Susan and I went to the movies yesterday and saw Oz the Great and Powerful. We went to a late matinee on “opening night,” and we sat surrounded by parents and small children who were audibly awed. As were we, wearing our 3D glasses and abandoning our disbelief. It really is a whiz of a movie, because, because, because of the wonderful things it does with special effects on steroids. Its special effects are just as spectacular to today’s audience of children and their parents as I’m sure the innovative effects of the Judy Garland movie were for their time.
I consider myself an expert on the Wizard of Oz. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was the first book I ever read on my own, so it introduced me to the wonder of reading. I have reread the novel more than a dozen times as an adult, each time refreshing my memories of its wisdom. I read the sequels too when I was a child, and enjoyed them, but haven’t reread them. Of course I’ve seen the 1939 MGM musical version a number of times, although I’m one of the few who don’t think it holds a candle to the novel. (If you want to know my views on this, my essay on the subject was published in Black Lamb and can be read at http://www.blacklamb.org/category/writers/daniel/.)
The new movie, Oz the Great and Powerful, is inspired more by the MGM movie than by the L. Frank Baum novel. It contains a number of clear tributes to the 1939 movie. Like the earlier movie, this new one opens in Kansas, in black and white. In both movies, the main character is transported to the colorful land of Oz by a tornado. (Somehow Judy’s Dorothy was able to sleep for most of the trip; Oscar in the new movie is in abject terror the whole way, and his inside view of the tornado is a Freudian nightmare.) In both movies the good witch Glinda travels by bubble, and the Wicked Witch of the West speeds around on a broomstick that emits filthy exhaust. The new version of that awful witch is a wonderful tribute to Margaret Hamilton, the original green-skinned, hawk-nosed villainess. As in the earlier movie, this new prequel doubles up on actors who play characters in the Kansas sequence and reappear in major roles in the Oz story.
I’m pleased to say, however, that this new movie does not succumb to the cornball cop-out of calling the whole plot a dream. That horrid device greatly damaged the Judy Garland movie for me, even when I was a child; it seemed to say the story and it’s charm and wisdom were too beautiful to be taken at face value. (Sorry, kids, there’s nowhere over the rainbow.) I’m also pleased that Oz the Great and Powerful found a way to use one of my favorite chapters from the original novel, “The Dainty China Country.” Another small point: the Cowardly Lion makes a brief cameo appearance in Oz the Great and Powerful, and I thank somebody at Disney that this time he’s a real lion, not Bert Lahr in a cheap vaudeville act. (Lahr was good, but that Lion was a dignified character in the novel.)
Here’s an interesting point about Oz the Great and Powerful: the opening Kansas scenes establish the date of the plot to be 1905. That alarmed me, because the original novel was published in 1900, and this new prequel clearly predates the story by some decades, when the Wizard and the Witches were young. Then it occurred to me that this prequel is meant to take place 34 years before the MGM movie, which—I have just realized for the first time—was meant to depict Kansas in the dust-bowl, depression year of 1939, not the similarly sad Kansas of the turn of the twentieth century.
So. I recommend Oz the Great and Powerful as a highly entertaining and quite meaningful movie. Then, after you check out that movie, read (or reread) the hugely rewarding novel by L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which has remained a Great American Novel since it was first published 113 years ago.