Battle of the Prequels

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On my 15th birthday my mother took me to see Wicked on West End. Instantly, I fell in love with the characters, the story and I have always seen it as the official prequel to The Wizard of Oz. While I did love some aspects of Oz: The Great and Powerful, I felt that it was overall weak in comparison. Oz (James Franco) has a good story arc which fits in well in the whole franchise, but in regards to the other main characters I much prefered the back stories that they were given in Wicked. The characters had more depth and none of them were instantly evil for no good reason. This made them more sympathetic and the story a lot more engaging. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Oz: The Great and Powerful was a bad movie, but I still wouldn’t regard it as the unquestionable prequel to The Wizard of Oz.

The best part of the film was the overall look. In the beginning it plays up to the nostalgia of the 1939 movie by filming the Kansas scene in black and white. I’ve always loved that because it made Oz look even more magical, even decades after its release. Oz builds on this well-known world and expands it. We see places in the new film that we have seen in The Wizard of Oz but with additions that we were not shown before. Admittedly, it gets confusing as to whether we’re in Oz or Wonderland, but it’s not something that distracts from the overall wonder of the look.

Sadly, we don’t spend money on a movie just because the scenes look good. As I said earlier, Franco’s character, Oz, has a good story arc that fits in really well with the original movie. But truth be told, I wasn’t overly invested in the character. Probably because I’ve always had conflicted feelings about The Wizard. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Are we even supposed to like him? In most adaptations he’s been absent for the majority of the production and when he appears he’s always lying, covering up the fact that he’s lying and he only does something nice when he’s been coerced into doing so. The Oz in this movie isn’t so different. He’s a womanizer, he’s mean to his assistant (Zach Braff) and he’s only doing the right thing because there’s money and glory in it. Even at the end I’m not 100% convinced he’s grown a conscience. I’ve never had a real problem with these characteristics, but we’re supposed to be rooting for him throughout the film. It’s difficult to find support for an ambiguous protagonist. When they do the right thing I’m not awed, because that’s what a decent human being would do – like gluing a china doll’s legs back together – and when they try to run, I don’t really blame them either. Therein lies the problem I guess; I’m not invested enough in the character to give a damn what they do. Oz causes as many problems as he fixes so I’m genuinely indifferent to whether or not he decides to do the right thing and save Oz (the place, not the person). Maybe my lack of interest is because I know what has to happen at the end, but that’s no excuse. I should be invested in the fates of these characters in order to be invested in the film.

But I didn’t say that I hated this movie. So were the other characters engaging?….Kind of.

Zach Braff is wonderful in this film! His lines and delivery are both funny and innocent (I guess he couldn’t really stop playing JD) and it works for his character. He does a good job at playing both Oz’s moral compass and comedy relief. He never gets boring – granted he’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but he gets a chuckle here and there, and he is the most adorable flying monkey I have ever seen.

The other characters aren’t bad either, but they didn’t stand out as much to me. The Little China Doll was yet another CGI that was interesting to look at, and her character is tolerable but I personally wasn’t a huge fan.

Let’s finally consider the famous Witches – I was not impressed. This movie had a chance to make Glinda, Witch of the North (or South, as she is somehow known in this film) a more badass character, but by trying to stick to the original 1939 movie they make her come off as a wet blanket. She wants to save her land, but her only ammunition is bubbles – not a particularly threatening weapon. Therefore she has to rely on a con man to save them. Basically, she’s just a pretty cheerleader in this movie.

As for the other witches, Theodora and Evanora, their characters barely had any substance or motive. From reading interviews with cast members, I was lead to believe that there would be great moral dilemmas and compelling characters arcs that would dictate their choices to be good or evil. No such things were seen in this movie. It came down to some gross misunderstandings blown way out of proportion – perhaps Disney isn’t quite ready to be ‘complex’ in terms of moral ambiguity.

The most confusing thing was the decision to treat Oz as an actual place. In the 1939 movie, it was strongly implied that it was all Dorothy’s dream and the characters she met were strongly influenced by people she knew. Here, they start off by doing the same – people in the protagonist’s life have counterparts in Oz – but this is made confusing by his decision to stay. What are we supposed to take from that? Or are we supposed to forget the beginning of the movie entirely? There are too many unanswered questions in this film, too many plot holes, and it’s not engaging enough for us to just ‘go with the magic’.

As far as prequels go, I much prefer Wicked. Oz: The Great and Powerful just didn’t quite capture the magic of Oz in the same way that either Wicked or the original film did. It’s not the worst film I’ve ever seen, but it doesn’t even rank on my top 50.

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