Tuesday, April 9, 2013

There are no atheists in twisters (or: The gods of Oz must be crazy): a theological review of Oz the Great and Powerful

Jewish date:  30 Nisan 5733 (night) (Parashath Thazria‘-Meṣora‘).

Today’s holidays:  Ro’sh Hodhesh (Judaism), Tuesday of the Second Week of Easter (Roman Catholicism), Feast for the Three Days of the Writing of the Book of the Law and Feast Day of Rabelais and Feast Day of Francis Bacon Lord Verulam (Thelema), Feast Day of St. Tommy Geogiarides (Church of the SubGenius), Day of Jarl Hakon (Norse Neopaganism).

There are no atheists in twisters (or:  The gods of Oz must be crazy):  a theological review of Oz the Great and Powerful


Much ink has been spilled (so to speak) recently by Ozophiles reviewing Oz the Great and Powerful, and a lot of is very accurate.  This includes a review allegedly by the Witch of the West on this blog’s sister blog, Weird thing of the day.  The graphic effects are indeed excellent and completely worthy of Oz.  The writing, while not as good as the effects, is good enough to be entertaining.  But while there is much that is good and many nods towards the literary Oz canon and the famous 1939 MGM movie, one needs to keep one thing in mind when discussing this movie:  it was produced by Disney.  Disney has a reputation for being driven by profits more than by the quest to produce true art—an attitude which produces botched works.

Oz the Great and Powerful is botched in an artistic aspect, because it was the wrong film to produce in the first place.  Oz the Great and Powerful has Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs, also known as “Oz” and “the Wizard” as the protagonist, and Oz is absolutely the wrong character to center any prequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz around.  Oz the Great and Powerful starts off and ends with it being very clear that Oz is human and a fraud.  This completely removes the major revelation that the Wizard is a fraud for anyone watching the movies in order—a serious artistic offense.  The writers should have learned this from Star Wars, Episode III:  Revenge of the Sith but did not.  Nothing can truly compensate for this error.

Even ignoring this blunder, centering the film around Oz is a clear violation of the norms set down by L. Frank Baum, the creator of Oz.  As noted in my previous post on this blog about Oz, Baum incorporated ideas of matriarchy and feminism—ideas derived from sources that also influenced Neopaganism—into his works.  He created many strong female characters, and he favored using girls as his protagonists.  Making Oz the protagonist makes it harder to write Baumian feminism; the easy way to write such a story, given that he is the hero, is to give him the lion’s share of successes in moving the plot towards a happy ending.  Thus any other character on the side of good—regardless of sex—is going to look second-class by comparison.  Thus Glinda, the most powerful mortal character in Oz, is noticeably less powerful than how Baum describes her; otherwise she would have no use for Oz at all except maybe as a figurehead—a position any man sufficiently skilled in lying could fill.  As the villains, Evanora and Theodora, can be as powerful as the writers want, so long as Oz can beat them, are both women, it is very easy to interpret this film as having the message that it is wrong for a woman to be too powerful, whether or not that was actually intended.

“The Witch of the West” does a nice job of detailing how the writers further screwed up on its portrayal of women.  Suffice it to say that the result is a textbook example of regression to the mean and fitting the ideals of neither Baum nor his proto-Neopagan sources.  Given that (and how) people routinely poke fun at the portrayals in Disney movies of women, such is (disappointingly) to be expected.  (For examples of poking fun of Disney’s portrayals of women, see “ Advice For Young Girls From Belle”, “Advice For Young Girls From Snow White”, and “Advice For Young Girls From The Little Mermaid”.)

Bucking Baumian proto-Neopagan matriarchy is not the only religious aspect of Oz the Great and Powerful.  The plot can be understood as a religious journey for Oz.  Oz starts off as a flawed man, albeit not a hopeless one.  Part of this is that he is a professional charlatan, practicing stage magic.  Lest anyone think this is necessarily harmless, his audiences—unlike modern audiences—believe his powers are real.  This gets him into trouble when he is asked to heal a crippled girl and he cannot comply.  He also is a serial womanizer, habitually releasing his charms on whatever beautiful adult human female is available without foresight—which creates problems, as he is somehow extremely attractive to women.  He rather guiltily has to turn down one Annie, who is struggling to decide whether to marry John Gale or continue a sporadic relationship with Oz.  He also has to flee to avoid getting killed by a strongman who does not appreciate him having charmed his wife.

Oz escapes the strongman in a balloon, which turns out to be a bad idea, as it quickly gets caught in a tornado.  Vividly animated flying objects with the potential to kill Oz evoke a religious response:  he prays.  Oz’s prayer is a prayer of the saying “There are no atheists in foxholes”:  unfocused and desperate.  He does not specify to Whom he is praying, not even a generic “God”, and he promises little more than to improve and accomplish something.  At this point, he is ready to do anything any god demands, just so long as he lives.  And his prayer is apparently accepted by a god Who expects Oz to make good on his prayer.

The previous king of the Land of Oz, father of the witches Evanora, Glinda, and Theodora, prophesied about the coming of the Wizard.  The Wizard would be named “Oz” and save the people.  Disappointingly, nothing is said of the critical details of prophecy, such as the name of the god in Whose name it was said or how anyone knows that the king had actual prophetic powers and was not delusional—a large theological plot-hole.  (Would it have killed the writers to add in “Thus says the Supreme Maker” or “In the name of Lurline”?)  Whatever the real details are, the prophecy is generally believed, and the arrival of Oz, quite logically, only serves to reinforce the belief.

