Oz the Great and Powerful Reminds Us of the Worst Oz Has to Offer

Movies Features Sam Raimi
Oz the Great and Powerful Reminds Us of the Worst Oz Has to Offer

When I pressed play on the used Blu-ray of Oz the Great and Powerful that the record store was all too happy to give away, two trailers rolled before the menu. The first was Gore Verbinski’s desiccated Lone Ranger adaptation; the second was for ABC’s Once Upon a Time mecha-meta-series. All three titles share one crucial thing in common: They are Disney branding itself onto nostalgic properties of the American cultural landscape.

But while the two trailers are for properties that Disney owns outright or through its subsidiaries, Oz the Great and Powerful exists in a swirling tornado of copyright and public domain. According to the behind-the-scenes documentary “Walt Disney and the Road to Oz” included on the home release, Disney had wanted to tell his version of the Oz story since the studio began. But when MGM dropped a house on his plans and snagged the rights to L. Frank Baum’s first Oz book in the 1930s, Walt could only wait. Though he later bought the rights to the later Oz serials and half-produced the flimflam Mouseketeer special “The Rainbow Road to Oz” in 1957, the iconic images inscribed onto the American cultural landscape—especially the ruby slippers and the green Wicked Witch—permanently belong to MGM as their proprietary additions to the story. When The Walt Disney Company tried to fulfill Walt’s unrealized dream with Return to Oz (1985), they had to pay the rival studio for the rights to ruby slippers. Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful was to be wholly unique to Disney, the culmination of a vision “worthy of the wizard himself.”

Yet, released ten years ago, the film only continued Disney’s tradition of unsuccessful Oz-ventures. Oz the Great and Powerful was released to a general shrug from critics and audiences alike and today remains the outlier in Raimi’s otherwise celebrated oeuvre. The collective rejection of Oz the Great and Powerful is more exciting than the film: It protests the enclosure of a commonly held cultural landscape. As of the mid-1990s, the Oz works written by L. Frank Baum between 1900 and 1920 exist in the public domain. Oz belongs to us.

If the lesson of The Wizard of Oz is “there’s no place like home,” then the moral of Disney/Raimi’s story is “there’s no place like Oz.” More than anything, Oz the Great and Powerful is about how extraordinary the land is, how vivid its splendor is, yet how untamed and in need of order. As such, the most successful elements of Oz the Great and Powerful are Raimi’s practical realizations of the wonderland. His insistence that they build as much of the world as possible gives the film the little magic it possesses.

“Oz is here,” Mila Kunis shares with us in “Before Your Very Eyes – From Kansas to Oz,” a mini-doc about the film’s production design. Raimi’s keen sense of fantasy was correct to steer him to practical sets and effects. Teaming with Oscar-winning production designer Robert Stromberg (Avatar, Burton’s Alice in Wonderland), Raimi does what he does best, mixing old and new cinematic techniques. The hand-built sets and puppets give a nice tangibility and texture to the world of Oz and bring it to life for us. Even more impressively, they bring James Franco to life. Where The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Wiz (1978) used matte paintings to fill in the rest of the territory, blue screen technology now digitally renders the horizon.

Sadly some of this work is cluttered by studio-mandated 3D, which stretches disbelief into silliness. But as the lead architect of Pandora and Disney’s idea of Wonderland, Stromberg is exceptionally versed in domesticating imaginative worlds. Not only are these worlds visually similar, they share narrative similarities. They chronicle the mythic arrival of a white underdog who inherits the supernatural territory and eccentric citizens as their “rightful” or “noble” guardians. Like Avatar especially, Raimi’s Oz has much to do with land, enclosure and removal, which are also the keys to understanding our lack of enjoyment.

By paying attention to the man behind the curtain and the “land” in the “Land of Oz,” we can follow the yellow brick road through three layers of encroachment being resisted in our displeasure with the film. First, there is the manufactured consent within the narrative itself. Further down the road, we encounter the dark forest of Disney, branding the public domain. And before we see any shining Emerald City upon a hill, we’ll have to contend with Baum’s support for Native extermination that shapes the bedrock of his stories.

