Oz the Great and Powerful: The Greatest Con Is the One We Play On Ourselves

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The 2013 remake of the infamous 1939 film The Wizard of Oz presents itself in a bold new way featuring a male protagonist/anti-hero and a different storyline with a whole new set of characters. The film was refreshing and enjoyable due to the social commentary and stunning displays of computer generated scenery of the Land of Oz along with the performances of the cast.

Director Sam Raimi’s version starring the charming (Oscar Aka Oz) James Franco as the con artist magician is a film that is fun for the whole family, even if you are way past your Disney prime. The cast is having a lot of fun in this film which is a good indication that those who are viewing it will also feed off that. The other thing is that this movie beyond delicious in terms of beauty. The world that the makers wanted to show is extremely vibrant and gorgeous, even in the darker scenes. (Spoilers ahead)

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If you have not seen this film already- and you should- don’t go into it expecting something mirroring the style and tone of the original 1939 film, because this Land of Oz is something quite different. It’s darker, has more complex relationship characteristics, and tells the story of Oz’s redemption despite his flaws and a tale of one witch’s’ downfall because of her flaws. It’s a story about whether you will let your worst moments define you, or your best. It’s truly inspiring.

Oscar is a self-centered man who relies on gimmicks, trickery and cons to make a living and steal women’s hearts, but all for just a short time for he is a man who travels from town to town. Short-term is his game plan. This leaves him chasing fame and fortune but forever never getting much of either. He is constantly fearful of being trapped in Kansas forever; he is driven however by desire, a burning wish to escape his beginnings and become something larger and better than his father was. Not a good man, but a great one. His fear and self doubt( like all great men) lead him to avoid close relationships, even walking away from the women he cares for when she comes to him and gives him the chance to propose marriage. And here lies the amazing social commentary in this film.

Oscar doesn’t just avoid relationships because he fears they’ll keep him from achieving greatness ( much like a Jay Gatsby), Oscar avoids them because deep down he fears he is not good enough to be great after all, and fears that his flaws as a person and shortcomings make him unworthy to begin with. Rather than have those shortcomings exposed and have to face them, he instead runs away from them. Inside, however, there is a decency and goodness that keeps him out of reach of his ambition. In the end, it is his goodness that defines him rather than his egotistical selfish pursuits of greatness. Why is this? It is because the goodness is his true nature all along (there are hints throughout the film), and the selfishness arises from his fear rather than his heart. Franco was perfect for this role, and he expertly portrayed a man who cons other people as the part of the bigger con of himself.

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Now we have the witches.

ImageMila Kunis plays Theodora, a beautiful and edgy witch who is the youngest of the three featured in this film. She is an anxious woman, unstable in her reactions, interpretations and relationships to others. She is naïve and is convinced that her hopes and dreams will and can become reality. When her and Oscar first meet, they are attracted to one another instantly (And who wouldn’t be?…its Kunis) and Oscar quickly charms her using his usual playbook involving a supposed family heirloom. What he cannot know, of course, is that he’s playing with fire, and Theodora is convinced that Oz will become ruler of the kingdom and she will rule by his side as queen.

Kunis brings a mix of love-ability and edginess to a character that has little control over her emotions, especially when her idealistic expectations don’t come true. Not many actresses can make you feel empathy for them while they act overtly evil, and make you sense the shadows within them even in their most defenseless moments, but Kunis pulls it off and manages to make you feel hesitant about just which direction she’s going to take you.

Rachel Wiesz plays Evenora, another witch and sibling to Theodora. Upon meeting Oscar she immediately sees through his games and persona and doubts he is the wizard who was prophesied to destroy the wickedness of witches and take rule over the Land of Oz. Wiesz clearly displayed a lot of enjoyment in her performance, with a spark of mischief in her eyes at all times and loads of amusing lines to take the edge off a character who starts tugging at our emotions in the worst way since her entrance.

Last, but certainly not the least in every sense of the word, we have Michelle Williams as Glinda. On a personal note she was my favorite, just an absolute knock-out and stunner in this film both in terms of delivery and beauty. She is the character who represents the message of the story and the theme of faith, and as such she changes the least of anybody in the film. But that’s okay, it’s in fact necessary in a story like this, and Williams makes her likeable when it would’ve been easy for such a character to come off too flat, boring and uninteresting. I enjoy seeing this happen with actors/actresses, because it is one of the hardest things to do, to take a role that’s seemingly mundane and breathe life into it. She has a sense of humor about herself and her own cheery disposition, and she in fact knows Oscar is just a hustler of trickery but tells him point blank she has to make use of what she has to work with. Glinda represents the affirmation of his journey. Williams actually plays two roles in the film — not just Glinda, but also the woman Oscar loved back in Kansas, who came to him and gave him one last chance to propose to her. Oscar seems to distinguish this on some level, feeling they’ve met before and have a connection, and it was a nice touch.

