Monday, July 8, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful: The Prize for Greatness

I’ve seen Oz The Great and Powerful on Saturday and I can’t stop grinning ever since. This is one great and powerful movie if I ever saw one. Now that my general impression is out of the way and I told you I loved the movie, let me get into more details.

Original Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) Poster - owned by Disney

Oz the Great and Powerful, Frank Baum and the Wizard of Oz

I have read gazillion reviews, some of which you can find here on Metacritic, but I haven’t find even one addressing meaningful questions about this movie. Fans and critics both have fallen into same simple trap of not watching the movie before them but feverishly desiring to fulfill one’s own expectations.

This is not really unexpected but is nevertheless funny. So I grin.

Reviewers/commenters (both critics and layman) say that there is no Oz. No Judy Garland. No patting audience on the back and no fodder for nostalgia. That is, of course, true. But on the other hand this is an example of pure brilliance of using psychological validity in making something out of nothing. Something unexpected. Magic. There is magical product inside magical package prepared by process no less magical because few of us can recount its constituent parts.

I can almost see some past meeting in some high-end back yard with selected few guests from movie industry, fashion maybe, some realtors and some know-it-alls and there happened to be few guys from Disney production company, maybe Mr. Franco, Mrs. Williams and Sam Raimi over some lovely catering spread and some cool drinks and with conversation going something like this:

Disney guys: We’re just recycling over and over and that is cool, I mean, but I wonder if there is something more we could do with all this material. Not that we need it, but we’re - kinda - bored.

Sam Raimi: Anything particular you have in mind to transmute?

DG: Well, no, not really, now that you ask. Anything. Everything. It just feels so dead.

James Franco: Don’t say things like that in front of almost PhD in English literature! [laughs] You have classics there, both cinematic and literary: Caroll, Barrie, Kästner, Baum - there’s ton of stuff you can do with them. This in pure gold.

SR: Dead, you say? I am specialist for dead [grinning widely, eyes glaze over with the flood of idea].

So they did not recycle. They made new stuff. Stuff that will be family entertainment, that would contain moral values we all could use and many of us miss dearly, stuff that does not “answer questions nobody asked” as one reviewer nicely puts but just the contrary - tries to give guidelines on how to grow up into honesty and integrity many of today’s adults-by-age sorely lack. And they do it all with cunning style, making use of long known psychological law known as Mere-exposure effect. They harvest the controversy, reap expectations, monetize nostalgia. They have used shroud of implicit contextual knowledge (social knowledge, no less) to bring forth bouquet of freshly picked CG enhanced flowers and not dried-up mementos of times passed.

To say I’m impressed would be to underestimate greatly.

I just love seeing how much people are blatantly underestimating his value as an actor due to his exquisite beauty. This guy is for real, kids! Not only that he is one of the most intelligent people in show business, he’s also intelligent enough not to make a spectacle of his IQ. We have a saying here in Croatia and it goes:”Tiha voda brege dere” (silent stream tears away mountains, very akin to “Still waters run deep”) and after seeing many of his films and reading many an interview I can say that this saying fits him like a glove.

I love how they have (actor and director both) made Oscar approachable, understandable and satirically over-expressive because, as Oscar Wilde finely put it so long time ago: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you”

... is just perfect as a person that loses her naivety at the doorstep of adulthood and finds herself filled with nothing but malice and spite. It is a rookie mistake that can still be corrected and I love how it was pictured like that in the movie also. Those tear-filled eyes one cannot fake without tasting despair once or twice for realsies and I congratulate to whoever picked her for this role.

... did a wonderful job being thief of opportunity. Evanora (Nomen est omen?) is not really evil but just in a position to claim things that doesn’t belong to her because no one is contesting her for them. She is not really evil but she has never had to be good. She is beautiful, manipulative, tactful and bored to tears. Bureaucratic evil.  In the end she falls prey to her own inability to adjust, rather than strength of an opponent - she just wasn’t prepared to defend her own - because she never learned how - because she never had to. One more character type we see every day of our lives if we only just look.

And finally, Michelle Williams. The good witch.
I don't like Michelle Williams. I find the discrepancy between her angel-like appearance and flat nihilism lurking out of her eyes disturbing, but this is what made her perfect for this role (just like many other roles before, like Cindy or Alma, to name a few). Sardonic remarks coming out of her mouth somehow make the perfect poison dart and yet I suspect there could be many a male (and quite a bit of females) who could not read the spoken from her lips, and could not hear it from too concentrated watching.

