Oz the Great and Powerful: Overextended

By Sunny Choi · March 12, 2013

I tend to be a bit of a purist when it comes to honoring old classic films. The Wizard of Oz still remains one of my favorite childhood films. It is difficult to point to a more magical moment in film history than when Dorothy first steps into Oz, and the film transforms from sepia-toned Kansas to the colorful world of Oz. While Oz the Great and Powerful features stunning visual effects and addresses universal and relatable themes, it falls upon a cliched and formulaic script. Oz the Great and Powerful joins many other films that chronicle how the fish out of water overcomes his character flaws and proves to himself and to other people that he possesses the leadership skills and moral goodness to protect his people.

Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco), a shady, self-centered magician with a few tricks up his sleeve, has gotten away with swindling towns and seducing simple country women. For most of his life, he has taken everyone for granted, including his assistant, Frank (Zach Braff) and his childhood sweetheart (Michelle Williams). Refusing to settle for a mediocre life, he dreams of attaining greatness and success. As he finds himself on the run from angry clients, he is swept away by a tornado. After a very tumultuous journey, he lands in Oz and meets a beautiful witch, Theodora (Mila Kunis). She eagerly welcomes him, as she believes that he is the wizard that will save Oz from the Wicked Witch. Evanora (Rachel Weisz), her cunning and sophisticated sister, presides over Emerald City as the royal adviser. Seduced by the prospect of wealth and power, Oz decides to rely on his wits and mastery of illusion to prove that he is the wizard that will save Emerald City from further harm.

The film starts off a little slow, but the plot becomes increasingly compelling and dramatic—especially in the second half of the film. The muddled beginning leads to a conflict that eventually becomes clear and engaging. While I wish that the film would have given more background information on the sisters, I also realize that the film is targeting young kids, many of whom simply want to know the black and white of who’s good and who’s bad.

Oz balances its age-appropriate story with themes and issues that affect people of all ages. For example, some of the characters debate on the distinction between goodness and greatness. While that sounds like a fairly trivial difference, it addresses how many people lean toward material success over caring for others and contributing to one’s community. The film also illustrates the principle of “faking it till you make it.” Strong leadership does not necessarily involve having all the right answers; what is more important is the ability to instill confidence and high morale in your team, even if this requires a healthy dose of performance on the part of the leader. Last but not least, Oz reminds people to not underestimate their abilities and also play to their strengths.

But these positives were overshadowed by elements of soap opera, including romantic subplots. It was surprising to see this in a children’s movie, I wonder if the filmmakers may have included this to attract older audiences who might otherwise find this film to be too childish or young for them. The melodramatic romantic subplot and over-the-top acting was a distraction that made it difficult to find legitimacy in the larger conflict.

The film shined the most when it focused on the importance of trust, teamwork, and friendship. Many of these themes materialize in Oz’s conversations with the friends he meets along the way.

The biggest flaw of the film was the clichéd themes and dialogue. The sharp and clear divide between good and evil made it clear that this film was targeting a very young audience. The villains felt a little cartoonish, especially in their respective monologues of either exacting vengeance or destroying Glinda’s kindness and beauty for once and for all. While I had never thought of The Wizard of Oz as a fairy tale, this movie framed it in that manner, especially in its portrayal of character transformations (giving into jealousy and mean-spiritedness which erases inner and outer beauty).

What I miss about the original movie was its focus on the individual stories and dreams of the characters. I hope that this new rendition of the world of Oz will compel parents to introduce their kids to the 1939 movie, which is on an entirely different level in terms of narrative, characterization, performance, and soundtrack. This film would be a nice introduction to the world of Oz for young kids, but it could never in my opinion replace or displace the 1939 movie as an all-time childhood favorite.