Oz the (Not So) Great and (Nowhere Near) Powerful


This weekend Andrew and I indulged ourselves in a rare treat: a trip to the movies. Though we’re both movie lovers, the outrageous ticket prices and lackluster blockbuster offerings have had us abstaining more often than not. Typically we wait until a few weeks after a film has been released–reading reviews online and talking with friends–before we pony up. And shows like Wreck It Ralph and the first installation of The Hobbit were pleasant surprises that far exceeded their hype, so you can imagine our disappointment when, after months of waiting for another good title, Oz the Great and Powerful was about as satisfying as trying to take a nap with a wet blanket.

Let me back up for a second. Andrew and I live in Kansas. Though neither of us is originally from the Sunflower state, it’s where we currently hail from, and there are certain expectations when it comes to anything related to the land of Oz. Most people here–at least the ones we’ve met–have a love-hate relationship with all things Wizard. Despite being one of our country’s largest suppliers of wheat and being, therefore, intrinsic to the success of the food industry and people’s ability to eat anything with grains in it, the only thing that most people seem to know about Kansas is that you can fly over it on your way to somewhere else and that it’s where Dorothy and her little dog got caught up in a twister that tossed them into a technicolor dreamland. So as we settled ourselves into our theatre’s plush red seats, I was looking forward to hearing what my friends and colleagues would have to say about the film.

But by the end of the movie, I was ready to fall asleep.

To be fair, Oz had a lot riding on its shoulders. Like or not, most viewers have certain expectations of how the movie should play out. That kind of stuff is just inescapable when you’re messing with something so iconic in American culture. And there are certainly some lovely visuals that do a lot for establishing the whimsical world of Oz. We paid to see a 3-D version of the film, and it was one of the first movies I’ve seen where the 3-D actually enhanced the experience. Beyond that, though, there was little else that I found appealing, and I think it really boils down to one thing: bad writing. There are a dozen things that I can rattle off about the film’s less than stellar debut–poor pacing, characters that are hard to relate to, a nonexistent narrative arc, a binary representation of good and evil, not to mention the awful representation of women–but what it really and truly comes down to is a weak screenplay. *Warning: spoilers below. If you don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now.*

Think about it. There are a number of films where James Franco, Rachel Weisz, and Mila Kunis have given good, solid performances and created characters with whom we could connect on an emotional level. But those connections are nowhere to be found in Oz. Franco’s Oz and Kunis’s Theodora are utterly unlikable, though for different reasons. Oz is, quite frankly, a total dick, while Theodora’s transformation from simpering, wide-eyed naive girl to cackly, emotionless, hate-driven witch is unbelievable. None of the characters experience a transformative event or moment that substantiates their personality shift. Mostly things just seem to happen to them or around them. Even Glinda seems to just be waiting around for someone to come along and fix things (despite, we later learn, her inherent power and her ability to destroy the source of Evanora’s power). And this waiting is evidentiary of one of the most distasteful elements of the film: the representation of female characters.

oz-the-great-and-powerful-evanora Theodora Glinda

In the movie, women fall into one of three categories: good witch, bad witch, or child. Or, more accurately, Madonna, Whore, Infant. Significantly, the women who have power in the movie are the evil characters. That is, Evanora seized power from the former king, and she and Theodora take control of the kingdom. In light of the King’s death, one would assume that power would fall–by default–to Glinda, the King’s daughter. Instead, the people of Oz are waiting for a Great and Powerful Wizard to come and deliver them from the evil clutches of the wicked witches. In the meantime, it’s apparently Glinda’s responsibility to look sparkly, shiny, and virginal in her white robes and generally mother and protect the people until the real man arrives to take care of things. The cherry on this giant, anti-feminist sundae is Glinda’s reward when the battle is done–namely a kiss from (and it can be assumed) marriage to the Wizard. Please excuse me while I go throw up a little in my mouth.

China Girl

And when women aren’t behaving as virgins or whores, they’re children. The China Girl (who was, by the way, the only likable character other than Zach Braff’s Finnley) is the only other prominent female character who plays a role in the film. Surprisingly, she’s the only character who demonstrates any sense of agency and is the only female character who shows strength. When Glinda loses her wand, the China Girl retrieves it and sneaks into the Emerald City’s palace to return it to the good witch, eluding both the city’s guards and the witches themselves. In addition, though she begins the story as a broken, seemingly fragile creature, by the end of the movie she’s not only making demands and getting her way, but also helping rescue the other characters and, ultimately, thwarting the forces of evil. Curious, though, that this type of behavior could only be presented in the form of a child, who will, presumably, one day grow up and out of that sort of willful behavior.

