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Oz the Great and Problematic

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

 

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), Disney’s prequel to The Wizard of Oz, in which the Wizard first arrives in the celebrated American fairyland. Despite its referential nods to other Oz films, Disney, and cinema, Oz the Great and Powerful failed to deliver on the feminist, queer and musical traditions associated with Oz. Critics were mostly unimpressed, and it failed to become a Disney fairy tale franchise. Planned sequels never materialized, and its lasting impact on audiences remains uncertain (Cotter, 2020).


Figure 1: Oz the Great and Powerful Movie Poster

Disney and Oz would seem to be a winning formula, so what went wrong? Critics had their explanations, academics have weighed in, and I have some thoughts of my own.


Disney has had a complicated history with Oz (Corliss, 2013). Walt Disney considered adapting The Wizard of Oz after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), but MGM beat out all the other studios for the film rights to make the 1939 classic. In the 1950s, Disney bought the rights to many of the Oz books by L. Frank Baum for a live-action musical, The Rainbow Road to Oz, that never developed beyond some test numbers aired on The Mickey Mouse Club in 1957. Disney finally made an Oz film with Return to Oz (1985), which was not critically well-received but has developed a cult following (Chang, McCarthy). No such cult following has yet developed for Oz the Great and Powerful.


According to critics, Oz the Great and Powerful’s failure was attributable to substandard writing, casting and acting, although its visual world-building received some praise (Chang 2013; Corliss 2013; Dargis 2013; Burr 2013; McCarthy 2013; O’Hehir 2013; Tobias 2013; Turan 2013; Weitzman 2013). The film belongs to a genre of dark and revisionist fairy tales but failed to replicate the box office success of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) or the compelling complexity of Wicked (1995 novel, 2003 Broadway musical) (Burr, 2013; Chang 2013; Gettell 2013; McCarthy 2013; Meeusen 2017; O’Hehir 2013; Weitzman 2013). Critics also noted that it was trying to be too many things to too many audiences (Chang 2013; O’Hehir 2013; Tobias 2013). In the view of Meghan Meeusen (2017), the film suffers from adaptive dissonance as a work following from multiple sequential sources, resulting in its troubling depictions of gender. More hopefully, Henry Jenkins (2014), suggests that the transmedia world-building of the Oz universe (its “Ozness”) may be the primary point of pleasure for Oz fans (see also Kelleter 2012 on Oz’s popular seriality and “narrative sprawl).


But as an Oz fan and scholar, I find the film’s deepest problems to be precisely its failures to capture the spirit of Oz.


The film’s most profound betrayal of this spirit is its abandoning of Oz’s queer and feminist sensibilities (Pugh 2010; Doty 2000; 2010; Dargis 2013; Weitzman 2013; MacKenzie 2015; Robbins 2018) The Oz books have strong female characters, including Dorothy, and characters with unconventional gender. Witches hold the power and possess the real magic while the Wizard is a humbug. In The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), a boy named Tip is revealed to be, in reality, the girl ruler of Oz, Princess Ozma.

Figure 2: Oscar (James Franco) meets Evanora (Rachel Weisz) while Theodora (Mila Kunis) looks on.

By comparison, Oz the Great and Powerful’s women are somewhat one-dimensional objects of romance and either good or wicked, beautiful or ugly (Figure 2). Theodora, one of Oz’s witches, falls in love with Oscar and becomes jealous when he falls in love with Glinda. Her hysterical rage leads her to become the Wicked Witch of the West. Evanora, who is at first beautiful, is ultimately revealed to be a hag using deceitful magic. Glinda, the Good and Blonde, who also somehow sees the good in the rakish Oscar, gets the guy in the end (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Oscar (James Franco) and Glinda (Michelle Williams) seal the film with a kiss.

Baum believed that adult romance was of little interest to child readers, and the lack of such business is part of the queer character of Oz, along with its ontologically strange characters that include a Scarecrow and a Tin Man who are intimately bonded (Pugh 2010; Catchings 2013). In Oz the Great and Powerful, the fun of weird friends having kid-empowering adventures is overshadowed by a poorly-conceived heteronormative love triangle (Kain). These elements may be related producer Joe Roth’s efforts to make ‘a fairy tale with a good strong male protagonist’ (Hill), something Disney had struggled to do during his time as the company’s studio chief in the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s.


Most successful adaptations of the Wizard of Oz have been musicals (Bunch 2023), and critics noted the lack of songs in Oz the Great and Powerful (Barnes 2013; Corliss 2013; Edelstein 2013). Musicals encourage audience participation through the scripts of song and dance and the ability to recreate the film through play and performance. That opportunity is lost in Oz the Great and Powerful, with nothing equally engaging to take its place. Not only is Oz the Great and Powerful not a musical, it takes an antagonistic posture toward the form. When the Munchkins begin to burst into song in the film’s only and incomplete musical number, Glinda says she likes it and “it’s cute,” but Oscar recoils and yells at them to stop (Figure 4). This tells us something of the film’s assumptions about gender and genre.

