Sunday, March 17, 2013

Messing with the sacred: 8 notes on the betrayals of Disney's Oz the Great and Powerful

"[The 1939 Wizard of Oz is] sacred material to a lot of people, and they don't want their memories messed with."  --Sam Raimi [quoted in the March 8 Entertainment Weekly]

I was appalled by Oz the Great and Powerful and its many betrayals:

1) Disney first betrays L. Frank Baum, because, as Christy Mathers points out, all of his 17 Oz books had heroines for leads. Who does Disney replace Dorothy with as a female character? A china doll (Joey King) who clings to James Franco's leg at one point.

2) Instead of having Dorothy as the lead, James Franco plays the "reluctant hero" who in no way deserves the acclaim that the "legend of Oz" bestows upon him. In the 1939 Wizard of Oz, the original Oz was a con man who had no dreams, as Franco says in the more recent version, of becoming a "great" man. As played by Frank Morgan, the original wizard is a common but charming low-rent hustler in Kansas and Oz alike. When Dorothy asks if she can join him in visiting the crown heads of Europe, he asks, startled, "You know any?" Later, in Oz, when Dorothy accuses him of being a "bad man," he replies, "I'm a very good man, just a very bad Wizard." Given how Toto will expose his media-created image of Oz by pulling back the curtain on his manipulations behind the scenes, it is essential that Professor Marvel remain a fraud so that Dorothy comes to realize "There's no place like home" on her own just as the tin man, the scarecrow, and the lion don't need a Wizard to make up for what they they believe they lack. I don't even want to think of how Franco's Oscar Diggs must self-actualize to turn his circus-performer self into Oz.

3) Toto has an astonishing amount of agency for a little dog, escaping from the wicked witch twice (if one counts her earlier version as Miss Gulch), leading the scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion to Dorothy in the Wicked Witch's castle, exposing the fraudulence of the Wizard, and, incidentally, causing the Wizard to float away on a balloon without Dorothy. By sitting on a tractor and holding out one paw, Toto almost steals the scene where Judy Garland sings "Over the Rainbow." In the new film, in Toto's stead, Disney computer-generates an insipid servile monkey sidekick named Finley, who stupidly pledges its service to Oscar, and carries Oscar's over-sized suitcase awkwardly around for much of the movie (an insult to the independence of monkeys everywhere). As a genuine yet also mildly subversive dog, Toto is much more compelling a creation than the sentimental monkey with the voice of Zach Braff.

4) In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy, under the tutelage of Glinda, starts at the exact beginning of a small golden spiral that becomes the yellow brick road, a means of travel that proves a central character and a metaphor for Dorothy's and her friends' various progressions. In Oz the Great and Powerful, the yellow brick road could be any road, a means to get around, no more significant than Highway I-95.

5) I like how the technological limitations of the original 1939 film defined how the witches appeared or disappeared, or performed as titular Goddesses. You would expect the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) to fly away from Munchkinland, but instead she bursts into flames and vanishes. Glinda assumes corporeal form out of a floating blob of color, or she appears superimposed on a field of poppies, waving her wand.  In Oz the Great and Powerful, the extraordinarily miscast new witch looks grumpy with a jowly green face.  She flies back and forth like just another superhero, quickly proving tiresome, more spurned than evil.

6) What do the new witches do?  For one, they remind me of much better films that the actresses have recently been in, such as Weisz's The Deep Blue Sea, for instance.  An impressive star presence even in Take This Waltz, Michelle Williams, as Glinda, mostly just radiates wholesomeness and the vague possibility of some future muted G-rated affair with Oscar. When a bad witch feels obliged to torture Glinda in Oz's main square, I winced at the scene's lack of imagination. Hollywood employs torture as a means to drum up some drama when nothing else comes to mind. In the 1939 Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch turns over a maroon hour glass and leaves it up to the viewer (and Dorothy) to imagine what unspeakable atrocities she will inflict on her captive.         

7) Long ago, about 57 hours into 127 Hours, but also during the 2011 Oscars, I burned out on James Franco, so to see him as the giant Disney face of Oz was definitive miscast overkill. Is his recent slate of roles in Lovelace (as Hugh Hefner), Interior. Leather Bar, and Spring Breakers (as Alien) Franco's way of distancing himself from Disney's pseudo-innocent opportunism by making his public image as scuzzy as possible?

8) Given that I remember watching it on television every year religiously as a child, the 1939 Wizard of Oz was fundamental, the kind of film that helped established one's youthful relationship with movies. Even given Sam Raimi's sensitive take on the subject, Disney distorts and pollutes that memory, using the former movie's iconography for profit. In a Soviet-era revisionist way, Oz the Great and Powerful besmirches and deadens one's appreciation for a classic. I used the metaphor of the strip mine to help characterize what A Good Day to Die Hard does to the original 1988 Die Hard.  Now, we get a TV series dedicated to unpacking what happens between Norman and his mother years before the storyline of Hitchcock's Psycho. It leaves me wondering what will remain of the feeling of the "sacred" in Hollywood's classic canon.

3 comments:

  1. The yellow brick road, at least in the original novel, is supposed to represent populist ideals and bi-metalism. Perhaps Disney is trying to make a political statement by making the yellow brick road less special.

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  2. Perhaps, although I have difficulty imagining Disney having any agenda beyond making money. The Wizard of Oz evokes comparisons to Dante's Inferno, the American political process (with the Scarecrow as the farm lobby), self-help books, Wag the Dog, surrealism, etc. Oz the Great and Powerful reminds me of Star Wars: Episode I or X-Men Origins: Wolverine and other reasons to not have a prequel.

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  3. That I agree with. Prequels are almost never a good idea.

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Civil comments are welcome.