With all the witches and munchkins and flying monkeys, it can be easy to miss the humanist message in The Wizard of Oz: the power to overcome difficulties is within because the “great and powerful” deity doesn’t really exist. That may seem like an extremist way to interpret a whimsical story, but it doesn’t take much effort to sort out a message for freethinkers in Baum’s original story, especially with a con artist wizard behind the curtain.
Sam Raimi’s new film “The Great and Powerful Oz” expands upon the story of our antihero, Mr. Oscar Diggs (AKA Wizard of Oz). We see him as a common carnival magician conning the gullible citizens of Kansas into believing in his uncanny abilities. He uses all the classic techniques of deception: accomplices planted in the audience, hidden doves up the sleeves, and trapdoors. The only event that stops Oscar dead in his tracks is a disabled child who believes in his magic and asks him for the impossible – to make her walk again. It’s this conflict between his perceived power and his actual lack of power that drives the themes of the movie.
Oscar is motivated by money and women, objects of desire which he pursues in both Kansas and in Oz. His greed for treasures are only exceeded by his lust for innocent women (and witches). Clearly, we have a flawed protagonist, but there are lessons in these flaws that I was able to share with my daughters on the way home from the movie. The first lesson was on skepticism toward anyone who claims to have magic powers. By this time, they’re used to me giving this lesson.
As for the second lesson, as my girls get older, I will take any chance to warn them against placing too much trust in the charms of boys (a lesson for when they’re old enough to have real boyfriends).
The best part of the movie for me was seeing Oscar struggle to save his ass in the fantastical dangerous world of Oz, where supernatural is natural. All the tricks in the world can’t save a carnival magician from flying baboons and a witch who can shoot green electricity out of her hands. Oscar admits that he’s not the wizard Glenda was expecting, and she tells him that she already knows. She says, “If you can make them believe, then you are wizard enough.”
If the original Wizard of Oz was offering a humanist message about the dangers of faith, this prequel is more a humanist message about the dangers of following saviors. The quadlings and munchkins of Oz need to believe that the prophecy of a great wizard is fulfilled because they feel helpless against the dangers of an evil force; they follow this new wizard, despite his lackluster abilities because they don’t trust in themselves
Oscar says that people don’t have magic powers where he comes from, except for scientists like Edison who he name checks as a personal hero. It’s upon this revelation of the magic of science that the humanist message really kicks into high gear with natural contraptions overcoming supernatural opponents. And of course, it wouldn’t be a true humanist movie if the antihero didn’t learn to be a good person along the way.
Go see this film and enjoy the colorful characters and special effects, but be sure to appreciate the humanist themes throughout! It was quite enjoyable for all those reasons and more.