Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Battle of the Oz Prequels

Image from: Wikipedia
Everyone has seen The Wizard of Oz.  It's one of those movies that of course you've seen it.  It has colored and shaped our pop culture understanding for decades.  It is truly a movie classic with characters that are practically immortal at this point.

Dorothy was a character out of time and space, an odd woman out trying to make sense of a topsy turvy world.  She stumbles into a territory war by accidentally killing a relative of one of the most powerful villains in Oz, but also makes a powerful ally in Glinda.  Dorothy is a strong, brave, resourceful female character and there still aren't many of those.  And let's not forget Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West.  It's telling that the two most powerful characters in all of Oz are the females.  (It's also true that L. Frank Baum was a feminist and did that on purpose in his books.)

But let's talk about the character of the Wizard--after all, he's the title character of the movie, although not the main character.  The Wizard is a bumbling idiot.  When Toto and Dorothy finally reveal who the Wizard truly is, he's just a goofy, flustered man behind a curtain pretending to be an all-powerful being.  He then proceeds to try to fill the vacuum of disappointment that is...well...who he is...by giving them some half-assed gifts.

Tin Man wants a heart?  Here's a shitty pocket watched shaped like a heart.  It's practically the same thing!  Except for ignorning the whole "deep down desire to become a flesh-and-blood human being so that he can enjoy the warm embrace of a loved one" thing.

Scarecrow wants a brain?  Shit, here's an honorary degree!  Sure, you haven't gained any intelligence or learned anything at all, but you can slap that bad boy in a frame and pretend!  You are now in the same boat as Steven Tyler and Kermit the Frog.  That's right, a felt puppet frog has an honorary degree as well.  You must feel so proud.

And of course, the Lion wanted courage and got a medal of bravery.

The thing is, how many people saw the Wizard and thought "that man right there?  He's the real hero."  Nobody.  Because even as a kid, I could tell that the Wizard was a conman and a piece of shit.  It was apparent in everything he did, in every excuse and bumbling "aw, shucks" facade he tried to pull.

For some reason, Sam Raimi thought he'd be perfect as the hero in his new prequel to the 1930's film.

I had this whole long post written out about how bad Oz was and all the ways it sucked, but I really wanted to highlight in the simplest way possible, the ways in which the movie failed.  I'm not going to nitpick the plot, I'm not going to bitch and moan about how three super-powered  magical women needed a bumbling idiot man to save them (although I bloody well could).  Instead, I want to compare and contrast the characters of Oz the Great and Powerful with their counterparts from the musical Wicked, which my wife and I saw just a couple of months ago.  Be warned, there will be spoilers ahead for both the movie and the Broadway musical.  I'm sure I'm not the first person to come up with this idea, but since I haven't seen anything like this online, I thought it would be worth a looksee.

Image from:  Wikipedia
Image from:  Wikipedia

Both Oz and Wicked serve as prequels to the 1930's movie The Wizard of Oz.  And true, due to time and advancements in technology, neither matches up perfectly.  They do, however, cover similar territory.  In both versions, the Wicked Witch of the West is turned that way because of bad things that are done to her (in part because of the Wizard).  In both, the wizard is a conman that came trundling into Oz via hot air balloon from Kansas.




The Wicked Witch of the West

In Oz, Theodora is turned into the Wicked Witch because she believes that Oz loves her, until her sister tricks her into thinking Oz is cheating on her with Glinda.  Theodora becomes jealous, and she already has anger problems, and is eventually tricked into taking a potion that removes her heart and physically transforms her into the ugly, green monster from the 1930's movie.  Mind you, getting tricked into being jealous is incredibly easy.  Literally all that happens is that Evanora shows Theodora a few images of Oz talking to Glinda.  That's it.  No, seriously.

In Wicked, Elphaba is turned green and "ugly" by a spell also.  The Wizard has an affair with her mother, while sharing a special green potion that Elphaba's mother is apparently addicted to.  When her mother becomes pregnant, she births the green-skinned Elphaba.  Everyone shuns her and she grows up never knowing the acceptance or love of her family because of her odd appearance.  This makes her an outsider, and a sad and lonely girl.  What eventually turns her wicked, however, is when she's betrayed by the Wizard (a person that she's always aspired to be like and grown up looking up to) and blamed for a series of cruel and horrific magical experiments.  The final straw comes when they seize and torture and presumably kill her boyfriend.

The Wicked Witch of the East

In Oz, Evanora is evil.  Because reasons.  Seriously, the only motivation that they ever give is that Glinda was always considered the pretty one, and Evanora was jealous.

