I'd been seeing the critical response to this movie, and in general the consensus has been 'good—not great'. So I went to see it with very modest expectations—and had them thoroughly exceeded. The critics are right—this movie is not great, but it is good, genuinely good. Good not just in the sense of quality but in the sense of good at heart. Its very theme is goodness versus greatness, and that has made it a better story and more fulfilling film experience than many films with more of a claim to the label 'great'.
I'll pass over the critical complaints that have been made about some of the actors' performances and the quality of the dialogue and narrative, because while excellence instead of mere competence in these areas might have raised the film closer to greatness, the film in fact self-consciously chooses goodness over greatness. That is Oscar Diggs' essential journey, from desiring greatness to realizing goodness, and I was surprised at how blatantly spiritual a journey it was.
Oz trades in cheap illusions, but will not admit it even when a crippled child in the audience, dazzled by one of his tricks, begs him to make her walk. He offers a bogus explanation of why he can't help, and the crowd becomes enraged, so he ducks out. Pursued by a wrathful circus strong man, whose girlfriend Oz has flirted with, as he has so many young women, he makes his escape by balloon. But his elation is short-lived as a suddenly looming tornado sucks him in, battering and spinning him around until he literally cries out to heaven, begging to be spared—and promising to mend his ways.
The storm eases, the balloon sails out into sunlight at last. As often happens after an instance of repentance, Oscar receives a kind of spiritual illumination as he emerges for the first time into the full-colour world—the opening carnival scenes having mirrored the black and white Kansas of the original Wizard of Oz film. The balloon sets Oscar/Oz down in water. Could there be a clearer baptismal image?
Our hero has arrived in a beautiful and magical land, full of life and music and wonder—a land which is in fact himself, for it is named Oz, and he is welcomed as the
fulfilment of the prophecy of the great and powerful wizard who will save the land from a wicked witch. But like Eustace when released from the dragon spell in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Oz has only begun to be a different person. His old habits of thought and action are still in place.
He flatters and misleads the good witch Theodora while witholding the commitment of his heart. Fearful and reluctant to take on the mantle of the prophesied wizard, he nevertheless cannot resist the promise of gold and a throne shown to him by Theodora's sister Evanora. But perhaps the greatest inducement to Oz is the chance to pull the greatest trick ever on the biggest audience he's ever had.
On the road to kill the wicked witch, he discovers the devastated 'China Town', ruined by the witch, and rescues a little china doll by using quick-setting glue from his bag of carnival tricks to mend her broken legs. This is momentous, for Oscar has now become able to heal, as he could not do in Kansas. Healing hands, as we know from The Lord of the Rings, are an attribute of the prophesied king.
Soon he encounters the 'wicked witch' – only to discover she is in fact the good witch, Glinda, and that he was deceived by Evanora, who is the real wicked witch. The
Glinda in the original Wizard of Oz film appeared in clouds of pale pink tulle sprinkled with silvery stars, sweet as cotton candy. But this Glinda appears first in concealing black, then in several variations on simple and graceful white gowns, with feather adornments hinting at an angelic temperament—a visual statement that goodness, not mere magic, is
her main character attribute. And the goodness yet hidden in Oz is reflected in his attraction to Glinda, who is played by the same actress who portrayed the young lady he gave up in Kansas, a young lady who represented the goodness of a simple, humble, ordinary life.
Meanwhile Evanora has convinced Theodora to 'come to the dark side', offering her an enviously green apple to assuage her heartbreak over Oz's joining up with Glinda. But of course the apple makes Theodora turn completely wicked. Hell hath no fury like this scorned witch, and she is transformed into the green-skinned cackling hag whose appearance we know so well from the original Wizard of Oz.
Oz is persuaded to join Glinda and her people in their fight against Evanora and Theodora. Glinda knows Oz isn't a great wizard. But he's the only one the people of Oz have, and she proposes he pretend to be what they need.
In the climactic battle, Oz uses subterfuge; technology invented by his hero Thomas Edison and built by the tinkers of Oz; and above all, teamwork. But then Oz seems to revert to his identity as Oscar Diggs, Kansas con man. Having set up the battle plan, he makes ready to leave by balloon, taking with him treasure stolen from the city coffers and
leaving behind his allies, crushed at his desertion. But then the balloon crashes and burns. The illusion of Oz's gigantic face projected in the courtyard, along with fireworks, flummoxes the witches' army, and finally they flee. Oz has played his greatest magic trick, faking the death of Oscar Diggs so the great and powerful Wizard of Oz can rule. He calls out to Theodora as she flies away that he knows she was turned to wickedness by her sister, and if she ever wants to return to goodness, she will be welcome. But she shrieks "Never!" and soars off on her broom.
"I knew you had it in you," Glinda says to Oz when it's all over.
The battle was won by Oz's talents and the work of the people. Technology has often been the thing that tips the balance of war, but the choice of goodness over greatness dictacted to what use they would put Oz's technology. By the end of the film, he has become a man who must forever give up the stage performance to be the man behind the curtain—in other words, he has learned the humility that is the hallmark of goodness, in contrast to the egotism that infuses the striving after greatness. In the process, he has
gained friendship and love.
This is a family film, only a little scary for the younger ones, and like all good children's stories and fairy tales it cuts to the heart of eternal issues. In a culture that worships the spotlight on the stage and where everyone believes they are, at the very least, above average, Oz the Great and Powerful shows us the conversion of egotistical ambition to humble goodness. Oz the Great and Powerful is really Oz the Good and Powerful, for there is truly more power in Goodness than Greatness.
Donna Farley has been writing all her life, and currently keeps a blog about spiritually refreshing stories at http://storyspell.blogspot.com. Her short fiction has appeared in YA magazine Cicada and in SF and fantasy publications such as Weird Tales and Realms of Fantasy. Conciliar Press has published her book about the Orthodox liturgical year, Seasons of Grace, her picture book The Ravens of Farne, and her young adult historical novel Bearing the Saint. She lives with her husband Fr. Lawrence Farley in British Columbia, where they have served the parish of St. Herman's for 25 years and now have two grandchildren.