Oz is a pretty good film – let’s get that out of the way. It is according to this that I rate the film: the storytelling is mostly solid, visually it’s not quite as garish as the original, and that Raimi managed to persuade Disney to let him open the film in 4:3 black and white is just great. The charming prologue delightfully derives its composition from the standards of Classical Hollywood, bringing a nostalgic glee that would have obviously been diminished had I seen the film in 3D.
I liked the movie. With that said, I really rather hated it.
In the second act, Rachel Weisz’s secretly wicked witch Evanora reveals a music box to her sister, Theodora (Mila Kunis). A gift from Franco’s Oz, it is the same as the supposedly one-of-a-kind bestowal to the love-struck Theodora. This harks back to the opening – the womanising carnival magician Oz gives each of his prey one such box along with a story about its great sentimental value – a classic device giving the object strong signification to the audience.
But the difference in the fantasy – and it is our protagonist’s fantasy – is that Evanora is lying. Oz did not seduce her too, nor did he give her a music box. She actually concocts it herself in order to break Theodora’s heart for her own ends. So the underlying workings of the scene are that Oz rearticulates his own sins as those of a projected, troublesome villainess. If you prefer to read the scene literally, no prettier a picture, it is the filmmakers who have gone to great lengths to blame Evanora for the consequences of Oz’s actions.
If we are to ignore the continuing evils of Disney, we can ascribe the film’s rampant misogyny as an ideological hangover from the 1939 film and 1900-1920 books, or to the fantasy genre itself (which Terry Pratchett touches upon in his excellent talk Why Gandalf Never Married). In this 2013 release (!), we have three witches, each of them fitting into a well-worn archetype/representation of women. Theodora, though presented in the “positive” light of the victim, is vindictive and has no control of her emotions – becoming ol’ greeny from the original film. Glinda “the Good Witch” is utterly subservient, a housewife – a Virgin Mary figure of absolute goodness whose own actions are important to the heroes’ victory, but who (like the subservient black characters thrown in at the last minute) ultimately allows credit to Oz. Evanora is the only one immune to his charms – independent, strong and reviled for it. In a blatant distortion of feminism, the film’s backstory has it that she killed Glinda’s father, the last Wizard and patriarch of Oz. It is not suggested that Glinda could have possibly taken rule.
Instead, a prophesy (its origins never explained) dictates that the land must wait for a new Wizard to defeat the Wicked Witch and claim the throne. Oz, believing himself a conman who is tricking everyone that he is this wizard, is of course the prophesied one all along. Now, how the film gets to this point is quite interesting. Oz is himself powerless, but through their belief in the Wizard the subjects of the realm are united in their work under him in order to defeat the Wicked Witch. On the one hand, this is an accurate presentation of any system of government. That our leaders possess great power such as all-knowing wisdom is of course a myth intended to justify the position of authority. They are just as human as anyone else. (And just as most societies no longer accept that one ruler or monarch can represent this superhuman acumen, it is folly to believe that hundreds can.)
So Oz is powerless, but the film has it that his trickery is necessary – that it is the belief in a leader, no matter its complete basis in deceit, that the people need. What on earth is Sam Raimi thinking? It is a knowing, ugly slant. But in case one is tempted to think of Oz as an ideological anomaly in our supposedly progressive society, I need only look back one film – Jack the Giant Slayer, in which an unlikely couple are told that they can never be together; she a princess, he a lowly farmboy. But how does the film resolve this situation? Do they challenge the hierarchical order by marrying in spite of it? No – in the same act of plot convenience that allows Jack to resolve the main narrative by enslaving another race, he becomes a king and thus, a member of the ruling class, he is able to marry the princess.
At the end of Oz, our new patriarch wonders if he has become great. “No, better than that”, says Glinda, clinging to his side. “Good”. Funny, I preferred the entertainer who was good but didn’t know it to the willing and deceitful violator of autonomy and conqueror of womankind.