Witches Waiting For Wizards

I watched Oz the Great and Powerful last night and had a few thoughts.

A few notes of preface: I realize that it’s a Disney movie which brings with it an entire host of gender conventions, not all of them positive. I realize, too, that it’s a children’s movie, even considering the efforts of director Sam Raimi to push the movie’s scare factor to the very limit of what was appropriate for its target audience. Seriously, Evanora’s true face? Looks just like the evil gypsy woman from Drag Me to Hell. Also, the shot of the Wicked Witch of the West’s arm reaching up and clawing the table? Classic Raimi.

The mixed reviews kept me from going to the movie theater when it was playing, although to be honest, these days I’ll avoid movie theaters even for movies I really want to see. I just don’t like movie theaters anymore; too expensive, too many irritating people, my favorite theater is still closed, etc. etc, somebody call the wambulance. Also, my home theater set up is pretty kick-ass, and I can drink beer without having to smuggle it in, and I can pause the movie when I need to expel that beer from my system. So, really, home theater is where it’s at these days. Apologies for the digression, let’s talk about the movie.

After I’d finished watching it, I couldn’t quite decide how I felt about it. Did I like it? Was it a good movie? Such indecision is usually a sign for me that there were high points being held back by other issues.

The highlights for me, aside from the visual effects, was Mila Kunis’s performance as Theodora, who (spoilers) manages to combine a little of Wicked’s sympathy of Elphaba as well as Margaret Hamilton’s iconic, delightfully over the top performance as the Wicked Witch in the original movie. Sure, in this movie, Theodora goes from 0 to crazy in about 0.5 seconds and has all the subtlety of a rabid wolverine, but she was still fun to watch.

So, the basic plot in one paragraph or less is that Oscar is a stage magician who lands in Oz. It turns out his stage name is Oz, which means he fulfills a prophecy made by the old, now-deceased king where a wizard will appear and save the land of Oz from the Wicked Witch. Theodora the Good Witch tells all of this to Oscar when they meet. Hilarity ensues since Oscar is more con artist than competent sorcerer.

I think my uncertainty about the movie is that I never really bought into this prophecy thing or why Theodora believed in it so fervently. She’s a true idealist and believes that the prophecied Wizard will make Oz safe from the Wicked Witch. But why is she waiting for a wizard at all? She’s a witch, one of the most powerful beings in Oz! Why isn’t she out fighting the Wicked Witch?

At first, I thought her reluctance to fight was because she didn’t have the same level of power as the other witches, but that notion is very clearly dispelled (hah) when she’s shown throwing a fireball while angry. She definitely has the magical strength. Furthermore, she’s one of two witches in the Emerald City. She and her sister outnumber the alleged Wicked Witch, so they’ve got numbers on their side.

Even though the plot reason is that Theodora isn’t aware that (spoiler) the actual Wicked Witch is her sister, she still thinks she knows who the enemy is. She could and should be out hunting Glinda, who is the alleged Wicked Witch initially.

I kept hoping for some explanation for why Theodora needed the Wizard to save Oz. A scene of Evanora manipulating her or some indication that she doubts her own strength would indicate why she’s not fixing the problem herself, or at least trying to do so. Theodora clearly wants to help and is shown to have the power to do so, since she can throw fireballs around (“as the size of an explosion increases, the number of social situations it is incapable of solving approaches zero“). She doesn’t gain any real agency, however, until she transforms into the Wicked Witch of the West.

Of course, once she turns green, she immediately  flies out and starts kicking ass, exposing Oscar’s lack of actual power for all to see. Why didn’t she have that motivation prior to her fall? Is this a Space Balls-esque “good is dumb” situation?

In the end, I came away feeling that, while the movie was entertaining, it fell short of its own potential. I love, love, love a good tragic villain. I love fallen hero stories. I love redemption arcs and I love villains that throw offers of redemption right back in the hero’s face. There’s so much potential here to do all of those things. Why wasn’t Theodora with Oscar when he went witch-hunting? The movie poster made it seem like it would be Oscar and the three witches on a journey together, but you actually never see all three of them in the same place at any point (other than the end, sort of).

In Black Swan, Mila Kunis proved she has serious acting chops. I think the success of Wicked (both the book and the musical) have shown that, as a culture, we are fascinated by the Wicked Witch of the West. She’s as iconic a character as Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, and so many other great movie villains. This movie could have, and should have, been as much about her as it was about Oscar himself.

Instead, she’s . . . well, she doesn’t really even do enough to qualify as a sidekick. Glinda gets that role later in the movie. It’s disappointing. The bones were in place for a great story, but so much of the screen time was spent on Oscar, the reluctant hero (apparently the new heroic archetype of this decade, much as the anti-hero was for the 90s).

Sam Raimi and his cast still delivered a decent movie . . . but I feel like the potential was here to do a truly great one.