Saw the new "Oz" movie. I'd been looking forward to it, and so had my daughter; when she suggested we go, I thought "why yes! Let us go and see our hopes from those trailers brought to fulfillment."
From the start, I was enchanted: the opening credits use a brilliant array of typefaces, most of which I recognized. Most of which I have, or at least know. I saw many examples of Nick’s Fonts, a byword for high-quality vintage typefaces.
Therein hangs a tale, but we’ll get to that.
The moment you enter the old-time aspect-ratio black-and-white scene you feel a flutter of satisfaction: of course. That’s exactly how it has to start. As the camera swoops down through the tattered sideshow, you marvel at the period details, and realize how 3D has changed the way they stage things, how directors have an eye for layers now.
Too bad you’re not seeing it in 3D.
Anyway! Into the trailer of the protagonist, who’s wooing a local girl. She’s lovely. So lovely you can’t believe she’s a local girl. There’s some banter that reveals the character of Oz himself, the magician, the ne’er-do-well seducer: he presents Lovely Local Girl with a music box, something that belonged to his dead grandmother. Oh that cad. You know he’s pulled this routine before - which makes for an odd moment when she asks a question about his grandmother, and he struggles to make up a reply on the spot. So he’s done this before but he’s not very good at it.
Against your will, because the movie is just beginning, things click:
The local girl is too pretty. She should be flawed somehow, not so sweet, a bit duller.
The con man, the ne’er-do-well, can’t improvise.
The dialogue and the pacing - is it me, you think, or did the air just leak out of this in the last four minutes?
Did they really spend a billion dollars on this and let the first scene of the first reel feel like someone rubbing wet sticks together?
Is Franco going to be this unconvincing for the entire movie, smiling whenever the script requires him to be the Roguish Liar?
I said I loved the movie from the opening credits, and that’s true. After that it was a steep decline. I was leaning into it. I was an easy mark. I was ready to forgive small things. But I was dismayed before we got to Oz, and steadily grumpy ever there after. I'm tired of going to movies and feeling like I'm enduring something. Like I'm supposed to be grateful for two hours of fireworks. You know what you get with two hours of fireworks? A stiff neck and a ringing in your ears.
I’m not an Oz fanatic, although I did have a real Munchkin sit in my lap and make a pass at me in Judy Garland’s home town, about 30 feet from a real pair of Ruby slippers. But that’s another story. I do love the movie, for all the reasons we share.
- Childhood memory of the annual viewing, a rarity, a thing that marked your passage from early childhood when it scared the hell out of you to the year when you saw in TV Guide that it was coming around again - you didn’t watch it, but you remembered. (And felt sad.) One year after I watched it I wrote out all the things I wanted to dream about from the movie, and taped it to the headboard. I was seven, or eight. I remember that.
I remember how hard the first part of the movie felt. The unsympathetic and careworn Auntie Em, the vicious Miss Gulch - we laugh now and say "dee-dee-dee-dee-deee deee" as a little joke for someone with a nasty personality, but when that dessicated = bitch showed up and took the dog, Dorothy's misery broke your heart. I mean, she was taking the dog away to kill him. No one stood up to her. No one could.
The Kansas farmhouse was more ramshackle than my grandparent's farm, but we had chickens and dirt roads, and every summer we feared the twister. The mindless twister scribbling destruction in the distance was our worst nightmare, because it could happen. It had happened. They tested sirens every month because they knew it would happen. When it came for Dorothy, she was alone; everyone else had taken shelter in the earth, leaving her to the winds.
- It planted in our young minds the look of the Moderne, and transformed the speculative mostly unbuilt future visions of the 30s into a dreamworld that existed both on film and in a few things that were actually made in the real world, as if Oz laid below the world we saw, and poked out here and there were the barrier between us was weak.
- It was the font of childhood terrors that were unstinting in their horrors, unmodulated for younger audiences: the implacable guards, the gibbering monkeys, the horrible moment when the witch upended the hourglass: that’s all you have longer to live, my pretty. Oz himself was terrifying, and he was supposed to be the guy who'd help them all.
There wasn’t anything else like this in the other things they let us see, and I’m not sure grown-ups realized how unreal and bizarre these things seemed. But they trusted us to process the morality of an extended song-and-dance sequence that celebrates the death of an oppressor. Not too many other shows we got to see had a coroner with a certificate who had good news, and the townsfolk shouting that the tyrant is in hell.
This was a good thing! Really. It was.
- The bittersweet and painful end, which was resolutely irresolute: the first time you see it as a kid you don’t know the farmhands are the characters from Oz, not really, and when they appear at the end at everything’s great because she’s home. But it’s not happily-ever-after, because no one but Dorothy knows what happened, or admits they knew; everyone’s face is a friend from the most wonderful dream she ever had, fading away before her eyes, replaced by the joy of being home in a world without color. A place she vows never to leave.
- My dad loved the talking trees who threw the apples. He'd imitate them.
- Those witchy feet, retreating under the house. You’d never even thought of feet doing that.
Of course you didn’t have context, how the Good Witch was an actress everyone knew as a high-society ditz, how everyone came to the movie loving Dorothy in advance, how the Emerald City looked like the pictures in the magazines about the World’s Fair, how the green of the City was the fashionable color of the day, how the wordless voices that sang like some worried wind in the opening credits was a convention of the day. It was a thing like nothing else.
It deserves to be treated not just with respect, but intelligence. The Greatest Minds of Hollywood, carefully tuning the prequel into something that can stand alongside the original and reflect its time and assert its timelessness. It would bring Oz to life again, make it real, invest it with personality and detail and release the audience’s flood of childhood emotions to flow over the thing with amazement and gratitude, because they got it, they grasped it, they understood.
Remember the scene where Dorothy meets the Scarecrow? It ends with the duo dancing down the Yellow Brick Row arms entwined, towards a matte painting. (COMMERCIAL) As a kid you knew their destination wasn’t real, because it didn’t look real, but it didn’t matter, because it was real for them, and anyway COMMERCIAL.
There’s not a scene in “Oz, the Great and Powerful” as realistic as that moment. Nothing matters. Nothing is at stake. Nothing is in doubt. Nothing is real.