Oz the Great and Powerful
March 11, 2013
It endeared me at the start with its steampunk aesthetic, 19th century collage-inspired opening credits and a sepia-tone carnival, with all the accompanying gadgets and costumes. Franco is a more convincing smarmy con artist than he is a biomedical researcher. We arrive in Oz and it’s as beautiful and wondrous as I could wish for, and chock-full of nostalgia as the whole thing is a nearly seamless prequel to the old movie. (I haven’t ever read the books, so I’m pretty much free of that baggage of expectation.) There’s a lot to like about this.
But it dragged. And as lovely as it is, we all left the theater feeling unsatisfied. And it’s not just because this is a movie where these powerful women are just waiting around for a guy to come along to save them. My thought on what was wrong with it: I want to rewrite the entire second act, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly what was wrong with it. I had to think about it a minute. But I figured it out.
You see, this isn’t just the story of how con-man Oscar became the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s also about the creation of the Wicked Witch of the West. The two are parallel and connected. But the movie completely flubs the witch’s story. To the film, it’s not a story, it’s a McGuffin, and it shows.
The second act begins when Oscar arrives in Oz, and ends when he decides to stay and help Glinda’s people go to battle against the evil witch sisters and reclaim the Emerald City. As chance has it, the second act can also be measured by Theodora’s story: the second act begins when she meets Oscar, shortly after his arrive in Oz, and ends when she, transformed into her evil green self, breaks into Glinda’s city to confront Oz and threaten everyone. (I have to admit, I loved it when she leaped on her broom and zoomed away.) This is beautifully structured — as I said, parallel and connected stories. It’s great.
But what happens is the story makes us deeply sympathetic with Theodora — this completely earnest, innocent, wide-eyed (such HUGE eyes!) adorable girl. The “country girl” from the carnival. And in the space of a scene, with little preparation, she goes from that to completely evil. No regret, no chance of redemption. We get tossed a bone — “Oh, this proves you were really evil all along! You remember your temper and that fireball, right? Haha!” But I’m not buying it. Because Theodora’s still being manipulated by the people around her. She’s still naive. Basically, she’s being punished for being naive, not for anything she’s actually done. Which makes her ultimate fate — being murdered by a girl in a blue gingham dress in forty years — rather unsettling. Because we haven’t actually had a good reason to stop being sympathetic toward Theodora. The result is we all left the movie feeling uncomfortable, and vaguely thinking that the heroes are actually all jerks.
A couple of fixes: Theodora’s transformation needed to be set up. If she really was “evil all along deep inside,” set it up. This only needs a couple of lines. Oscar is flopping around in the pond, and he asks her for help getting out — and she says, “Oh, no, I can’t. I’m scared of water.” A tiny bit of foreshadowing that will put a little bug in your audience’s minds that something isn’t right here. That temper her sister comments on, that gets exactly one demonstration — we need to see that when Theodora and Oscar are on the yellow brick road. Oscar needs to be looking at her and thinking, maybe she isn’t so innocent after all. We the audience need to look at her and think, Yeah, she’s up to something, she’s kind of dark. And then Theodora needs to decide to be evil, instead of getting tricked into it.
And this is what happens when you treat significant secondary characters like plot devices rather than fully-realized characters. Especially a character as well-known and iconic as the Wicked Witch of the West. (I see a lot of people blaming Mila Kunis, suggesting she was miscast. But I would blame the writing.)
And that’s how I’d fix the movie. Kind of along those lines — see this article on Jezebel on how making an Oz movie with a male protagonist is a problematic issue from the get-go.
Now I’ve decided I really want to see Tin Man again. I know a lot of people hate it, but I really loved its weirdness and mythology. And Neal McDonough is pretty much my favorite actor who nobody knows about.
Also, I really want to see Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams in a Lethal Weapon-style buddy cop movie. That would rock.