Reporting Eric Henderson
There are any number of reasons why The Wizard of Oz endures in American pop culture. It remains many kids’ first memorable movie. Flying monkeys have probably figured into more nightmares than Hannibal Lechter, Freddy Krueger and Pennywise combined.
So to many it seemed a bit like a nightmare to hear that Disney was producing a prequel to the beloved property, or at least something of a bummer. Who’s all that interested in hearing the story of how a man came to hide behind that curtain in the corner?
Well, since the man playing the man is James Franco, Hollywood’s cagiest and most meta movie star, and since the director is Sam Raimi, who is more popularly known for his Evil Dead series (and, yes, Spiderman), there’s at least some level of intrigue, especially as no right-thinking person imagines it will ever be considered “canon.”
Or will it? Just yesterday came an enlightening blog post on the top seven theories about what the 1939 film version of L. Frank Baum’s book (which itself spawned 13 further Oz installments) was really about. Does the new film qualify on any of them? Let’s take a closer look at a couple of them:
- Parable On Populism: This view holds that the 1939 MGM musical is really about socialism, democracy and the Dust Bowl. The beauty of this theory is that it’s so all-encompassing that practically any movie would support it. Beyond that level, Oz the Great and Powerful qualifies. Franco’s Oz is a self-made huckster who deigns to join the 1 percent. (The first thing he does when he sees the room filled with the Emerald City’s riches? Dives in like Scrooge McDuck.) But when he sees the bigger picture, he realizes that leadership is more about organizing people, not lording over them. The overriding message of the new film is that it doesn’t matter if leaders are perfect, so long as they get the job done. Cue the pundits.
- Religious/Atheist Allegory: Whereas the 1939 version has been embraced by deists and their diametric opposition, there isn’t much to suggest either will find further ammunition in Oz the Great and Powerful. The concept of spirituality is a bit too “focus group” for franchise tentpoles circa 2013, not worth risking those multi-hundred-million dollar budgets. So far as higher powers go, the new film stakes its position in the clear middle ground. The witches’ real magic coexists with Oz’s phony tricks, and they’re somehow an even match.
- Feminist Allegory: The new movie can’t help but pale in comparison, since the protagonist has shifted from female to male. But beyond that, there’s plenty of material here for the Gloria Steinems of the world to sink into. When Oz arrives in the land that bears his name, he finds the place in turmoil. The previous leader has been killed off by one of his daughters. Those daughters being the good and bad witches, their reign has been chaotic and filled with in-fighting. All of the witches are, in the end, manipulated by or on behalf of Oz’s lothario charms. In fact, the only reason one of them turns into “beautiful wickedness” is, as it turns out, because she feels spurned by the great and powerful seducer.
A few of the other theories don’t really play out as strongly, but that some of them do indicates that Oz the Great and Powerful is not entirely a garden-variety cash grab on the order of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, though occasionally director Sam Raimi’s flourishes suggest a debt to Burton’s own unique brand of for-hire goth whimsy.
Interestingly enough, the most startling difference between the 1939 film and its prequel can be found in the device most obviously borrowed from the earlier movie. In both cases, Oz begins in B&W and eventually blooms into full color. Oddly enough, though, the B&W bit in Oz the Great and Powerful seems like the more overtly stylized piece, with its narrow Academy aspect ratio and knowingly antiquated 3-D effects. It’s when Oz’s hot air balloon emerges from the cyclone and into a perfectly computer-enhanced environment that it feels we’ve entered the realm of the mundane.
Oz the Great and Powerful might not earn its stripes as a full-fledged fantasia, and indeed passes well under the rainbow, but watching it might help clarify some of the things that make Judy Garland’s mantra ring extra true: there’s no place like home.