Meet Oz. Oz is a con-man magician with more lies than magic tricks up his tattered and patched up sleeve. With his slicked-backed hair and charming smile, he easily woos lovely, naive ladies with laughably over-the-top and cheesy stories about heroic dead grandmothers and music boxes bequeathed to him, which he’d love to give to the woman of the hour. Yet for all his ego, the one girl he truly has feelings for has moved on and, even while cheating his one and only friend/partner and taking almost all the profit for himself, his business isn’t raking in the money he wants. That’s when, in the middle of a storm, Oz is chased into a hot air balloon to escape some unhappy boyfriends and he is transported to the whimsical world of Oz. Here, he meets wide-eyed and innocent witch, Theodora, who quickly becomes convinced that Oz is a powerful wizard prophesied to save the people of Oz from the terror of an evil witch. Stuck in this strange, new place, the dubious Oz’s journey begins as his path crosses with two more witches and a war between good and evil erupts. Say hello to the basic set up of Oz: the Great and Powerful.
As a kid, The Wizard of Oz was a much watched movie in my household. I remember popping in the old, clunky VHS tape and sitting down to enjoy the magical tale about a girl from Kansas and her tiny dog, swept up in a tornado into an alternate world where there are talking scarecrows, lions, and tinmen, roads of yellow-brick, good witches and bad witches, cities of dazzling emerald, and (who could forget?) flying monkeys. Therefore, it was with excitement and little bit of apprehension that I saw a modern film was in production which was supposed to act as the prequel to that beloved old tale. I knew Oz: The Great and Powerful would never recapture the charm of the original; however, I did not know that by the end of the movie–scratch that–about fifteen minutes into the movie, I would be battling two very different emotions–laughter and anguish–and neither of them good.
Putting aside other, more technical issues I had with this tale, one of the biggest short-comings were the four major characters, Oz and witches. Oz, who in all respects is an egotistical playboy with delusions of grandeur and wealth, is somehow the person who everyone in the film looks to as their only hope. As for the witches, Oz: the Great and Powerful may boast three female characters who in every right should be powerhouses in this story, but like the movie’s protagonist, it quickly becomes obvious that is little more than a pretty facade filled with hot air. Popped were my hopes of even decent female characters, when, minutes into the film, Oz is shown telling sweet lies to a gullible girl who believes even the most pathetically blatant lies. For a guy whose only skill seems to be deceiving others, Oz isn’t very good at it; rather the people around him, especially the women, seem particularly dull. This theme only continues and deepens once Oz reaches, well, Oz.
Thedora, a witch who is shown to have terrifying power, is reduced to a naive girl who latches onto and depends upon Oz like a lost puppy; she falls for his lies, hook, line, and sinker, and, while Oz has only just arrived in this new world and has no powers, he must save the witch from Oz from a flying monkey. To add insult to injury, her character development, which is motivated entirely by something Oz does and makes all her major actions throughout the story either passively letting the guy take the lead or a reaction to a guy she’s hung up on, is something that makes this feminist cringe.
Glinda, a woman shown to be sharper than the average Oz women since she’s able to see threw Oz’s lies and one of the sole leaders of resistance against the wicked witch, is similarly stripped of any meat as a female character. Despite her intelligence and power as a leader, she turns to Oz to take action against her enemies as if she were unable to do something herself. Yet when one looks at the two characters, a witch with magical powers and a group firmly behind her or a man who has only just come to this world with only lies in his arsenal, one wonders why Glinda seems powerless without Oz in the lead. In the end, she’s made into the maiden with a pure heart and little substance under her fluff, a pretty accessory.
In this world of powerful witches, the only ones who seem able to lead themselves are the “evil” ones. This old-fashioned idea, which is plain to see in Disney princess movies and fairy tales, frames women who have power like queens and witches as power-hunger vultures or twisted souls and puts them in juxtaposition to the pure heroines who embody traditional ideals of what a good girl is. Yet these girls the viewers are supposed to cheer for are the ones who end up helpless and dependent on a male character. We aren’t supposed to like the female characters who want power or take action themselves. On top of that, the female characters in Oz: the Great and Powerful seem to exist to highlight Oz’s “greatness,” whether it’s his power to save them from their troubles and danger or showing his prowess over the evil ones. Oh, and did I mention that the Wicked West of the West gets a sexy upgrade? Because, you know, just because you’re overflowing with malice and busy sending flying monkeys out to wreak havoc doesn’t mean a girl should neglect to show a little sex appeal.
There are many good tales about apparently unethical characters who must struggle between doing what’s right or what’s easy, doing something selfish or doing something selfless, and sink or swim making their choice. These moral dilemmas show inner battles that all people experience. Yet Oz: the Great and Powerful speaks of egotistical fantasies where a blowhard lives in a world all too ready to fan his ego; a world where people (especially women) line up to hang on his every empty word, where everyone waits with breath held for one man to take action, and even three powerful witches with magic at their command and kingdoms at their feet are blown away by a dashing con-man with nothing by parlor tricks and lies up his sleeve. Even the name, “the Great and Powerful” reeks of a puffed up ego. Oz (and, in fact, the description of the movie) claims he is on a journey teetering on whether Oz will be simply a good man or cross the line into greatness, but throughout the entire film, I found myself wondering how great, or even good, enter into this lackluster tale where sexism runs so thick it seems to have been taken straight from the era of black-and-white pictures the movie tries to emulate in the first fifteen minutes.