A Wizard of Goodness in the Land of Oz

Review of Oz the Great and Powerful, Directed by Sam Raimi


Oz the Great and Powerful is a good film—not great, but good. Much like its protagonist.

It is risky to do a prequel to a beloved classic. Hew too closely to the original and you have an unimaginative replica. Stray too far and you lose the spirit that made the first so fun. The Wizard of Oz (1939) is Hollywood royalty: AFI’s 10th greatest film of all time, BFI’s 144th, and IMDB’s 150th. It is a staple of holiday movies, family movies, and classic movies. It is the source of a score of famous quotations (“There’s no place like home,” “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!”). How can a prequel possibly measure up?

Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful—the origins-story of the Wizard from The Wizard of Oz—cannot and does not measure up, but that’s an impossible bar to clear. Raimi did make a good, fun movie that more often than not finds the right balance between homage and originality, between classical whimsy and modern irony.

As an example of filmmaking craft, the new Oz has lots going for it. It is gorgeous to look at. The design of the Land of Oz is instantly recognizable, yet larger, more detailed, with greater depth. The filmmakers use the sequence in which Oz (the character) first arrives in the Land of Oz to show off, dwelling at length on the landscapes, the flora, the vibrant colors as the whole creation literally sings in glory. The movie has sequences that are probably the best use of 3D I’ve yet seen. The three witches are superb—and Mila Kunis absolutely nails the Wicked Witch of the West dead on. James Franco is passable as Oz, though I might have preferred a little more whimsy and a little less cynicism.

Among the movie’s weaknesses are a few moments of awkward, forced plot development, a spot or two of weird pacing, and an artificially amped-up climax. Big-budget fantasy seems unable to escape the shadow of Return of the King (2003), and studios seem inexplicably compelled to force every fantasy movie to be a war epic. Oz should be Oz, not Middle Earth. It doesn’t need epic epicness.

The movie has two basic messages, one good and one bad. The bad lesson is that sometimes we have to tell lies for the greater good. Oz, as we know from the original movie, is a fraud. The new movie is the story of how he, a common carnival trickster, came to pull off the ultimate con by tricking an entire magical land into believing that he was a powerful wizard. Naturally, he does so to save the good people of Oz from the depredations of the evil witch sisters. Oz doesn’t set out to do so; he is motivated, at first, by gold and girls. He tries to run away when he realizes the danger he’s in. But when he decides to turn and fight, he does so with one massive act of deception. It doesn’t bother me that he pulls a fast one on the witches; but he deceives the entire Land of Oz along the way.

The movie tries to get around the inherent disreputability of this action by telling us that it’s good for the people of Oz to have something—someone—to believe in, even if he’s not actually who he says he is. The therapeutic value of having a wizard-messiah outweighs the fact that he is a bald-faced liar. Believing in someone gives the people strength to fight for themselves. Oz confesses to the white witch, “I’m not the wizard you were expecting, but I may be the wizard you need.” He’s a poster-boy wizard, exploited for PR value and spun for good ratings. Believe in the wizard because it’s good for you. This is what Plato called the noble lie. There is a lot of blathersome dialogue about the importance of belief, which some Hollywood executive probably thought would appeal to Christians because it sounds vaguely religious. I’ve written before about how I hate this sort of thing. Belief is not a virtue by itself: it depends entirely on what we believe in. The people of Oz believe in a lie.

I’m not disputing that sometimes we might have to deceive enemies to love our neighbors—as the Hebrew midwives (probably) did to protect the newborn babies of Israel in Exodus 1, or Rahab did to protect the Israelite spies in Joshua 2, to say nothing of the proverbial example of lying to a Nazi soldier to protect the Jews hiding in your basement (although some Christians will even dispute the morality of lying under these circumstances). However, no one would say that you should lie to the Jews in your basement, falsely claiming to have secured their safety just to make them feel safe on the ludicrous grounds that the power of their belief will by itself make them safer. But that’s effectively what Oz does here.

We are asked to forgive him because Oz does what he does for a good cause: he has a good heart and shows compassion for the people. Here is the other, better message of the movie: that it is better to be good than great. Oz begins the story yearning for greatness, by which he means glory, gold, and power. He is kind of a jerk about it, even spurning the attentions of a pretty girl who wants to marry him because he doesn’t want to settle for a prosaic life. But by the end of the movie, Oz has given up his freedom to create the fiction of the Wizard to save the land.

We see Oz’s growth most clearly in his relationship with a little girl made of china. When he finds her, she is scared, alone, and has two broken legs. He glues her back together in an act of superfluous kindness and promptly tries to ditch her. Naturally, the plot keeps them together, and Oz comes to adopt a tender, paternal care for her. It is a surprisingly effective and poignant relationship and, for me at least, the emotional center of the movie. Oz’s care for the little girl and, by extension, the people of Oz, is his redeeming quality. It is because of his compassion that the good witch comes to accept him as the Wizard: not because he is a great man, but because he is a good one.

This reminded me, of all things, of War and Peace. As I noted in my earlier review of that work, Tolstoy embeds a simple Christian truth in his massive tome: “there is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness, and truth.” Plato says something similar in The Republic. “The philosopher holds his peace and minds his own business, standing aside and, as it were, seeking a sheltering wall against the storm and blast of dust and rain. Observing others given over to lawlessness, he is content if he can keep himself free of iniquities and evil deeds and depart this life content, at peace, and with blessed hope. Parting in such a fashion, he would have left behind him no small achievement,” (Book VI). And we have the same message from the highest authority of all. God tells us in 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”

Oz starts out seeking excitement and great deeds; he ends having found a home and a family and wanting nothing more than to keep them safe. Along the way he defeats witches, wins a battle, and frees a kingdom, but it is his finding a family that is no small achievement.

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