I watched Oz: The Great and Powerful this weekend, and I was unimpressed. It isn’t a terrible movie, but neither can I find much to recommend about it. I could go into my usual complaints about prequels being answers to questions I never asked, and how those answers are almost always completely unsatisfying and unnecessary. I could write about how such stories tend to end up as highly polished professional fanfiction (though I have nothing against fanfiction in general). I could talk about the nostalgia trap, as I so often have, where we would rather reboot or recreate something we know we already love rather than take a chance on something new and how often that backfires, creating stories that lose most of their original charm while failing to remain relevant.
I could do that, but it’s all stuff I’ve written before. Nobody really cares. Hell, I’m not even sure I care at this point.
Instead, let’s talk about the real peril of nostalgia. This one doesn’t get brought up a lot, but it should. Basically, while I agree human nature hasn’t changed much in a thousand years, how we choose to express ourselves and our cultural norms do shift. Taking something harmless from the 50’s doesn’t make it so harmless in the present, and by re-enacting old ideas and stories, we risk wallowing in troublesome ideas that might be better off forgotten (or at least left in the dustbin of the past).
For me, the good and bad witches of Oz are a terrific example. While there’s no doubt there’s a lot of baggage still when it comes to sexuality and attractiveness, especially how society chooses to portray women, it doesn’t help anything to carry forward the old baggage. To spell it out: There is a real underlying theme that attractiveness equals good while ugliness equals evil. And perhaps that’s not unusual, and as far as I can tell, a near universal idea, but it shouldn’t be.
The three witches of Oz are all attractive in the beginning. But the “good” witch is also the very white, very blonde one. Meanwhile, the other two witches have dark complexions and dark hair. They are certainly very attractive women though, so it isn’t quite the broken moral it becomes. The notion that light complexion equals a more trustworthy person isn’t exactly new. It is, some sociology experiments, innate within us. Yes, even in cultures where everyone is dark, the lighter shade of dark is generally considered more attractive and beautiful. There might be cultural exceptions, but there aren’t many I, as a resident of the Western world, see all that often.
So Glinda is a petite blonde who dresses all in white, and she is unquestionably good while the other two witches are either outright evil OR confused and temperamental. They are also both more obviously sultry than the good witch, which once again suggest that a woman with any overt sexuality is a questionable ally.
At the end of the film, Glinda has been reduced to a sexual trophy (one that isn’t too naughty though), and the other two witches are revealed to be evil for all of Oz to see. You can tell because they are no longer pretty. The trend doesn’t stop at the witches though. All of the wizard’s allies are attractive. The flying monkey is cute. The little China Girl is the embodiment of the delicate little white girl (literally) who has had her entire beautiful delicate village crushed by savage flying baboons but is delivered to happiness by a couple of nice white people. Even the Munchkin and Tinkerer (both at least played by ethnic actors) are still relatively attractive folks, adorable in their own way.
Even the flying monkey is a great example of the assumed virtue of attractiveness. Once we are introduced to a heroic flying monkey, the evil version must be horrific and terrifying flying baboons. In a film that is a prequel to the original film, it is one of the elements changed. No doubt the reason was to make the monkeys more terrifying, but it also creates the impression that if something is cute, it must be harmless and friendly. But ugly creatures are worth fearing.
Now I’m not going to suggest that the filmmakers intended this lesson. I’m only suggesting that by adapting an old story where the wicked witches were ugly and the good witch was beautiful that these accidental morals were difficult, if not impossible, to reinforce. And what was once invisible to an older audience isn’t (or shouldn’t be) quite as invisible to a modern one.
Ultimately, Oz succeeds in only being a shadow of an original, saddled with all the baggage while unable to surprise or amaze by its very nature. There is nothing surprising about this Oz. It’s just that familiar old place with a new coat of paint slapped on it. It isn’t necessary, and it doesn’t accomplish much.
But, hey, at least the ugly people get banished.