Oz, The Great and Powerful has been in town for awhile, a movie my wife and I wanted to catch, but one that was always sort of a second choice. Great cast: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis. Sam Raimi directed. The trailer was terrific, gorgeous. Finally, Saturday, we took it in. The trailer was right–it’s a lovely film to look at. Oz is magical, luminescent. The film, however, not so much.
Terrific production design, a first-rate cast and a really fascinating premise, turns out, isn’t enough. You can have all that, and still end up with a lackluster, even annoyingly smug little movie, if the writing’s bad. As we left the theater, I overheard folks dissing the actors: “James Franco was terrible, wasn’t he?” That kind of thing. Audiences do that–think an actor is to blame for a weak performance. Most of the time, the actor’s up there doing the best s/he can with a poor script. And that’s what dooms Oz, The Dull and Mediocre.
I used to teach a class at BYU, TMA 114, remember it fondly, a class on basic dramatic structure. Basic Protagonist/Objective/Obstacle kind of stuff–a class for freshman. And when we talked about the attributes of an interesting protagonist, the most important one was volition. A protagonist, to be compelling, has to drive the action of the story. The protagonist has to make the most important decisions, has to have a strong and interesting objective, something s/he wants desperately. A non-volitional protagonist is a character to whom things happens, as opposed to making things happen. What you want is a volitional protagonist.
Sometimes you can write a non-volitional protagonist and make it work: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for example, manages to be an interesting film despite a non-volitional protagonist. Forrest Gump has a fairly non-volitional protagonist. But more often, you end up with a film like Glitter, the Mariah Carey vehicle from like ten years ago, where the main character makes no major decisions about anything, ever, and as a result comes across as the most weak-willed, unwatchably annoying character ever filmed.
So you want a strongly volitional protagonist. Look at the Wizard of Oz. You know the film, 1939, a young Judy Garland incandescent as Dorothy, with the great Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch. Dorothy arrives in Oz, and essentially from the beginning of the film tells everyone she meets that she wants to go home. That’s her objective throughout, and there’s hardly a moment in the film when her character’s not pursuing it. And the Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow (even Toto, the dog) are there to help her achieve it. And they also have strong and interesting objectives of their own. And the result, of course, is one of the greatest films ever made, with a tremendously compelling main character. Dorothy is the protagonist, and we root for her throughout. Even the song, “Somewhere over the Rainbow” supports her quest: ‘why, oh, why, can’t I?’
And that’s precisely the problem with Oz, the Quotidian and Unremarkable. James Franco plays Oz; short for Oscar Something Something. He’s a conman, a circus conman, a stage magician. He’s all misdirection and showmanship, but fundamentally shallow and soulless, with a tawdry seduction routine involving music boxes, which he buys en masse. He climbs in a hot air balloon to escape a jealous husband/boyfriend, and a gale blows him away to Oz, shifting the movie from black and white to Technicolor (in a meaningless homage to this film’s much superior predecessor). He arrives in Oz, meets a pretty girl, Theodora (Mila Kunis), a witch, who takes him into the Emerald City and tries to enlist him to kill the wicked witch. He pulls the music box act on her, and seduces her. (It’s a family film, and the question of what exactly happens sexually between them is left deliberately vague, but her subsequent actions only make sense if we assume he really does seduce her, and then dumps her.)
Turns out, though, that the wicked witch he’s agreed to kill for Theodora, is actually Glinda (Michelle Williams), the good witch, and Theodora and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) are the evil witches. Glinda’s been waiting for the fulfillment of a prophecy from her father, a powerful wizard, that after his defeat, another wizard would come and free Oz. Glinda convinces herself that this new wizard is James Franco.
But through most of the film, Franco’s Oz doesn’t know what to do or how to do it. He sort of drifts through the film, following the lead of whichever pretty witch he’s happened to talk to most recently. When he’s with Theodora, he does what she says; when he’s with Glinda, he does what she says. Finally, the last twenty minutes of the film, he figures out a way to con the Wicked Witches, and uses his prestidigitation to Win the Day, and with it, Win the Girl. He’s interesting for twenty minutes. Otherwise, he’s a weak character, skating by on charm.
Of course, in part, that’s James Franco. In something like 127 Hours, when he’s playing a character with a strong objective, he can be terrific. But he’s a good looking guy, a bright guy, almost too talented for his own good. When asked to host the Oscars, he basically floated through the night, grinning and reading his lines, but adding nothing of his own to the occasion. It was a lazy performance. In this, he’s certainly convincing as a conman and sleaze. But when he tries to deepen and enrichen the character, it seems perfunctory. And the writers did him no favors. He’s playing a character without a strong objective, and he seems, as a character, correspondingly aimless. I’m not sure he’s a good enough actor to manufacture a forceful personality not directly suggested by the script.
He’s not, in other words, Rachel Weisz. The actresses fare a bit better, although the character objectives they’re asked to play are non-specific and vague, and you can see how hard they have to work to give this gorgeous-but-listless film some energy. Rachel Weisz is the queen of strong character choices, and makes the most of an underwritten role. As unconvincing as Evanora is, Weisz commands the screen in all her scenes; also she looks terrific.
Poor Mila Kunis has the worst-written part in the film, poor thing, an innocent girl who for some reason is also just wicked–no explanation, she just is. Then, when seduced and spurned, she literally turns green with envy, puts on the whole Margaret Hamilton regalia. In other words, at the very point where her character gets interesting, she has to assume a characterization initially created by another actor. And basically her role is to fly around, cackling, and making dire threats she never seems to act on. It’s a thankless role; I suppose she does her best with it.
And Michelle Williams; my gosh, what a waste. Raimi has Michelle Williams in his film, and can’t think of anything more to do with her than have her play The Pretty Girl. She’s the most astonishing actor, the queen of indies, a woman of extraordinary range and interpretative power. She actually even does some nice work here. Glinda is a woman of faith. Her father said a wizard would come, and by golly, here one is, so I’m going to believe in him, period. She has no illusions about Oz’s integrity or magical abilities; she decides to Believe, as an act of will. That’s a subtle thing to convey, and Williams sells it; sells religious faith and basic goodness. And then at the end of the film, this strong and faithful woman, having saved her kingdom, is supposed to be satisfied with her big reward–some projection booth nookie with James Franco. Blech. That ending left such a sour taste, I couldn’t wait to leave the theater.
It’s the kind of film that gets more depressing the more you think of it. We saw it on Saturday, and I’m writing this on Monday, during which time my reaction has gone from “it’s okay, not terrible” to “major disappointment.”
It’s not the source material. They could have done more with it, the writers. (For one thing, why does Oz never question, like, his own sanity, being transported to a completely different magical realm named after himself? Wouldn’t you be looking around for the guys with the butterfly nets?) The musical Wicked also plays fast and loose with both the Oz myth, and its own source, the Gregory Maguire novel Wicked. I like Maguire’s novel a lot more than I like the musical, but the show does have some great songs, and Elphaba is a strong, volitional protagonist. Oz: The Moronic and Offensive will be deservedly forgotten this time next year. Dorothy’s Oz will live forever.