Oz the Great and Powerful, directed by Sam Raimi. Story by Mitchell Kapner, inspired by the novels by L. Frank Baum. Starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, and Zach Braff. Distributed by Walt Disney Studios. Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language. Running time: 130 minutes.
Oscar “Oz” Diggs is a charlatan. Although his heroes are Harry Houdini (the great illusionist and escapist) and Thomas Edison, Diggs is neither a great performer nor a great scientist. He scrapes by as part of a traveling circus, passing himself off as a supernaturalist, allegedly raising spirits of the dead. In his off hours, Diggs is a womanizer, pushing away his true love in favor of cheap, short-term “relationships.”
Oz the Great and Powerful, the story of Diggs, is fundamentally the story of a man in search of self-esteem. Diggs lacks integrity, and so he lacks respect for himself. He allows himself to languish in a career he hates and in a series of unfulfilling relationships. He is basically a lying dirtbag who knows he has poor character—and, at the beginning of the story, he has little desire to improve his character.
Early in the film, Diggs says, “I don’t want to be a good man, I want to be a great one.” Over the course of the story, however, Diggs learns that goodness—strength of moral character—is a precondition both of greatness and of personal happiness.
Oz the Great and Powerful, then, explores the interconnections between the moral issue of character and the psychological issue of self-esteem. As he chooses to do the right thing, Diggs holds himself in greater esteem; and, as he learns to trust and value himself, he gains a greater desire and ability to act morally. For a film based on children’s books, its theme is remarkably sophisticated.
Oz the Great and Powerful serves as a prequel to the classic 1939 film The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Diggs, escaping the angry boyfriend of one of his conquests by flying away in a hot-air balloon, finds himself in the eye of a tornado. And then he finds that he is not in Kansas anymore—he is in an altogether different sort of place, a place with man-sized flowers, witches, flying monkeys, and strange beings of all kinds.
In the Land of Oz, Diggs—taken to be a prophesied wizard in part because his nickname is Oz, like the Land—learns that the Emerald City has fallen to the tyrannical rule of an evil witch, Evanora. This witch has two sisters: Glinda, the good witch; and Theadora, who has yet to choose sides. At first, Diggs declares himself to be the wizard in order to get at the gold in the Emerald City’s vaults. But, as the dire situation in Oz unfolds, he must decide whether he will help the people of Oz restore benevolent leadership.
The great moment of the film comes when Diggs begins to figure out that, although he is no true wizard, he has some genuine talents and skills, and he has a chance to set his life on the right track and save Oz by being true to himself.
The film is also about friendship. During his travels, Diggs finds several new companions, including Finley, a flying monkey; and a China Girl (a girl made of porcelain) who lost her family to the violence of the wicked witch’s minions. As many have remarked, these characters, both animated, are richly developed, and each shows enormous heart and humor.
Oz the Great and Powerful is such a fine film that, in retrospect, I was shocked to have seen so many negative reviews of it.
The film is not perfect, however. At times James Franco’s portrayal of Diggs is forced. And the transformation of Theadora from a basically kind person with a crush on Diggs to an evil monster is baffling. Although the film digs deeply into Diggs’s psychology, it barely scratches the surface of Theadora’s, leaving her motivations muddled and the development of her character awkward and unbelievable.
But these flaws are overshadowed by the film’s virtues. It is not only a
well-produced and well-directed film about a gorgeous, magical land. It is also a
well-written story about a man who undergoes a profound personal transformation for the better. That is the film’s true magic.