The wizard of the Emerald City finally gets his due in Walt Disney’s new motion picture, Oz the Great and Powerful. Dorothy was the focus of the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, and witches Elphaba and Glinda of the 2003 musical Wicked. In the present incarnation, James Franco stars as the impossibly-named “Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs,” a carnival magician who goes by the shortened, and more dramatic, moniker, “Oz.” This new story of Oz is the prequel to the one first introduced in the original 1900 novel by L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Baum’s novel presented Oz as “a little bumbling old man, hiding behind a facade of paper mache and noise” according to a mid-century political exposition that Henry M. Littlefield wrote of the storyline – seeing the powerless “man behind the curtain” as a metaphor for any of the ineffectual post-Civil War presidents. By contrast, Franco’s young Oz is brimming with enthusiasm for the technology of the Industrial Revolution: the newly invented light bulb and motion picture projector, along with some fun pyrotechnics. Upon arrival in the Land of Oz, Franco’s character is, due to his name, mistaken as the new messiah – sent to slay the Wicked Witch. He demurs, explaining that if there is a God, his name is Thomas Edison, the great inventor of Menlo Park.
Set 20 years before Dorothy burst onto the scene, Oz the Great and Powerful shows us how the great wizard came to be. In the dusty plains of Kansas, “Professor” Oz is more successful in seducing young women than filling seats for his magic shows at the traveling circus. When a jealous husband comes after him, Oz makes his escape in (what else) a hot air balloon. The balloon gets caught up in (what else) a tornado that lands in Oz. We then meet the reigning witches, who are a hybrid of the supernatural characters from the earlier book, movie and musical.
Wicked first introduced the contrarian notion that the witches of Oz were not what they first appeared to be. Glinda was reinvented in the musical as a self-centered, popular schoolgirl who – despite her self-absorption – ultimately grows up and into her name, the “Good Witch.” The so-called Wicked Witch of the West, however, gets both a literal and a figurative make-over as the complex Elphaba – misunderstood and discriminated against because she happened to be born green. But through adversity, Elphaba gains the self-confidence that propels her to become the heroine of the musical.
In contrast, Oz the Great and Powerful returns Glinda (Michelle Williams) to her saccharine sweetness. It presents the western witch as the naïve and insecure Theodora (played by the beautifully sensitive Mila Kunis). And we are introduced to the Wicked Witch of the East – who we never got to know because of her early demise under Dorothy’s house, ruby shoes spared, in prior iterations. Rachel Weisz plays the eastern witch in all her gorgeous and devious wickedness.
The truly transformational figure of the picture, however, is Oz himself. He is the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas or Ebenezer as scrooge whose hoped-for evolution from anti-hero to hero enthralls. James Franco plays a handsome, self-taught young man, who harbors pretentions of scientific greatness and social acclaim, but wasn’t raised with opportunities and has no mentor to show him the way. Still, we’re rooting for him, even as we’re not sure he will become the wizard that the Good Witch and the people of Oz hope, and need, him to be.
Oz needs to harness the new technology he so worships to create a pretense of wizardry and bring peace to the Land of Oz. The lush colors, scenery and props employed in the Disney movie conjure the innocence of the bygone era of the turn of the last century, when Baum originally penned The Wonderful Wizard.
When Oz ramps up to take back the Emerald City from the wicked sisters, Glinda the Good sternly counsels him that no one may die. How can he accomplish such a feat against an imposing army of Winkies and flying baboons? Through a countervailing army of mechanical scarecrows, an opaque projector and fireworks, of course. This seems consistent with the magical world that Baum imagined before mechanized technology culminated in the horror of the First World War and industrial production was harvested for genocidal purposes in Second.
The Judy Garland movie was filmed the year Hitler “repatriated” the Sudetenland and released the year he invaded Poland – so it could hardly take a benign view of Oz’s false projection of power behind the curtain. Wicked goes much further, presenting Oz as a demonic master manipulator placing a spell on the talking animals of the realm to deprive them of speech and enslave them – until Glinda reveals his duplicity and infidelity and casts him out of the kingdom (in, you guested it, a hot air balloon).
The new Disney Oz feels comfortable taking us back to the beginning and only pays passing homage to the lion, tin man and aforementioned scarecrows that will later loom large. It’s not a dystopian past but a story that presents a hopeful future. One that only Oz can fulfill, if he so chooses to be great and powerful.