Approximately ten months ago or so, my dear friend Bonnie and I spoke with some intuitives at our local mythie bookstore. One of the individuals with whom I spoke told me that he felt that I was in the middle of re-crafting my own origin stories. Of all the things we talked about that day that was the one thing that really stuck with me.
Origin stories? Genesis myths? Immediately, I asked a bunch of questions like: What does that mean? To exactly what kind of stories in my personal life might that speak? And, most importantly for this blog, how does this obsession with origin stories make its way into my personal myths? How are the myth-makers that I gravitate toward retelling their own origin stories?
Ever since this discussion, I am becoming more aware of the ways that I am drawn to people retelling their own genesis. I have become especially aware of the way that Disney has been in the process of doing so of late.
And why not? Speaking of our myths, noted philosopher, author and professor Sam Keen reminds us that “We need to reinvent them from time to time…The stories we tell of ourselves determine who we become, who we are, what we believe” (Your Mythic Journey qtd in Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in Our Lives, Phil Cousineau, 7). There is a reason that origin myths are meant to be reenacted cyclically.
Perhaps this insight is particularly poignant right now—at the beginning of this year’s Passover and Holy Week remembrances. We respect (at least ideologically) the ritualizing of the origin stories of the religious traditions of all Americans. Origin myths are meant to be a living part of the calendar, and so they are in their own ways in our secular culture as well. We celebrate Independence Day each year, Election Day every four years, President’s Day every year and so on.
Many of these have a basis in history, but what of our imaginal origin stories? What about the origin stories that come about as a natural outpouring of fantasy? I am convinced that these origin stories are also reinvented on a cyclical basis as well.
From the work of the D23 to the heightened presence of the archives to the re-mything of the “golden age” of Los Angeles at Disney California Adventure in Disneyland Resort to Diane Disney’s Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco to a renewed interest in Oswald and Mickey Mouse cartoons spurned on by the success of the first Epic Mickey game, a renewed interest in origin stories seems to be everywhere in Disney’s storytelling at present.
Disney’s relationship with the Oz books dates back to the early days of Disney feature film animation. As early as the 1930’s, Walt Disney sought to acquire the rights to re-mythologize Baum’s books in film. Perhaps, as a Midwesterner (a Missourian/Kansas City-man) himself, Walt Disney felt particularly drawn (pun intended) to the Kansas landscape of Dorothy Gale and her family.
By 1954, he had acquired the rights to eleven of the books. By 1958, he had acquired the rights to all twelve of the books, but he was never quite ready to work them into film. Time, tide and technology never quite crossed for Walt and Oz.
In 1985, Disney released Return to Oz, which, although it became a bit of a cult classic among Gen X and Y’ers, has little else to recommend it. Now, all these years later, in 2013, The Walt Disney Company has finally decided to release a feature film version of an Oz story—Oz: The Great and Powerful.
Why? This film is itself an effort to re-mythologize the genesis and importance of the film industry itself and Disney’s role in it (as well, perhaps, as Disney’s favorite medium within film, animation/computers and technology ala Pixar).
Let’s look at it:
This film is what is known as a prequel. It tells the story of how the “wizard” makes his way to Oz. Loosely inspired by Frank L. Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as well as the iconic 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz (originally released by Samuel Goldwyn, then bought by MGM, and now owned by Warner Bros.) this film draws on an iconic well of imagery—the black and white opening sequence, the tornado, an eye-popping candy-colored technologically wondrous Oz, the soft muted pastel pink of Glinda (The Good Witch of the South), Theodora (The Wicked Witch of the West)—her green skin and her black witchy garb complete with hat, flying primates, the look of the Emerald City and the Yellow Brick Road.
It tells the story of how the “wizard” (James Franco) makes his way to Oz and is unwittingly used by one bad witch (Evanora of the East, Rachel Weisz) to turn another witch wicked (Theodora of the West–Mila Kunis) before becoming using his abilities to become the savior of Oz. The “wizard,” aided by Glinda (the Good of the South–Michelle Williams) , is convinced to mobilize the people of Oz, and fights back against the wicked witches.
There is, however, one problem—the wizard is not actually a wizard, in the conventional definition of the word. He is a charlatan and a con man. More importantly, he is an illusionist. He is a carnival performer, a kind of inspiration for the late great Johnny Carson’s “Carnac the Magnificent.” Oz is what is known as the archetypal trickster. As such, he is a master at sleight of hand, shapeshfting, lies, and illusions.
This trickster, however, really isn’t that clever. His illusions are easy to see through. It is clear that he yearns for greatness, but it is just as clear that that greatness eludes him. While on his journey through the land that bears his name, he begins to realize that, as Glinda says, he may not be the wizard they were expecting, but he is the wizard that has appeared. His affection for the people of Oz leads him to use his skill as an illusionist to convince the witches of the power he does not actually have. And, it works. In the end, the wizard defeats the witches through sheer illusion and sleight of hand. He fuses his hermetic abilities with the Tinkers’ (Imagineers perhaps?) ability to use technology. He creates a living, breathing illusion.
So, what does this have to do with Disney, the film industry, and origin myths? Simply put, this film suggests that like “the wizard,” filmmakers are both con artists and wizards. As myth-ie tricksters, filmmakers shepherd their audiences through to experiences that turn tin cans into walking, talking allies, convince them that they are in imminent danger from mechanical sharks, to create magical portals to mythic worlds using digital pixels, and simply entrance them will spectacle, color and delight.
Oz: The Great And Powerful is an origin myth crafted specifically to remind the audience of the importance of imagination, illusion, and storytelling. It makes sense that Disney chose to tell it through one of the most iconic and replete mythic systems ever to be touched by the film industry. It is intended to remind the audience why the kinds of things Disney is always up to (putting on a show, telling a story, ritualizing magical locales, and entertaining through illusionist sleight of hand) are powerful and central to psychic health. In that way, this film (for all its shortcomings…of which there are many…) works.