Figure 4: Oscar (James Franco) hates Munchkin singing.

Another issue with Oz the Great and Powerful is its failure to address its child audience adequately. Critics found Finley, the winged Monkey, and the China Girl (Figure 5), the characters most obviously meant to appeal to kids, poorly conceived, and their ironic humor out of step with the spirit of Oz. (Dargis 2013; Lodge 2013). The China Girl, like her adult women counterparts, is simply and stereotypically drawn, a fragile and sentimentalized object, except when she’s bossy and manipulative. Her ultimate purpose is to make Oscar accept the role of protective father. Critics kept saying the film was good enough for kids despite its problems, but the response of young viewers has been far from uniformly enthusiastic (Bunch 2022).

Figure 5: The China Girl (voiced by Joey King).

There are some flashes of Ozziness at last in Oscar’s inventive plan to save the Emerald City from the wicked witches. In the climax of the film, Oscar uses imagination to defeat Evanora with fireworks and smokescreen projections, emulating the inventiveness of his hero, Thomas Edison (the Wizard of Menlo Park). This is the most playful and Oz-like part of the movie, commenting on the humbug of movies and entertainment in the tradition of Baum’s fascination with the relationship between technology and magic (Burr 2013; Chang 2013; Corliss 2013; Dargis 2013; McAllister 2019; Tobias 2013). On the other hand, as B. Panther (2023) has noted recently, ideas of progress in Baum’s world are inextricable from manifest destiny, as evident in Baum’s infamous call for Native American extermination and the availability of both The Wizard of Oz and Oz the Great and Powerful as settler colonialist stories about “American” visitors to Oz. Disney’s desire to brand itself onto Oz is a similar colonizing effort, one which, in Panther’s view, audiences resisted in their tepid response Oz the Great and Powerful.


Oz the Great and Powerful’s forsaking of the expected conventions of Oz and Disney films may disappoint, but it remains in the repertoire of films available for young audiences. Whether this film finds a place in the canons of Oz and Disney depends on whether, despite its shortcomings, audiences can find something great or powerful in it for their own purposes.


 

Author Ryan Bunch has written extensively on the world of Oz in his work Oz and the Musical: Performing the American Fairy Tale (2023). To learn more about Ryan and his work, check out his blog!



If you would like to purchase z and the Musical: Performing the American Fairy Tale (2023), you can find it here:



 

References


Barnes, Brooks. “We Aren’t in the Old Kansas, Toto.” New York Times, February 28, 2013. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/03/movies/oz-the-great-and-powerful-disneys-wizard-of-oz-prequel.html.


Bunch, Ryan. “Screen Adaptations of The Wizard of Oz and Metafilmicity in Children’s Film.” In The Oxford Handbook of Children’s Film, edited by Noel Brown. Oxford University Press, 2022.


Bunch, Ryan. Oz and the Musical: Performing the American Fairy Tale. Oxford University Press, 2023.


Burr, Ty. “Oz the Great and Powerful Never Finds Its Groove.” Boston.com, March 6, 2013. https://www.boston.com/uncategorized/noprimarytagmatch/2013/03/06/oz-the-great-and-powerful-never-finds-its-groove/.


Catchings, Jenny. “The Great and Powerful Snooze: The Lack of Quality Female Characters Makes New Oz Film a Bore.” Bitch Media, March 14, 2013. https://www.bitchmedia.org/post/the-great-powerful-snooze-the-lack-of-quality-female-characters-makes-new-oz-film-a-bore-feminist.


Chang, Justin. “Film Review: Oz the Great and Powerful. Variety, February 28, 2013. https://variety.com/2013/film/reviews/film-review-oz-the-great-and-powerful-820799/.

Corliss, Richard. “Oz the Great and Powerful: Mostly, It’s Wicked Bad.” Time, March 6, 2013. https://entertainment.time.com/2013/03/06/oz-the-great-and-powerful-mostly-its-wicked-bad/.


Cotter, Padraig. “Oz the Great and Powerful 2 Updates: Will the Sam Raimi Sequel Happen?” Screen Rant, November 16, 2020. https://screenrant.com/oz-great-powerful-2-updates-release-date-story/.


Dargis, Manohla. “That Man, Before the Curtain, and Before Dorothy, Too.” New York Times, March 7, 2013. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/08/movies/oz-the-great-and-powerful-starring-james-franco.html.