Oz the Great and Powerful is a veritable poppy field of sleepy storytelling that prefers to tell rather than show. But there are two particular instances in which screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire pull some sleight of hand to trick both the audience and citizens of Oz. The first is Glinda’s Goodness Bubble. As Oz (James Franco) and Glinda (Michelle Williams) whirl through the air toward Glinda’s realm, they approach the magic barrier to her realm, which will only let “the pure of heart” pass through. By that point, we’ve seen Oz con, lie, deceive and squirm his way out of every situation. He’s shown compassion towards the broken China Doll (voiced by Joey King), but even then, he lies to her about having magic powers and potions. So though we’ve had glimmers of goodness, we’ve seen nothing that would guarantee Oz will pass the test. Yet he does. Though Kapner and Lindsay-Abaire have shown us little, they use the barrier as a quick and lazy way to show that Oz is “good, actually” Instead of letting us and the citizens of Oz decide for ourselves if our leader is worthy, we have his morality, goodness and leadership thrust upon us.

That’s not the only time the citizens of Oz are duped. After Oz and Glinda pull off his climactic charade to convince the Wicked Witches Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Theodora (Mila Kunis) of his supreme powers, they happily let the citizens believe the con. The film wraps up in what is supposed to be a grandiose gesture of “what they don’t know won’t hurt them,” which is far too neat. “Make them believe, and you’re wizard enough…these are desperate times, after all,” Glinda coos in Oz’s ear. When Dorothy and Toto arrive in Oz, no one knows the wizard is a fraud. If this prequel is to set the stage for the rest of the story we know, then Glinda’s advice that Dorothy seek out The Wizard makes her an accomplice to more dishonesty. And what’s worse, it renders the citizens of Oz and, by extension, the audience, stupefied and powerless, grateful to be conned, thus stripping Oz of any semblance of democracy. 

Shared participation is what makes worlds like Oz so enjoyable. As part of the public domain, anyone can use the Baum books to create art without fear of legal recourse. But when significant studios come in, and brands work in the creative commons, they enclose parts of the world from us. Like it has done with fairy tales since its beginning, The Walt Disney Company has a pattern of using free-use source texts, changing the way the public knows and experiences those tales, and then locking them down behind a paywall. It becomes more difficult for us to enter Oz ourselves, with new landmines of possible litigation laid down. We not only have to avoid ruby slippers, but also certain shades of green. Studios own the designs for their Emerald Cities and The Dark Forest. Stromberg explains that he rooted his concept art for Oz in early Disney films and was determined to make the world feel as covered in pixie dust as possible. 

If the world wasn’t Disneyfied enough, the script sure is. On top of using an apple to poison Theodora and turn her green, the prose is so purple it feels bruised. The joy and accessibility of Baum’s Oz novels and the 1939 classic come from being written in a common register. In Oz the Great and Powerful, the characters talk in a dialect of faux fantasies. Every sentence is a childish decree so lofty they scare the winged monkeys in the attack. But the worst offense is the trite prophecy built into the world that proclaims Oz’s rightful ownership of the land that bears his name.

Whether intentionally or not, Oz’s destiny being written into the story of Oz the Great and Powerful mirrors Baum’s own violent beliefs about the land and those fittest to rule. While working as a journalist in South Dakota, Baum heard about the Wounded Knee massacre and doubled down hard on his anti-Indigenous racism. He called for the total eradication of Native peoples as parasites, unfit to improve the land. Like The Walt Disney Company believed they should be the ones to make a stamp on the public domain, Baum thought white people were the only true custodians of America. It’s not a coincidence that his magical world, written a few years later, would start with a sudden arrival of a pure outsider to an already inhabited land whose citizens dutifully and obsequiously bend to their leadership.

Today, Oz the Great and Powerful boasts collective and equal distaste among audiences and critics alike, which suggests that there’s something to be resisted within the film. To me, it’s the further partitioning of the public domain by corporations and maintaining of racist ideology further into that creative commons. What we’re rejecting most is the belief that any character, corporation or colonial power has the right to enclose space for itself. Manifest Destiny, in all its forms, is lazy writing and insufficient thought. Our displeasure shows that easy tricks will not sway us. By continuing to prevent Oz the Great and Powerful from being resuscitated, we’re executing what little sovereignty we have over the public domain and the creative worlds we collectively share.

B.L. Panther is a culture writer, scholar and Pisces from Northern Illinois. B! writes for outlets such as Honey Literary Journal and The Spool, where they’re also the cohost of The Meh-thod Podcast discussing great actors in less-than-great films. A champion hermit, they enjoy reading, the indoors, afternoon naps and doing nothing at all.

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