21 March 2013

The Real Sources of Oz the Great and Powerful

Yesterday I noted how Oz the Great and Powerful credits “the Works of L. Frank Baum” as its source but doesn’t actually draw much from that source—and what it does draw is almost entirely filtered through MGM’s Wizard of Oz from 1939.

That beloved movie is of course the main source for the new one. Oz the Great and Powerful is quite obviously an attempt to create a prequel. Yet the new movie’s makers didn’t have the rights to do so, so they played an odd game of tiptoeing to the edge of fair use and stopping just an inch away from infringement.

Thus, MGM’s Wicked Witch of the West is green with a black gown, hat, and broomstick. (W. W. Denslow’s Wicked Witch is tan with an eyepatch, jacket and patterned skirt, and umbrella.) Sam Raimi and his team couldn’t exactly copy the previous movie, so they made the witch a different shade of green.

The New York Times reported on how Disney’s lawyers advised the moviemakers to alter one Munchkin’s whiskers to be less like those in the 1939 movie. But they’re still the same singing, dancing, particolored little people of that movie, not the dignified farmers all in blue of Baum’s book.

Similarly, the end of the yellow brick road goes in circles, but not in a spiral. There are brightly colored horses grazing outside the Emerald City, but they’re several colors at once instead of in succession. Glinda’s bubbles work a little differently. The green Wicked Witch says “my pretty one” instead of “my pretty.” Oz produces the illusion of a giant heading speaking from a cloud of smoke, but it’s a different giant head. And there are no ruby slippers or silver shoes.

At times, finding a way to evoke the MGM movie without directly copying some detail still under copyright produced new creativity. The winged baboons are even more frightening than MGM’s flying monkeys. The Emerald City’s towers are reminiscent of those from the older movie, but more angled. The landscape of Oz has a verticality that was hard to portray on 1939 sound stages, much easier with CGI.

At other time, the strain of aping the MGM movie is too great. There’s a scene at the end of the Wizard conferring gifts on his companions, but his remarks aren’t nearly as interesting as the dialogue Yip Harburg wrote for Frank Morgan in the equivalent scene, and most of those characters never asked him for stuff, so the scene has no greater meaning than triggering audience nostalgia.

Plotwise, the result doesn’t hang together. Like the 1939 film, the new movie’s screenplay provides for people whom Oz knows in Kansas to reappear as other characters in Oz. Yet there’s no hint that Oz is dreaming, as Judy Garland’s character was. Nor does Oz recognize the resemblance between his Kansas girlfriend and his Oz girlfriend.

And that girlfriend points to the second big influence: Wicked. (The hit stage show, not Gregory Maguire’s novel.) Again, the moviemakers didn’t have the rights to make Wicked, and they had a very different conception of the Wizard. But the screenplay is designed to set off the same nostalgic neurons that produce applause during the stage play, whenever the story foretells some detail from the movie: a cowardly lion, a scarecrow, and so on. And of course the Wicked Witch of the West starts out as sympathetic.

One of the biggest changes in Wicked’s journey from book to stage was the inclusion of a happy ending for Elphaba, with a boyfriend. Oz the Great and Powerful likewise ends with Oz and Glinda paired off. There’s no hint of that in the MGM movie, even less than none in Baum’s books, but apparently Hollywood demands a romantic ending. (To be fair, Baum inserted such pairings in most of his stage and screen adaptations of his books, and imported them back into books he based on his scripts.)

A third, smaller influence is Disney’s theme park and merchandising divisions. When the Wizard arrives in Oz, his balloon lands in a raging river, and we’re then treated to a water slide in 3-D. The climax involves fireworks bursting over the turreted city. I was pleased that Mari Ness also noted the similarity between that action and Disney’s nightly fireworks display. And the corporation already has a ton of collectibles on sale.

Indeed, the main takeaway from Oz the Great and Powerful isn’t a great screenplay or powerful acting (hard to do without a great screenplay), but spectacle and nostalgia. On that level it succeeds—quite well enough to make hundreds of millions of dollars. But I doubt it will have the real emotional impact as any of its predecessors and influences.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

Oscar does seem to recognize Glinda. "Are you sure we haven't met?" he says.

If Anne (did I hear the name right?) and John Gale marry in Kansas - and they prove to be Dot's 'rents - that still leaves several years between Oscar going to Oz and Dorothy going to Oz. Thus a few more prequels could be squeezed in if OzTGAP makes a mint. Maybe Oscar will have an opportunity to awaken after all.

J. L. Bell said...

I guess I read Oz's comment to Glinda as more, "Hmm, you seem dimly familiar," than, "You look exactly like the woman I was close to marrying two days ago!"

This movie is set in 1905 (another reason it doesn't jibe with Baum's 1905 book). If we assume the MGM movie is set in or shortly before 1939, that allows for Oz and the Gales to age more than three decades before Dorothy makes her journey to Oz. Which would fit their appearance.

Of course, Dorothy's supposed to meet Oz as Prof. Marvel in Kansas, and then have a dream that picks up where his left off, so there are a lot of other things to be explained along the way.

I don't actually think this movie is designed to make sense, either by itself or alongside the MGM movie. It's just supposed to push some visual and emotional buttons in our brains.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I'm in pretty solid agreement with your analysis. Not much Baum, a lot of MGM nostalgia, a dash of Wicked.

Sam A M said...

"Similarly, the end of the yellow brick road goes in circles, but not in a spiral."

I don't get it: what's the difference? Yes, there is no red brick road, but isn't that the same thing?

J. L. Bell said...

The New York Times stated: "Disney, concerned about copyright, does not show it spiraling into the same stylized point in Munchkin Country." Spirals and circles are different geometrically, and it looked to me like the Oz the Great and Powerful makers showed some concentric yellow brick arcs but avoided showing the road ending in a point as in the 1939 movie. In addition, the new movie never viisted the heart of Munchkinland though it did have Munchkins.