Not all the characters unambiguously believe the prophecy.  Oz, who was not raised on the belief, is more confused about it than anything else.  While never claiming disbelief, he repeatedly quietly denies he is the foreseen Wizard.  Evanora and Theodora (post-slide into evil) seek to prevent the prophecy from coming true by killing Oz; technically this not require belief in the truth in the prophecy, but removing Oz also removes the possibility that a rebel movement of believers will coalesce around him.  Glinda also is ambiguous about her belief about the prophecy.  She is aware from the moment she meets Oz what sort of man he is (probably by magic or Sherlock Holmes-like perception), and from that moment she charms him into fitting the role well enough to launch and execute a revolution against Evanora.  Whether the prophecy is real or not seems of little import to her.  That her subjects believe the prophecy makes it a lot easier for her and Oz to get them to prepare for battle and fight.  The result, of course, is in accordance with the prophecy:  the revolution, led by Oz as the Wizard, is successful, Evanora and Theodora are defeated and have to flee, and Oz becomes the undisputed ruler of the Emerald City.  

The fulfillment of the prophecy opens a whole theological can of worms.  Is the prophecy genuine, or did Glinda just engineer the fulfillment of a false prophecy?  If the prophecy is genuine, did whatever gods exist have a hand in its fulfillment, or did they just foresee what would happen? 

Along the way to fulfilling the prophecy, Oz does undergo some moral improvement.  At the start of the movie, the only relationship he has which is not exploitative is with Annie.  At first in Oz, he follows his usual pattern—most egregiously by taking advantage of Theodora and then abandoning her without so much as an “It’s not you; it’s me”.  But he also exercises real sympathy, helping Finley the Flying Monkey and the China Girl (despite no hope or desire of a romantic fling with either) and eventually Glinda’s subjects.  Oz also manages to form a relationship with Glinda without exploiting her.  (To be sure, despite her maltreatment by the writers, even in this film taking advantage of Glinda would be hard.  Instead, she is arguably exploiting him.)  Oz even issues a public apology to Theodora and offers her a place in the Emerald City if she finds her “inner goodness”.

On the other hand, Oz’s moral improvement leaves a lot to be desired.  At the end of the day, he is still a charlatan.  He uses large-scale humbuggery to win the war, and he remains a humbug in his capacity as the Wizard even after his victory.  Also, his apology to Theodora is too little, too late; she dismisses it without a thought.  And there is something disappointing in knowing that this “hero” down the line is going to send Dorothy and company to kill Theodora.  This is a horrible thing to do to Dorothy and company, given that if they are crazy enough to attempt it, they will probably get killed, injured, or enslaved.  And it is a horrible thing to do to Theodora, given how badly he has treated her already.

This incomplete repentance makes for some serious question for the unnamed gods of Oz.  If the revolution is really their doing, why did they put a fraud in power?  Why do they let him get so out of hand as to risk people’s lives?  What sort of morals do they hold by if they do such things?  These are not insoluble questions.  E.g., the gods of the Land of Oz may be trickster gods, or they may consider Oz as the Wizard as their best available solution to the Land of Oz’s problems, not an ideal one.  But no attempt is made to answer such questions.

Theological rating:  C-.  (Your humble blogger doubts the planned sequel is going to clean up the mess the writers left.  Note Disney’s Tron Legacy, which does little to answer the unsolved theological questions of Tron.)

Appendix (because your humble blogger cannot resist commenting on things beyond theology and morality):  

1) The way to write a prequel to Baum’s Oz books covering the arrival of the Wizard correctly is to not write it with the Wizard as the central character.  Such a prequel should be about someone young, preferably a girl, living in or visiting Oz at the time of the arrival of the Wizard.  The Wizard might well appear as a character, but never, ever in his true form, only disguised and scaring the heebeejeebees out of everyone in that time of political turmoil, thus avoiding spoiling a major revelation.

2) I would like to note one continuity nod which I have not noticed anyone else mentioning.  As noted above, in the film, one Annie tells Oz that John Gale has asked her to marry her, the implication being that Annie and John will become Dorothy’s parents.   Alexander Melentyevich Volkov created a loose adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in Russian and a series based on it which went off in a different direction from Baum’s books.  The equivalent of Dorothy in that series is named Ellie, and the names of her parents are… John and Anna.  This may not be a continuity nod to literary or MGM Oz, but it does indicate that someone who made this film really was an Ozophile.

3) “Oz” is conventionally translated into Hebrew as ‘Uṣ, apparently repurposing the name of the place ’Iyyov (Job) lived.  But “Oz” is translated into Hebrew in this film as ’Oz.  The name of this film in Hebrew is ’Ereṣ ’Oz (“The Land of Oz”)—corresponding to the conventional shortened title of the second canonical Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz.  Your humble blogger suspects these discrepancies may be due to less familiarity with Oz here in Israel than in the United States.

4) For those who are interested in seeing films which do a better job on certain themes in Oz the Great and Terrible, your humble blogger recommends The Adventures of Captain Zoom in Outer Space and Galaxy Quest.  Both films deal with the theme of people forced by their circumstances to impersonate people who do not actually exist and coming to accept the roles, albeit in science-fiction settings rather than a fantasy setting.  Captain Zoom also deals with religious issues, including having some uniquely dramatic evidence that a prophecy is real.  Both are very entertaining and worthwhile watching just for the fun of it.