Last night I went to a midnight showing of Oz the Great and Powerful. So, standard spoiler alert here. I’ll be honest: going in I had little hope that the film would be stellar. I wanted it to be! On the surface it should be an anthem film for my life: it’s the story of a WIZARD in m’fing OZ, literally the gayest place in the multiverse.
However, while I fully expected it to be less than stellar, I didn’t expect it to be barely watchable.
And yet there I was, squirming awkwardly through every moment, almost unable to bear the shit-slog from title to end credits.
I couldn’t figure out what made it so shitty though, which is why I delayed this post for a few hours. Because as a writer, it is as important to figure out why stories are shitty as it is to figure out why they are amazing.
Was it James Franco’s high school drama club rendition of Oscar Diggs(aka Oz), delivered as it was with all the emotional depth of dryer lint, and with a smug self-satisfaction that made you want to punch him in the balls every time he showed up on screen?
No, while Mr. Franco’s particular talents on the screen rank somewhere around watching milk curdle for me, there was something more….pervasive than the reek of his performance at work here.
Was it Mila Kunis’ slutty-not-sultry whirlwind turn as Meg Griffin the Wicked Bitch of the West, whose inability to overcome the weight of her own television persona leaves the entire film smacking of an extended Family Guy cutaway (with half the charm…I might add)?
No, though I certainly think they could have easily replaced Mila Kunis as the Witch, with Mila Kunis as Meg Griffin in Family Guy Season 3 Episode 1, “The Thin White Line”, in which she kidnaps and holds a man hostage out of jealousy, and had a much stronger performance.
Was it director Sam Raimi’s sophomoric and uninspired usage of bright colors, blooming flowers, and fluttering insect life to render a bizarrely vibrant yet utterly lifeless mock-up grade school homage to the wonderful world of Oz?
No, I don’t think even the ceaseless reel of cheap 3D film tricks, with pop out monkey hands, and theme park inspired railroad rides through flora so vaginal it would make Georgia O’Keefe blush, was really enough to kill this film for me.
Hit the jump to find out what I really think the problem was. (Or you know, just take the above criticisms as a concise recommendation on why the average film viewer should avoid this film)
OK, now that it is just us writers, scripters, plotters, and otherwise storytellers, lets get down the real nitty gritty of what didn’t work about Oz the Great and Powerful.
Basically, I think it all boils down to patience. The film’s storytelling is impatient.
“What do you mean?! The film was over two hours long!”, I hear you protest.
And yes, it was long. I’m not talking about length here. Let me explain.
When I was first starting out as a “real” writer, I knew I wanted to write novels. More than anything, I was absolutely convinced that novels were my medium. I had great ideas for novels! I had story arcs and character sketches out the wazoo! It was gonna be great!
Then I hit my first creative writing seminar, and my instructor’s very first rant (of many more to come) was about how very few writer’s had the patience with their craft to write a novel. He contended that the capacity to write an elegant or engaging paragraph, and the skill necessary to construct a cohesive long-term multi-act story arc were completely different levels of development.
He said that talent alone was not sufficient to be a writer, and that nowhere was this more evident than in the struggle to write a novel.
I was pissed.
Of course I can write a novel! I’ll show him that I’ve been a literary genius since the first grade! Dammit!
Then I tried it. I participated in Nanowrimo (National Write a Novel in a Month) in 2011. I won too! I wrote 52343 words in one month. I was exhilarated! Then I read my novel again in February of 2012. Let’s just say I was less than pleased with my results.
You may be wondering what all of this has to do with Oz and patience. Don’t worry! We’re getting there.
When I reread my novel, what I noticed was that what I had was a string of very cinematic scenes. I had faithfully recreated the key moments of the story I knew I wanted to tell with overwrought imagery and electric-light prose! It was all very action packed, with characters flying here and there, and insane world detail after insane world detail slung in the reader’s face like so much monkey poo. The pieces weren’t bad at all!
But that was all I had. I had the pieces.
I couldn’t make them move yet. The feedback I got from readers was usually, “Why do I care?” I knew, as a writer, where I wanted to go. However, the artistry necessary to go and meet my reader where THEY ARE AT and bring them where I wanted them to go still eluded me.