Don’t get me wrong. Despite gender being one of my primary areas of research interest, I don’t go into every movie looking to analyze gender roles. I honestly went into this looking to have a nice like romp in fantasy-land, but the gender dynamics were so blatant–and so awful–that it sort of overshadowed everything else. And what’s equally problematic about these female characters is the way in which they place an equal amount of pressure on men to be valiant, handsome, and the savior of human- (or munchkin-)-kind. I’m pretty sure that guys are just as tired of that narrative as women are of being told that they need to remain virginal until their wedding night but somehow, with no prior experience, know how to be the sexiest thing between two sheets. All in all, it’s just freaking exhausting. So whether we attribute it to bad writing or just out and out bad movie-making, Oz was certainly one of the year’s biggest disappointments.

What about you? Did you see the movie? What are your thoughts on the film?

Image credits:
Movie Poster: http://www.nerdist.com/2013/03/review-oz-the-great-and-powerful-a-whirlwind-adventure/
Evanora: http://latino-review.com/2013/01/25/posters-oz-great-powerful/oz-the-great-and-powerful-evanora/
Theodora: http://www.heroesandhellions.com/daily-debriefing/new-character-posters-for-oz-the-great-and-powerful/attachment/oz-the-great-and-powerful-mila-kunis-as-theodora/
Glinda: http://www.sugarscape.com/main-topics/fashion-beauty/821199/michelle-williams-glinda-good-oz-great-powerful-get-makeup-look
China Girl: http://movies.yahoo.com/blogs/the-reel-breakdown/oz-great-powerful-first-look-203157013.html

4 thoughts on “Oz the (Not So) Great and (Nowhere Near) Powerful

  1. Hi Rebecca! I haven’t seen the movie. I wasn’t very interested because I wasn’t a fam of “The Wizard of Oz” growing up. And the most I really know about this movie is the nail polish line. Sad, I know. It sounds like the characters weren’t very dinamic though, which I definitely don’t like. To be honest, I almost want to see it now just to find out if I hate it as much as you. Though I will probably wait until it’s on Netflix.

    • Definitely let me know what you think once you’ve seen it! It was such a disappointment to me. I wasn’t really a huge fan of the original growing up, but I have a soft spot for imaginative tales of fancy, and based on the trailers, I was really looking forward to seeing this new presentation on the big screen.

  2. I had a similar reaction when I saw this film! You put it more eloquently than I, of course; the potential in this movie was so wasted that I ranted about it for a good half-hour afterward to any family member unfortunate enough to cross my path.

    I usually don’t think about movies from a feminist perspective, either, unless the female roles are really egregiously handled. (The only other recent movie that I’ve had a markedly feminist reaction to was ‘Suckerpunch.’) Anyway, that was definitely the case here. Everything you’ve said about these characters is true.

    Most frustrating to me was the movie’s handling of the Wicked Witch of the West–particularly its suggestion that she became said Wicked Witch not for any legitimately evil reason, but because she was snubbed by the wizard as a romantic partner. Despite there being no sign that a romance was even there (even though I think we were supposed to feel that way, maybe?) and despite the wizard having no likable qualities whatsoever except for Being The Wizard. Way to cheapen a classic character!

    I also found it hard to believe that an infinite wonderland such as Oz could ONLY be saved by a two-bit conman whose only genuine skill is the ability to lie and look charming while doing it. Granted, the climax of the movie was cool, and I liked seeing his “charisma” bring the people of Oz and their talents together for a whiz-bang visual spectacle. The eventual question of greatness vs. goodness (selfishness vs. compassion) was also an interesting theme for the film to explore. I also enjoyed the somewhat steampunk aesthetic that it took on around this time, as well as the wizard’s interest in Edison and emerging electrical technologies–especially since, around the time of the film’s setting, people who dealt with electricity were regarded as wizards of a sort (thus making it a clever parallel). However, none of the awesomeness that occurred in the climax was anticipated by the film that preceded it. It watched like two different films were chopped into two pieces and then cobbled back together, with the first two acts belonging to some far inferior film, and the final belonging to some now-lost gem.

    • I absolutely agree with your assessment of the Wicked Witch of the West. As far as character motivation went, it was a complete bust. I’m all about complicating villainous characters (which is part of the reason why I love Gregory McGuire’s Wicked), but the presentation of her character is so incredibly trite that I didn’t even know what to do with myself. Part of me wonders if this is all something that’s due to the time in which the original story was released. Representations of women have certainly changed since then, but you would think that the film’s director/writers would have worked to adjust the narrative for the contemporary audience. Maybe not, I suppose–changing the story might have had drastic consequences for the purists. It’s a tough line to walk.

      I did really enjoy the steampunk approach to things, as well as the spectacular nature of the Wizard et al’s retaliation, but on the whole, I was utterly disappointed.

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