I really wanted to dislike Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful. It seemed so easy from my easy dismissal of the trailer that looked so cheesy, with James Franco as Oz in black and white. But Sam Raimi’s prequel to Frank Baum’s story that Judy Garland sang her way through turns out to be a justifiably strong balance between the scary Theodora (Mila Kunis) and the beautifully kind Glinda (Michelle Williams). There are Munchkins, a talking doll, and flying monkeys. It’s everything you could hope for a prequel to one of the world’s seminal stories about quests, identity, and finding “home.”
But if you’re reading this now, months after the movie released on DVD, you’re hoping for something deeper than whether I liked it or not. So here are a few thoughts on the film without further ado…
IDENTITY: The con man Oz wants to be someone great, but he doesn’t understand what greatness really is. He thinks it’s what a person does rather than what a person is, that the outward signs are what a person is defined by rather than the heart and mind of the person. When he comes to the moment where he sees that he “might not be the wizard you were expecting, but maybe I’m the wizard you need,” Oz recognizes his own potential in action.
But he still doesn’t see who he really is. He needs Glinda to see it in him, per this brief exchange.
“I knew you had it in you all along.” (Glinda)
“No, goodness.” (Glinda)
Too often, we fail to see our own potential, our own goodness, the identity that God gave us to do great things, because we’re only defining ourselves by the greatness the world promotes, like wealth, “stuff,” and getting ahead. The land of Oz works differently.
BELIEF: I was struck first by the little, wheelchair-bound girl who begs Oz to save her because she believes in him. She sees his tricks and believes that his “powers” must have deeper, further-reaching implications. She can’t formulate any of that; this little girl just believes what she sees with her eyes. On one side, that kind of belief, that childlike wonder is amazing; on the other hand, when we fail to believe in the right things, it can be… disappointing.
The would-be wizard later proposes that “armed with our faith in one another, as long as we believe, [we can overcome], for anything is possible.” That belief is evident when bad, but not worst, sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who admits she believes because Oz IS the wizard to her; Glinda’s belief is more real because she believes in the wizard and resists Theodora, even though what she believes in is less tangible.
What we believe in defines us: even those who say they don’t believe in anything (atheists) believe in something. Whether it’s a higher power (which is what the wizard inspires people to believe) or a person or the absence of anything greater than what you can see, you believe in something and it articulates itself in the way you live your life.
As a pastor, I’m aware that people are looking to me with belief, hoping I can provide them some connection to God. And the things they hope for, miraculous healings or immediate divine revelations, don’t always work out the way they wanted. And I can end up feeling inadequate, not in attempting to con them, but in struggling with the aftermath of those “failures,” it helps to remember that I am NOT the Wizard, and that God’s wonder moves even beyond my failures.
CONVERSION: As the hot air balloon swirls, ducked into only to escape his own self-induced consequences, Oz cries out, “Let me out of here! I haven’t accomplished anything yet. I promise if you let me live I will accomplish great things!” And I was reminded of Martin Luther’s story about crying out to God in the midst of a storm, and swearing he would join the priesthood if only God would save him from that particular storm!
We’re often in those foxholes, aren’t we? Determined that we need to change because of the consequences we’re facing, only to be freed from our immediate fear and returning to our typical ways. We’re a lot like the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, who sinned, fell away from God, were given over to their enemies, cried out and repented, were restored… and started the process all over again.
Can we break that cycle? Can we see our need, embrace our belief in a higher power, and recognize the identity that God is calling us to? We don’t need a fantastic, mystic journey, but we could all stand to learn Oz’s lesson.