Oz the Great and Powerful (Movie Review)

Oz the Great and Powerful promo poster

Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz the Great and Powerful is a slight, by-the-numbers movie that you can expect to enjoy while watching and then forget about within a week. The plot sticks to broad brushstrokes that the audience is already expected to know by heart: An egotistical circus magician gets sucked into a land where magic is real and picks up a couple cute animated sidekicks. He tries to continue as a con man, claiming to know real magic, until he’s forced to become a hero after all. It also helps that this is based on another movie the audience already knows, so there’s no need to confuse anyone with new ideas. (In fact, this Disney movie cannot be legally associated with Warner Bros.’ classic The Wizard of Oz, but they push the boundary frequently with likenesses to that movie’s icons.)

Oz coasts along on slick CGI that is enjoyable but never notable, and photogenic actors who fit smoothly into their two-dimensional characters. Sam Raimi directed this, but his flair for low-budget surprises is completely lost in the safe big-budget atmosphere. There are a good number of laughs and clever tricks, and it finds an inoffensive way to appeal to our modern deconstructionist takes on fairy tales. (Despite that, the good and pure rubes that Oz meets sound more like a cynical person’s idea of a guileless one, rather than like true innocents.) The only real surprise, though, is how predictably it plays out. The movie contains a single clever twist, but rather than playing up any uncertainty about the new information we get, the movie proceeds as if it were proven. Even the citizens of Oz immediately seem to switch loyalties after this private four-person conversation occurs, because why should the audience have to remember that not everyone knows the same things? For all its efforts at a modern, self-aware twist on a classic, Oz subscribes to a clear-cut view of good and evil that even most fairy tales would consider unsubtle.

For all its inadequacies, this movie mainly works as a light popcorn flick suited to today’s formulas. One thing keeps me from giving it a half-hearted recommendation, though: Its portrayal of female characters is especially bad. I normally don’t talk about this too much, and just agree from time to time that, yes, as The Bechdel Test demonstrates, most movies still have a subtext that women only matter for their relationships with men. Here, though, that’s not subtext so much as a starting assumption. The only things that define the female characters here are whether they’re Fairy Tale Good or Fairy Tale Evil, and what their feelings are for the title character. It’s never questioned that the competent woman who drags Oz along to his destiny will gratefully fall in love with him when given the chance, because why should she hold out for an equal? And when we learn the backstory of the Wicked Witch, I found it to be tragic and a little disturbing. She’s driven entirely by vindictiveness over a man who shouldn’t matter that much, and tricked into that by someone who is manipulating her to the dark side. Even when she finds out that she was tricked, she sticks to evilness and jealousy, because she literally gives up her agency and cannot make another decision.

I’ve discussed those concerns with a few other people, but they didn’t mind it at all. I think that is just because we already know the Wicked Witch is evil, so this is just interpreted as required backstory rather than something happening to a real character. And they’re right that the movie is too cartoonish to take its characters seriously. But it’s not really a good sign when a movie is saved by the fact that no one will care much about what happens in it.

Grade: C

  1. The movie packs a nice balance of nostalgia and fun, but also treads just enough new ground to serve as a wonderful companion piece to the 1939 masterpiece. It’s a fun movie, and that’s what matters. Good review.

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