Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013)
Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Sam Raimi
Main Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff
L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz series is often credited as being one of the most important fictional universes to emerge from America, or at least the first important one to break from European traditions of “fairy tales”. There were many, many books written about Oz, various theatrical productions, and many movies too. The success of the original printing of the book had as much to do with the format as the actual content. It was a full color book with text set in a stylized arrangement that interspersed it with illustrations by W.W. Denslow. Children’s books were not customarily printed so lavishly at the time, but the success of the first Oz book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) turned it into more or less an industry standard. Critics debated whether Baum’s or Denslow’s contributions were the basis for the book’s success–though most tend to unfairly overlook the publisher George M. Hill Company’s role in arranging the lavish printing. The credit given to Denslow caused a rift with Baum and the two ceased working together. Denslow even published separate illustrations related to Oz without Baum’s involvement. Following the smash success of the first book, Baum teamed up with a theater group and developed a Broadway show that deviated from his writings and played up the latest in theatrical special effects. He tried later theatrical shows, but without the input of the Broadway team those fizzed. The earliest movies were silent, and Baum himself made some. He even developed a touring multi-media show that incorporated some silent films. Then the 1939 film version starring Judy Garland, though not considered a commercial success at the time, went on to become one of the most iconic and beloved American movies of all time. Other movies and shows followed, from The Wiz to Return to Oz. Spinoffs and related books continued to be made. Baum tried to pursue other work, but the financial rewards of the Oz series always proved too attractive, and he continued to write Oz books even after clear statements that the series was finished.
If you notice a trend in the history of the Oz works it’s that they have been manipulated, contorted and exploited in every possible way, by Baum and others. There is nothing sacred about the Oz universe. But an interesting detail is that the biggest successes have be borne out of collaboration, first between Baum, Denslow and the George M. Hill Company, but later with the Broadway show, then with the Victor Fleming, Judy Garland movie with songs by Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen. So there’s a feeling that the entire enterprise is one that sort of invites reinterpretation and tinkering.
Oz: The Great and Powerful is a big-budget “prequel” by Sam Raimi for the Disney company, which recently gave Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland similar digital-effects-laden treatment. While the Alice movie was a disaster, Oz: The Great and Powerful is actually quite good.
My interpretation of the film leans heavily on Thorstein Veblen, an academic who worked around the same time period as L. Frank Baum. Veblen tried to establish a economic theory that built its foundations in a scientific view of evolution, working up from elemental human motivational desires. He discussed the instinct of workmanship (proclivity for purposeful action and efficient use of materials and resources), idle curiosity (pursuit of knowledge), the parental bent (care for future generations), and pecuniary instinct (predatory status-seeking). This Oz movie rather clearly delineates the instincts that fascinated Veblen. There’s no spoiler in revealing that the good guys win here. But at the end the Master Tinker (Bill Cobbs) credits the win to “workmanship”. This is indeed exactly what the circus “wizard” Oz (James Franco) represents, along with the good Quadlings. Munchkins and Tinkers. Oz is a self-professed con man, but he’s also an inventor who extols the achievements of Thomas Edison (“the wizard of Menlo Park”). He’s the alien technological force that disrupts the status quo in the land of Oz. The parental bent is seen with the witch Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams), but also in China Girl (Joey King) and in other places (I won’t mention them here, so as not to spoil a few surprises). Of course, the pecuniary instinct is found with the evil witches, who seek to obtain a sense of security in high social status through the use of force or fraud (and magic). The reason the story has a happy ending is because the characters representing workmanship and the parental bent cooperate win out over the pecuniary interests, which naturally coincides with ordinary people winning out over the rich and powerful, and establishes peace within the land of Oz.
There has always been a lot of talk about political and economic interpretations of Oz stories. Henry Littlefield’s famous 1961 article introduced the “populist” interpretation. While many discredit such interpretations, those who discredit them often are part of the Baum hagiography club, and presuppose that such interpretations are valid if and only if Baum consciously sought to introduce those elements to his writings, but not if, perhaps, they were subconsciously or inadvertently introduced and audiences’ recognition of certain political and social elements in the story contributed to the books’ success. Anyway, the Veblen interpretation of this film seems interesting, even if you disregard the Littlefield “populist” one of the original book.
Oz: The Great and Powerful has all the glitz, entertaining special effects that have always been at the core of the Oz series and a part of its appeal. Take away special effects and you take away much of the appeal. Gee, special effects even play a major plot point in this movie, and other Oz stories. But the effects don’t take away from the humor and other emotions. The cast is, actually, amazing, and James Franco is perfect as the wizard (though Robert Downey Jr probably would have been great in the role as well).
It’s nice to see a blockbuster movie with something good to say, for a change. And It’s nice to see that audiences liked such a movie too.