Full-on spoiler warning...
Unfortunately pretty much everything I feared about Oz: The Great and Powerful, right from the second trailer, turned out to be true, at least from a gender perspective. It is indeed about three seemingly powerful women sitting around and waiting for a random man who fell out of the sky to not only attempt to save Oz but, more importantly, shape all three of their respective destinies. The film also equates beauty with virtue in a rather explicit fashion, with somewhat laughable scenes of Rachel Weisz's Evanora complaining of jealousy over Michelle Williams 'pretty face' seemingly oblivious to the fact that said evil witch is played by *Rachel Weisz* (spoiler: Rachel Weisz is insanely hot). It's not just that Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams play seemingly strong female characters who constantly yap about needing some prophesied male wizard to swoop down and save their asses. The biggest problem in the film is that it allows its feeble and somewhat selfish male hero to basically define them and their actions.
Big spoiler here I suppose, but the creation of the iconic Wicked Witch is entirely a result of Mila Kunis's Theodora feeling spurned by James Franco's rather doltish Oz after an initial flirtation. Yes, her evil sister is indeed egging her on but at no point in the film, which otherwise I must confess works better than I expected, does anyone A) suggest that Theodora just get over what was indeed a momentary flirtation or B) suggest that Oz take some responsibility for leading her along during their initial encounter. The good news is that all of this may make for a fine teachable moment. Say what you will about the Twilight Saga (and I've said quite a bit), but the biggest problem with the franchise (which I otherwise enjoy of course) is that it presents what is arguably a happy ending for its somewhat disconcerting core relationship. It's tough to use the films as a discussion point because everything turns out hunky-dory for Bella and Edward. Obviously things go a little differently in Oz: The Great and Powerful. The film makes a halfway decent teaching tool of sorts for those who want to explain to their kids (sons and daughters) about how to deal with the opposite sex (or same sex if that applies, but I digress).
Girls: Don't go crazy just because a guy 'done you wrong' and/or mistake momentary flirtation with some kind of romantic commitment (a good lesson for young men too, natch). You are not defined by your relationships and/or which guys do or don't like you. Boys: Don't be a womanizing ass-hat. The women you might be tempted to treat like disposable napkins have feelings and aren't just there for your momentary amusement. Of course the film doesn't actually provide any such lessons as Franco's hero pretty much gets away with his disreputable behavior in the early reels. There's a moment right at the end where Oz basically tells Theodore that she's not entirely responsible for her wickedness and that if she feels like not being a super-villain she's welcome to return to Oz. It's a token acknowledgement of the tragedy of this Wicked Witch, a potentially good person with great power undone by her emotions and by her sister's deceptions. But Oz's admittedly intriguing olive branch (preemptive forgiveness is a rare thing in mainstream cinema) refers to Evanora's role in creating the Wicked Witch rather than his own. He, and by proxy the film, takes little responsibility for the actions that sent Theodora down the yellow brick road of evil.
Viewed purely on how it deals with gender, Oz: The Great and Powerful is indeed disconcerting, moreso arguably due to its simplistic writing as befits its intentions as a film for very young children. My five-year old liked Glinda because she was nice and didn't like the witches because they were evil. I'm sure she didn't really care about its deeper implications and it's easy enough for me to impart whatever wisdom I think should be gleaned from the film (see the prior paragraph) without marring her enjoyment of what is a rather visually dazzling big-screen entertainment. There is indeed something to be said of a major tent pole where three of the four main characters are female. It is worth acknowledging a major studio blockbuster where a female hero is captured by a female villain only to be rescued by another female hero (contrasted with the original Wizard of Oz where Dorothy is saved by her three male companions). And there is really something to be said of a major studio tent pole that has a climax where two major female characters are the ones who do battle.
I don't know enough about the Oz books to know whether the film represents a step back for feminism as Elisabeth Rappe argued last week (although I tend to agree with her more often than not). But merely in terms of tent pole film making, I'd argue it's a good news/bad news situation. The film may be technically about the hero's journey of a selfish cad who learns to be less of a jerk and save the day, but it gives most of the big scenes and big character moments to its various witches (and a heartbreaking china doll, natch). Its gender politics are disconcerting, but it also provides three or four larger-than-life female characters, even if the writing somewhat sells them short (it's not like Oz is a deeply written character either). And even if Mila Kunis (who is frankly terrible once she transforms) and especially Michelle Williams get little to do, Rachel Weisz brings class and grace to her role as the big bad. Girls old enough to appreciate a bad-ass villain will possibly find her to be their favorite character. It may be a little sad that I'm giving a film with serious gender issues a token pass because of how rare it is to even see multiple female characters in a film of this scale, but that's the world we live in right now.
The women of Oz: The Great and Powerful may have serious issues in how they are written and presented, but at least Oz: The Great and Powerful has women (plural) in it at all.