Sunday, 24 March 2013

We've Been To See The Wizard... [SPOILER ALERT - THERE ARE LOTS]

Rather like Dorothy, I'd been looking forward to seeing Oz the Great and Powerful for so long that I suppose it was almost inevitable that the actual event would bring some disappointments. Some of these were predictable - I'd had my doubts all along about James Franco's ability to lead a film, and these proved far from unfounded - but what ended up bothering me most wasn't something I'd anticipated at all.

Worse than the film's failure to meet my too-high expectations, was the feeling, even as I was watching, of how great it ought to have been - how great it could easily have been. To start with, it opened with a breathtaking title sequence, which is probably still my favourite thing about the film. The dark, carnivalesque animation, accompanied by a creepy Danny Elfman score, made this look like it was really meant to be the latest Tim Burton flick. In many ways, this Burtonish quality continued throughout, with a setting and characters akin to what we find in his Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That said, I couldn't help but think that Burton would have made a much better job of it: once the story actually got going, there was something very shallow and lacking about the whole thing which a director like Burton wouldn't have allowed to happen. It was a bit like Sam Raimi had picked up a Tim Burton style guide, robbed it of most of its charm, humour and essential morality, and in their place injected a dangerously large dose of his own outdated sexual politics.

One of the first things that Wizard of Oz fans will notice is that Raimi has allowed himself a very liberal licence with the characters from that film, who are completely different personalities in his own. Oz in particular is startlingly far-removed from the fast-talking, funny, charming, pseudo-intellectual old man we know as the Wizard, having been transformed into a lying, cheating, greedy, sleazy scumbag that you wouldn't trust as far as you could throw him. Although the film's supporting characters continually put their faith in him and constantly insist on his "goodness", we as an audience see very little reason or evidence for this. Even right at the end of the film, he seems barely to have changed: his priorities are all the same, and he actually has the cheek to "reward" Glinda with a snog from him during the gift-giving scene.

Of course, none of this would have been quite so problematic if the film had fairly portrayed him for what he was, and made some attempt to show his actions having negative consequences, but instead, he seems to be offered to us, along with the simple people of Oz, as our unchallenged hero, and is given everything that his heart desires, including the one woman who can supposedly see through him. The women in this film are consistently portrayed as naive and easily conquerable - Oz may not get his wicked way with Evanora, but she's still a little too easy to beat. The essential passivity of all of the female characters, coupled with the camera's lascivious gaze, betrayed an inherent misogyny in this film that seemed to exist independently of Oz himself.

This is most apparent in the treatment of Theodora, who first appears in a pair of ridiculous skin-tight trousers and makes it instantly clear that she is not just a bit naive, but actually stupid beyond belief. Not only does she accept everything that Oz says without question, but we subsequently learn that she's been doing the same thing with her sister for years. Later, Theodora is tempted, Eve-like, by her wicked, serpentine sister, accepting the apple of knowledge and enlightenment that serves to make her evil and "ugly" in one fell swoop. Yet, even here, Raimi manages to have his cake and eat it, because in spite of her green skin and theoretical ugliness, the camera continues to subject her to its gaze, in her tight corset and black PVC. Not to suggest that there's anything wrong with sexy clothing per se, but you can't insist upon someone's ugliness whilst presenting them as attractive, and what's more, this is just one small part of the persistent and pervasive objectification of a character that actually does - well, nothing. Her naivety and her appearance are basically all we know about this character, and are presumably all the director thinks we need to know. Much like the Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West, this witch never actually harms anyone, in spite of her threats, and so is punished disproportionately. Now, I know that, in fairness, she actually gets killed in The Wizard of Oz, but in in that film, at least, we're only eavesdropping on a child's fantasies about getting rid of the woman who has tried to kill her dog. It's quite another thing when a grown man wants to punish a girl for falling for him after he's seduced her. No serious attempt is made on Oz's part to make Theodora amends. He is every bit as culpable for her transformation as Evanora, yet the closest our "hero" comes to showing any kind of remorse is an unbearably patronising and inadequate concession to her banishment, called after her like an afterthought as she flies away. Oz tells her that if she can find it in her heart to be good again, then she will be allowed to return.

Ranting aside, there were loads of really good things about this film, enough to make me actually like it in spite of its ethical dodginess. As suggested above, it was visually spectacular, with some of the best special effects I've seen. The design of the world of Oz was beautiful, and the CGI on the water, flowers, and especially the little china girl were just jaw-dropping. It may not quite have compared with the incredible make-up and costumes in The Wizard of Oz, but I did think costume was a strong-point (aside from my quibbles about Theodora). I loved the styling of Oz himself, and the folks back in Kansas, and both Glinda and Evanora had some brilliant dresses. I also really liked Theodora's red coat, and her big pre-wicked hat was a very clever touch. I liked the score - but then you can always rely on Danny Elfman to deliver - and I do think that, despite the limitations on their characters, both Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams gave excellent performances. Finally, I enjoyed all the sciencey stuff, and the sense it gave of real technology as something wonderful and magical.

Unfortunately, overall, it just didn't quite hang together, with its unsatisfactory character arcs and its failure to keep consistency with the film to which it was supposedly acting as a prequel (Why, for example, wouldn't Oz have shown any kind of emotion upon learning of Theodora's death in The Wizard of Oz if they'd had this kind of history?). Whilst it might have captured some of the magic of the original film, in the end it was all charm and no substance (though better than its protagonist, who was lacking in both). Worst of all, it's sexism was irredeemable, and felt to me like an insult to the legacy of great female heroines like Alice and Dorothy.

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