“Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”
–From Rick Polito, Marin Independent Journal, in a TV listing describing The Wizard of Oz.
Sam Raimi’s Oz The Great and Powerful opens this weekend and I suspect that no matter how good it is or how well it performs at the box office, there’s zero chance it will ever grow to become as beloved as the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz.
In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find another film that is as beloved—I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t have fond memories of The Wizard of Oz and if I ever did, I suspect I would have very little to say to that person. I love The Wizard of Oz. I think it’s a great film—one of the all-time classics—yet when you closely examine the storytelling in the movie, you realize it’s deeply flawed. There are things in that script that would get it an “F” in a beginning screenwriting class. So what are these flaws? And more importantly, why do I think the film works brilliantly despite them? Read on:
Let’s start with the big event that sets the story in motion. A tornado carries Dorothy and her house from Kansas to the merry old land of Oz. It lands on wicked witch #1 killing her. The ruby slippers worn by the now dead witch are given to Dorothy. Dead wicked witch’s sister (who is also a wicked witch in her own right) shows up demanding the shoes, which are denied her.
Anyone else have issues with what happens above?
Essentially, Dorothy is responsible for the death of a woman (accidental or not, she killed her) and takes the dead woman’s property (yes, Glinda the “good” witch gives it to her but I don’t hear Dorothy objecting). When the dead woman’s sister asks for the shoes back, she’s technically in the right. It’s her dead sister’s shoes, why shouldn’t she be able to take them? This makes Dorothy guilty of both manslaughter and theft. Yes, this is our protagonist.
Shortly afterwards, Glinda sends Dorothy down the yellow brick road to find the wizard who supposedly can send her home (this action alone makes Glinda sort of a bitch—more on that in a bit). While on her way to the Emerald City where the wizard resides, Dorothy runs into three soon-to-be companions—a scarecrow, tin man and lion—who each want something: a brain, a heart and courage, respectively. She invites them all to come with her to see the wizard.
Again, is it just me or is this sort of a dick move on Dorothy’s part? She’s never met the wizard—doesn’t know him from Adam—yet she’s going to ask him for a huge favor. On top of that, she now makes a promise to three complete strangers that the wizard (again, someone she has never met) will also fulfill their wildest desires. Who makes a promise like that?
“Hey, I don’t have brains and I’d really like them more than anything in the world?”
“Well, why don’t you come with me to see this dude I’ve never met who I’m positive will give you the brains you seek?”
“Really? You think he’s do that?”
“I promise he will.”
Did I also mention how incompetent our group of heroes are? When they get stuck in a field of poppies that lull Dorothy and the lion into a deep sleep, what do scarecrow and the tin man do? Take action to save them? No, they call for help like emasculated girlie men and are only saved by Glinda’s intervention. Compare this to the book, where the two use their ingenuity (and the help of a group of field mice) to save their friends.
Once this foursome reach the Emerald City, they are tasked by the wizard to kill the surviving wicked witch in return for the granting of their wishes. And this leads to what may be the most ridiculous way a protagonist in a movie has defeated the bad guy: Dorothy “accidentally” throws a bucket of water on the wicked witch.
And guess what? Water conveniently turns out to be the witch’s one weakness. Contact with it makes her melt away and die.
Nowhere in the rest of the film is it ever even mentioned that water is the witch’s weakness. Not only that, but there coincidentally happens to be a bucket of water just lying there in the witch’s castle (if water is her weakness, why would the witch even allow a bucket of it on her property where anyone can just throw it on her)—allowing our heroine to pick it up at the exact moment she needs it and kill the witch—again, purely by accident since Dorothy has no knowledge this will do the trick. That is lazy writing—at least set up her weakness in advance or find a more clever way to execute it.
Finally, we come to the climax of the story and as it turns out the wizard is a fake and isn’t able to send Dorothy home. But fortunately, Glinda magically appears at the right moment and tells Dorothy that all she needs to do is click her slippers three times and she’ll be transported home. Say what, witch?!!
You mean Dorothy could’ve gone home at anytime but instead you put her through hell because…what’s the reasoning Glinda gives in the film? Oh yeah—so Dorothy could learn a lesson. And what is this deep lesson?
“There’s no place like home.”
That is just fucked up! Why? Because that is the one lesson Dorothy did not have to learn at all. From the moment she lands in Oz, all Dorothy wants to do is go home. She already knows “there’s no place like home”—that sentiment motivates every one of her actions in the film. Why does Glinda need to teach her a lesson or moral that Dorothy is already fully aware of and embraces? If I didn’t know better, I’d say Glinda is one sadistic witch who gets her rocks off from watching this young girl suffer.
But wait there’s more—once Dorothy returns to Kansas, we learn that it was all a dream! So you’re telling us we fully invested in this story and at the end, none of it was real? I’ll admit that sometimes the “it was all a dream” ending does work (i.e. the St. Elsewhere series finale), but more often than not, it’s a cop out (anyone remember Emilio Estevez’s directing debut Wisdom? No, well, a big reason for that is because of it’s stupid “it was all a dream” ending).
But as I’ve said, despite these and other flaws I haven’t even begun to touch on, The Wizard of Oz is a bona-fide classic. So what allows it to get away with things that in other movies would doom it to the “what the fuck were they thinking” category?
I’m sure there’s many reasons for this that someone smarter than me can explain (and feel free to do so in the comments below), but I think what elevates this movie for me are the endearing characters and the even more endearing and talented actors who brought those characters to life.
How can you feel anything but love for Dorothy after Judy Garland’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow”? How can you not root for her no matter what she does after this:
It’s hard to imagine today, but MGM studio execs wanted to cut that song out of the film because they didn’t feel it “advanced” the story–not realizing that there’d be no story without it. You take out that song and Dorothy isn’t half as likeable or relatable as she is now.
And it’s not just Judy Garland. The rest of the roles are perfectly cast: Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Frank Morgan, Margaret Hamilton—they take what could’ve been one-dimensional parts and breath life and magic into them. We don’t care about or forgive the film’s flaws because we love the characters that populate this world–and each time we revisit this classic, it’s like spending time with old and dear friends. Almost 75 years later, I can’t name another film that has given us characters as endearing and unique and fantastically awesome as those found in the 1939 Oz and I doubt the new prequel will change that. There’s no place like The Wizard of Oz indeed.