So, what is this all about? 

SPOILER ALERT! Do not read below if you would not like to know details from the movie!

Oz the Great and Powerful is a story about a man not wanting to grow up. It is very smartly made, using every dramatization trick and psychology gimmick there is. The only character in this movie is Oscar Diggs/Wizard of Oz and all the others are NPC's (= Non-player Character - I'm borrowing gaming lingo in lack of a better term), personifications in service of illustrating the point in question. Point in question is beautifully stated by our own protagonist and it is as follows: "Oscar Diggs died, so that the Wizard could live."

Right from the very first moment, shown in black and white, all of "real life" is shown colorless just like the protagonist sees it; small, frustrating, unimportant, boring. He is immoral, mean and petty and makes others feel as insignificant as he finds himself to be. Among other things he leaves behind a slew of broken hearts with nary a worry in his mind, using one and the same stupid pick-up line on each of them and consoling himself with the notion that they will get over him "as all of the others did", not really ever accepting responsibility for his actions nor showing a least bit of empathy for anything that surrounds him.

Then, he is faced with great fear (from death) and a change of scenery, into colorful and magic world of all things that could be. This is the world his great fear pushed him into. The world that exists only in the realm of his overinflated escapistic dreams - but he does not know that yet.

He slowly learns that not many dream stuff is what he expects it to be; that many beautiful things are in reality poisonous and that many relationships he took for granted in the real world were actually undeserved perks. It doesn't take long for him to begin to doubt his choices - things seem uncomfortably real when you have to say them out loud and not just implicitly take them as they come. This culminates when he meets Glinda and "recognizes" her as Annie, the woman who loves him in the real world and whose love he dismissed just before his terrifying trip to Oz. In one heartbreaking and magnificent scene all that he is is put in plain sight before him:

Oz: [whispering to Glinda, as her city celebrates his arrival] You know, I should tell you. I might not actually be a wizard...
Glinda: Yes, I know.
Oz: Oh?
Glinda: Well, at least not any kind of wizard we were expecting.
Oz: Uh, you could tell?
Glinda: Yes. I can also tell you're weak, selfish, slightly egotistical, and a fibber.
Oz: I see. Anything you don't know about me?
Glinda: Whether or not you'll save my people.
Oz: Ah, no, I just told you I'm not the wizard.
Glinda: But they don't know that. If you can make them believe, then you're wizard enough. (sadly) These are desperate times, after all. Can you make them believe?
Oz: (nervously) Um... Will I... still get that gold?
Glinda: (surprised) Ah. [nods her head yes]
Oz: [to the crowd] Good people of Oz. Your wizard is here!

And this is really what life is. Life is nothing until we give it meaning, and here he starts to learn how he can add meaning to his life.

Being mature is not a question of age or we wouldn't have so many 30 and 40-somethings squealing on social networks and victimizing themselves over mundane tasks and making a mess of both their own and their parents/partners/children/co-workers lives. Being mature is a question of realizing the connectedness of society and one's own power to positively influence their surroundings and to guide their life instead of just endure it. Being mature is taking responsibility for one's own actions not because this is "the right thing to do" but because it is the only way to live life. "If not now, when? If not I, who?" as Rabbi Hillel concisely said.

Awakened Oscar learns he does not have to start from scratch to turn his life around. He realizes all the things he already knows can (and should) be utilized in uniting his dreamworld with real world. And then we come to seeing through this unification, by words: "Oscar Diggs died, so that the Wizard could live." His weak, shortsighted and fake personality had to die so he himself could live. The illusionist was finally seen as an act, a persona and not a person and when seen for what it really is it could no more be sustained (this is one of the greatest psych gimmicks used here - my favorite: curse of knowledge)

What we really got is the best Oz we could get, because all of those squealing 30 and 40-somethings I mentioned above are just the ones that remember The Wizard of Oz best and they are the ones that can learn most by seeing this film. Film about family and about meaning, about taking responsibility and prioritizing, about how rare and precious is to have somebody believe in you (all the while knowing who you really are).

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I found  one review addressing meaningful questions from this movie and you can find it here.

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