I think this is largely the problem with Oz.
The storytelling relies upon fast and dirty tricks. The green skin, the black smoke, and the shrieks are about all the time we spend establishing the Wicked Witch’s villain cred. Oscar himself is just James Franco as his Oscar-host persona. The China Doll girl relies on the appearance of her fragility to bludgeon us over the head with “THIS CHARACTER REPRESENTS MOTIVATIONAL INNOCENCE FOR THE PROTAGONIST!”
The list goes on. Wonder is synonymous with simple blooms of color. Emotion is caricatured and as changeable as dirty depends in a senior home. Is Glinda a vulnerable bastion of goodness discovering her own strength as she steps beyond her reliance on a archetypal savior that isn’t coming? Or is she the cunning, slightly dangerous, but ultimately tragic leader of a principled rebellion? We don’t know, because her emotions grind gears like a twelve year old stealing Daddy’s stick shift for a joyride.
And that isn’t inherent in the performance. It is inherent in the dialogue structure, and the visuals chosen. It is Evenora as Palpatine with green force lightning and big tits, and Munchkins who are dehumanized for the “fun midget” factor of their performance.
What’s wrong with Oz isn’t the actors (though GOD KNOWS they are terrible, except Michelle Williams). It’s the impatience of the writing.
Is the climax, where Oscar Diggs finally adopts the smoke and mirrors epicness of traditional Oz fame, truly epic and satisfying? Actually yes. That scene is well shot, and you get a true sense of satisfaction as the two wicked witches are expertly manipulated into believing an immortal wizard is about to ass-rape them and then possibly eat their souls.
Has the Director taken care to make sure the cleverness and courage necessary to pull off this con are carried mindfully forward in Oscar’s character up to that point? Not at all. There are stray references that toy at establishing Oscar’s guilty conscious, like when he feels bad that he can’t help a crippled girl walk in Kansas. There is a single instance in which he uses his modern world know-how to impact positive change (he uses glue to fix the china girl).
But most of the time, the Director can only bludgeon us over the head with Oscar’s conman roots, having him constantly reference gold and treasure, and having him turn tail and run at every sign of real danger. His last rousing speech about belief is as over-acted and false sounding as his first moment on the rickety carnival stage in Kansas. Despite there being ample room to grow, Oscar’s character jumps between two static poles.
The writer didn’t have the patience to encode Oscar’s journey for us, the viewers. He knew where he needed Oscar to start, and he knew where he needed Oscar to arrive at, but all the intervening stages are wasted storytelling opportunities which are instead spent on uninspired visuals or cliched one-liners.
My point is that all the pieces are present. The great climax, the muddy beginnings, the important ideals about greatness, goodness, internal belief, and the impossible becoming possible. All these things are seeded. The writer/director clearly knew what story they wanted to tell. The problem is that they didn’t have the patience to tell that story to us. Much like Dororthy Gale’s original and iconic encounter with Oz the Great and Powerful, the director merely spews a lot of colored smoke, makes a lot of noise, and expects us to quake at the sheer magnitude of his awesomeness.
The problem is, we aren’t farm girls from Kansas anymore. We’re modern viewers, and what that means is that we are accustomed to the modern culture of spectacle. What we do want to see, just like Dorothy, is the real beating human heart of the little man behind the curtain. However, in this film, he is an afterthought, too quickly passed over for the easy pay off of big special effects and big tittied witches in bad costumes with penis envy and easy lips. The ancient art of storytelling and showmanship is all but lost here.
However, Oz is not without its value. We as writers can look at this inevitable flop and observe for ourselves just exactly what mistakes are made, and with the careful deconstruction of critique (which you can begin learning in my DLWS Curriculum) we can learn from these mistakes before falling prey to them ourselves.
But more than anything, what I hope is that this film serves as a rallying call for each of us to work on developing creative patience. Because that is the only thing that bridges the gap between talent and mastery.
Did I miss something? Was Oz amazing? Was it shit but for completely different reasons? Let me know in the comments section!