Doty, Alexander. Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon. Routledge, 2000.

Edelstein, David. “Oz the Great and Powerful Is Peculiarly Joyless.” Vulture, March 8, 2013. https://www.vulture.com/2013/03/movie-review-oz-the-great-and-powerful.html.


Gettell, Oliver. “Oz the Great and Powerful Skids Over the Rainbow, Reviews, Say.” Los Angeles Times, March8, 2013. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-xpm-2013-mar-08-la-et-mn-oz-the-great-and-powerful-movie-reviews-critics-20130308-story.html.


Hill, Jim. “Joe Roth Reflects on Oz the Great and Powerful, Looks Forward to Maleficent in 2014.” Huffington Post, March 4, 2013. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/joe-roth-reflects-on-oz-t_b_2806542.


Jenkins, Henry. “‘All Over the Map’: Building (and Rebuilding) Oz.” Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies 9, no. 1 (2014): 7–29.


Kelleter, Frank. “‘Toto, I Think We’re in Oz Again’ (and Again and Again): Remakes and Popular Seriality.” In Film Remakes, Adaptations and Fan Productions, edited by Kathleen Loock and Constantine Verevis, 19–44. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.


Lodge, Guy. “Oz the Great and Powerful.” Time Out, March 1, 2013. https://www.timeout.com/movies/oz-the-great-and-powerful.


MacKenzie, Annah E. “From Screen to Shining Screen.” In The Fantastic Made Visible: Essays on the Adaptation of Science Fiction and Fantasy from Page to Screen, edited by Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and Ace G. Pilkington, 175–191. McFarland, 2015.


McAllister, Robbie. “The Clockwork Occult: Evaluating the Scientific Fantastic in Steampunk Cinema.” Film Journal 5 (2019): 12-25.


McCarthy, Todd. “Oz the Great and Powerful: Film Review.” The Hollywood Reporter, February 28, 2013. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-reviews/oz-great-powerful-film-review-425417/.


Meeusen, Meghann. “The Difficulty in Deciphering the ‘Dreams That You Dare to Dream’: Adaptive Dissonance in Wizard of Oz Films.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 42, no. 2 (2017): 185-204.


O’Hehir, Andrew. “Oz the Great and Powerful: James Franco, Bored in Candyland.” Salon, March 7, 2013. https://www.salon.com/2013/03/07/oz_the_great_and_powerful_james_franco_bored_in_candyland/.


Panther, B. “Oz the Great and Powerful Reminds Us of the Worst Oz Has to Offer.” Paste, March 8, 2023. https://www.pastemagazine.com/movies/oz-the-great-and-powerful-sam-raimi-disney-bad.


Pugh, Tison. Innocence, Heterosexuality, and the Queerness of Children’s Literature. Routledge, 2010.


Robbins, Hannah. “‘Friends of Dorothy’: Queerness in and Beyond the MGM Film.” In Adapting The Wizard of Oz: Musical Versions from Baum to MGM and Beyond, edited by Danielle Birkett and Dominic McHugh, 143–160. Oxford University Press, 2018.


Tobias, Scott. “Oz the Great and Powerful,” The A.V. Club, March 7, 2013. https://www.avclub.com/oz-the-great-and-powerful-1798176047.


Turan, Kenneth. “Review: Oz the Great and Powerful a Rough Slog on the Yellow Brick Road.” Los Angeles Times, March 7, 2013. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-xpm-2013-mar-07-la-et-mn-oz-great-and-powerful-20130308-story.html.


Weitzman, Elizabeth. “Movie Review: Oz the Great and Powerful.” New York Daily News, March 7, 2013. https://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/tv-movies/movie-review-oz-great-powerful-article-1.1282054.


Images


Fig. 1: Oz the Great and Powerful Movie Poster. Sam Raimi, dir. Oz the Great and Powerful.

Disney, 2013.


Fig. 2: Oscar (James Franco) meets Evanora (Rachel Weisz) while Theodora (Mila Kunis) looks

on. Sam Raimi, dir. Oz the Great and Powerful. Disney, 2013.


Fig. 3: Oscar (James Franco) and Glinda (Michelle Williams) seal the film with a kiss. Sam

Raimi, dir. Oz the Great and Powerful. Disney, 2013.


Fig. 4: Oscar (James Franco) hates Munchkin singing. Sam Raimi, dir. Oz the Great and

Powerful. Disney, 2013.


Fig. 5: The China Girl (voiced by Joey King). Sam Raimi, dir. Oz the Great and Powerful.

Disney, 2013.

 

If you have an upcoming work, or even an older work, and would like to see it on the Editorial segments of the DisNet Blog, please email disnetblog@gmail.com with the headline 'Editorial.'


 

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