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I’d like to note that the female characters get a ton  of screen time, and quite a lot to do in this story being focused around a male protagonist instead of a Dorothy. In fact, the pinnacle of the film includes one giant mêlée and it’s between the females, nary a man in sight.

They all have different reactions to Oscar, different agendas of their own, and I think female viewers will be satisfied with this movie than most other offerings in the fantasy/sci-fi/adventure genre.

To further that point, a lot of people have criticized this film as being anti-women, or even as far to say “anti feminist” (what does that even mean in the context of this film?). And I’d like to say a perception like that is valid if you so choose to view the female characters in this film through a victimized lens. I would argue that this film does the exact opposite however and that the former view is misguided at best, and does more harm than good for both genders. Let me explain through one man’s opinion taken from years of observation, experience and study on life, love, and the natural social and biological order of things:

The film is not anti feminist or anti-women. This film is ultimately a love story. Glinda is hands-down the true heroine of this story anyways, so I don’t quite get what all the huffing and puffing is all about. She doesn’t need Oz, Oz needs her. It is ultimately her love for Oz that saves him from himself. I watched the movie twice (that’s how good it was). The second time around the block I was struck by how much Glinda actually loved him. If you watch her closely when she’s around Oz she stays very close to him when he is with her almost as if she’s protecting him. She keeps her hand on his back, or takes his arm or hand at every opportunity. When they are poring over the map and plotting strategy, she huddles close.

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They make a perfect team; what a man and woman are meant to be by nature. They complement each other as equals offering different polarities that combine to make a powerful ying yang. They save each others lives- he pulls her out of the way of a fireball and she stops the wicked witch from incinerating him. She tells him he’s weak, selfish and egotistical. She doesn’t care though, she loves him and knows she can bring out the best in him because she can see deep down into his heart and knows he has goodness inside him; she believed in him. When he makes the rousing speech to the people of Emerald City, she never takes her eyes off him. She tells him he’s only fooling himself, and then tenderly kisses him (for protection). You as a viewer fall in love with Glinda-she’s the ultimate woman, and every man’s dream. She represents unconditional love which is a woman’s natural innate strength and powerful aphrodisiac.

Women throughout history exercise the most power and influence when they utilize the power of their love to assert themselves, not as victims, but as healers. Rather than see this story as a feminist framework, this story is about Oz who is great and powerful not because of his achievements as a man but because of his transformation from the false self into an authentic person; and that wouldn’t have happened if Glinda didn’t stick by him every step of the way. Throughout history and the world you will find that beside every good man, there is an extraordinary woman and vice a versa.  Men and women all have their own natural flaws and strengths, and when the two can except that and work together, goodness (not greatness) can be achieved.

Seeing women as victims in life and in film doesn’t do anybody any good. Seeing yourself as a victim all the time is destructive, and is on par with the very con Oscar plays on himself; not believing in yourself and only seeing yourself as a flawed person without seeing your strengths. Theodora saw herself as a victim the whole way through, and thus paid the ultimate price of self destruction in disastrous fanfare. Evenora was just simply an evil, entitled selfish person who used manipulation to control others to get what she wanted; ultimate fascistic power. She too in the end paid dearly for it. This film is empowering (man I hate that word… but I’ll use it anyway) for both genders. Both men and women are born with this power and fire inside them; it’s only when we stop playing the victim and taking the easy way out that we can transform into leaders.

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On a different note, I’m a huge fan of Sam Raimi’s filmography. He brings certain intelligences to every project he gets his hands on, even the ones about people getting slaughtered in the woods. He frequently mixes touches of dreadfulness and satire into other genres too. Those sensibilities are on exhibit here as well, although more controlled due to the subject matter. Still, Raimi infuses this film with darkness and an edge that you might not expect, but that actually takes you back to the days when kids’ fairy tales and fantasies used to include plenty of horror, because children do actually get a thrill out of being frightened. The trick is to do it in the right way.

The choice to do without musical numbers was a bold one, and a tad bit disappointing. But I think it was a stylish and appropriate move, because there’s already going to be a lot of comparisons to the original film. Elfman’s score for Oz the Great and Powerful is, like all of his work( A Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride etc), excellent, but I do hope to see him take a shot at a full-on musical Oz movie some day.

In closing, this film was a surprise for me. I don’t normally like watching Disney films because most of them have a certain predictable pattern to them, however, this one was a treat. The moral of the story was fantastic: Don’t pay any attention to the man behind the curtain. Oz, at first, paid attention to his fake self (the man behind the curtain who pulled his strings). He then realized that hiding behind all the smoke and mirrors did more harm to him than good. If we see ourselves as victims then we will act and be treated as such until we realize that there is a leader inside all of us waiting to be seen.

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