In Wicked, Nessa has been paralyzed since birth.  This is in part to do with Elphaba.  Because Elphaba was born green, her father has her mother chew a bunch of milkweed in order to ensure that their next child doesn't come out green.  When Nessa is born, her legs come out in a tangled mess.  Elphaba feels personally responsible.  Nessa also feels like an outsider because she's sheltered and babied by her father, and generally pitied by other people (even her own sister to an extent).  When she finally gets asked out on a pity date by one of her classmates, she thinks he's being genuine and places all of her life eggs in his basket.  She's so obsessed with finding someone who will look past her disability and love her for who she is that she holds all of Munchkin land hostage when she inherits the governor's position from her father.  When her crush eventually reveals that he doesn't love her and in fact loves pretty and popular Glinda, Nessa steals Elphaba's magic book and tries to cast a love spell on him.  It goes wrong and she accidentally removes his heart.  It's only through quick thinking on Elphaba's part that they're able to save him (she turns him into a Tin Man), but both Nessa and her crush blame Elphaba for the predicament.

Glinda the Good Witch

In Oz, she's always been considered the pretty one.  She wants to free Oz from the evil reign of Evanora, although Evanora killed her father, so there's also a revenge aspect to it as well.

In Wicked, Glinda starts out pretty and popular and a bit of an airhead.  She's relatively cruel to Elphaba at first, but slowly learns that maybe she's being a bit of a bitch, and so she takes Elphaba under her wing to teach her how to be less socially awkward.  It works to an extent and they become odd friends.  Elphaba is the more politically active of the two, so Glinda is really mostly just along for the ride most of the time, supportive because she loves her friend.  When they meet the Wizard, Glinda is so concerned about getting into trouble that she grovels at the Wizard's feet, but Elphaba is too proud and refuses.  Glinda is promoted to a high-ranking position on the Wizard's court and is forced to perpetuate the rumors that Elphaba is evil, despite knowing she isn't.  When the Wizard drops a house on Nessa to draw Elphaba out of hiding, Glinda and Elphaba finally part ways--partially because Glinda decides to continue working for the Wizard, and partially because Glinda gave away the ruby slippers that Elphaba made for Nessa.

The Great and Powerful Oz

In Oz, he's a conman and piss poor magician.  He tries to escape in a hot air balloon when an angry man comes hunting for him.  Oz slept with his girlfriend (of course he did).  Oz has dreams of becoming a truly great and famous illusionist, but he's stuck pulling tricks in a small travelling circus.  He's ashamed of his smalltown, simple roots.  When he goes to Oz, he finds the opportunity to become a great man through lying to an entire population of people, which he succeeds in doing.  The film ends with him establishing himself as a monarch and rigging a contraption to help continue perpetuating his lies.  He lies to Theodora, pretending that he really loves her when he doesn't, which is what aids in her becoming wicked.  Despite her fears of him cheating on her with Glinda being a jump to a conclusion, it turns out to be justified as Oz does develop feelings for Glinda.  They even share in a foot popping kiss at the end, after both witches have been banished from Oz.

In Wicked, he's a conman that somehow accidentally wound up in Oz while flying a hot air balloon.  He's always had the desire to be a father, and although he's a liar and a conman, he wants to do right by the citizens of Oz.  He even tries to help Elphaba reach acceptance in his own way.  However, he's always been performing cruel magical experiments on the Animals that live in Oz--forcing wings to grow out of monkeys' backs and removing the ability to speak from the animals.  (The Cowardly Lion would be one of the few remaining that could speak thanks to the Wizard's sick games.)  He tries to convince Elphaba to work for him, and when she refuses, sickened by his experiments, he blames the whole thing on her and turns her into a villain and begins a literal witch hunt for her.  It's not until the end that the audience learns that its the Wizard's potion and seduction of Elphaba's mother that made her both magical and green.  When he learns this after Elphaba's death (c'mon, you knew that was coming, you saw the movie), he becomes distraught, as all this time he's wanted a daughter...and he learns that he's killed and tortured his actual blood daughter all along.  He's then banished from the kingdom of Oz by Glinda after rewarding those shitty prizes to the group I mentioned above.

***

While Oz's character is similar in both the movie and the play, it should be noted that Oz is very clearly a dickhead and a villain in the play.  Not entirely unsympathetic at times, but still a villain that gets his comeuppance for being a liar and a bastard.  The Oz of the movie, virtually the same character, does not.  He's treated as the hero.

Note that the course of the Wicked Witch of the West is also similar.  She turns into who she is in the movie and the play because of actions taken by the Wizard.  However, in the movie, she's transformed and mutilated into the witch through magic, her physical body supposedly representing the evil she was inside.  In the play, she's odd looking from the start, but her exterior doesn't truly reflect who she is on the inside, and its only through loss and betrayal that she becomes the person she does.  And she's still sympathetic after all that.

The three female characters are much more shallow in the movie version, with only just enough character development to quasi-justify their actions when they do things (although it doesn't justify them very well).  In the play, all of the characters are deep and motivated by different factors.  The play does very well to paint in shades of gray with the characters and their motivations, providing them with more depth and making them more realistic since they have complex motivations for doing what they're doing.

All in all, Oz the Great and Powerful was incredibly unfair to its female characters.  It provided very little time to get to know them, and their motivations were as thin as tissue paper.  What little motivations they have for doing what they do can't stack up to even the slightest amount of scrutiny.  And its disappointing that so many of their decisions hinge on what the man is doing, especially a man so incompetent and bumbling as the wizard.