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America.
  3. 300: Rise of an Empire – The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War.
  4. “Edge of Tomorrow”: Cruise, Again and Again.
  5. A new Man of Steel for 21st century America: a warrior superman.
  6. Hollywood transforms “The Hobbit” into The Desolation of Tolkien.
  7. Interstellar’s Quantum Love and Other Cosmic Horses#*t.
  8. Star Trek reboots to give us simple stories, the cartoons we like.

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The Trailer

2 thoughts on “Oz the Great and Powerful: a reminder that Mickey Mouse Owns Your Childhood”

  1. Wrong as always. Oz the Great and Powerful vastly outpaces the crappy 1939 original in every possible way.
    This sequal starts with a meaty character, a con man who flees the husband of a showgirl he’s seduced, and finds himself in Oz. In the original a ridiculously overaged actress with bound breasts gets dumped into Oz by tornado, and finds herself reduced to mugging and leering in service of a hopelessly cardboard one-dimensional character Dorothy.
    The flying monkeys in the 1939 were ridiculous, causing uncontrollable laughter even when I was nine. The flying monkeys in the sequel are genuinely scary and work well.
    The wicked witch in the absurd 1939 crapfest had no motivation and came off as a nonsensical cartoon; the wicked witch in this sequel has genuine human motivations, and real malice.
    The climax of the 1939 crapfest involved an idiot plot, in which the stupid wicked witch keeps buckets of the one substance on earth which will reduce to a pool of goo standing around, available for all and sundry to grab and toss on her. The denouement of the sequel involes an ingenious bluff which illuminates the protagonist’s change of character.
    In every possible way the sequel gives us well-written characters, a clever plot, genuinely menacing villains, and believable motivations, while the garbage 1939 original gave us one-dimensional cartoon characters, ludicrously stupid plotting, pathetically impotent villains, and central characters for which even a mongoloid would deservedly have contempt.
    No doubt about it: reviews like this prove that the profession of movie critic has hit a new low.

    1. Thomas,

      “Wrong as always.”

      Your delusions of godhood are quite remarkable. These are reviews of a film. People can disagree, but there is no basis for rendering a definitive judgement — excerpt by majority vote or box office, if you believe vox populi, vox dei.

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