If you're like me, you would not have recognized him as Sam Raimi, a director with a bit of a cultish following for his (very successful) work, but who seems to keep his personal profile so low I had no idea what he looked like.
And here's another photo:
It's L Frank Baum. I can't remember seeing him before, either. The Wikipedia entry about him is pretty interesting. As a young man, he got into breeding fancy poultry, which apparently was "a national craze at the time." (TV not having been invented yet, I suppose.) He wrote a book about it: The Book of the Hamburgs: A Brief Treatise upon the Mating, Rearing, and Management of the Different Varieties of Hamburgs. Hamburg chickens, that is. Here's a photo, because I haven't seen one of them before either:
Sort of the dalmatian of the chicken world. But I digress.
All of this is by way of background to talking about yesterday's viewing of Oz The Great and Powerful. But there's more backgrounding to be done yet.
I was pretty young when I was given an abridged picture book version of The Wizard of Oz, and I thought it a peculiar story, but I liked the imagery of a glowing emerald city. I don't think I saw the movie until my older teenage years, and remember being pleasantly surprised at the humour and charm of the portrayal of the Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow.
It also struck me that the story could easily be read as being very humanistic, and anti-religion, if not anti-theism. The feared Wizard, who can be taken as a stand in for the fearful God of the Old Testament in particular, turns out to be a "humbug", and each of the characters already has the worthy attribute which he seeks; they just need to be given the confidence that it is indeed within them.
This aspect of the book and movie still, it seems to me, gets little attention. Sure, Googling the topic now brings up some (usually fundamentalist Christian) sites which attack the story on these grounds; but not many, really. (OK, if you really want to, you can see here a rather rotund American evangelical preacher ripping into it as a "God hating" movie.)
In any event, what were the religious views of Frank Baum? Wikipedia says that he and his wife (who was prominent in the women's suffrage movement) were into Theosophy, 8 years before the book was published. It summarises his views:
The Baums believed in God, but felt that religious decisions should be made by mature minds and not religious authorities. As a result, they sent their older sons to "Ethical Culture Sunday School" in Chicago, which taught morality, not religion.Well, it would seem that he would be against the old school Christianity that emphasises fear of God, in that case. I suppose you could say it is a fairy tale that Pelagius would have enjoyed, much more so than St Augustine.
And so, we can finally come to the question - did I like the new movie?
But before we get there - is it based on anything Baum wrote? No, it's not. I was aware from Martin Gardener, who was an Oz fan, that Baum had written many sequels to the original Wizard book, and I was guessing that maybe one of those books were a prequel. But no, this does not appear to be the case at all.
Nor is the movie story in any way related to the successful stage musical Wicked. I knew nothing of that show until my kids' school choir last year did a version of "For Good", which I thought was very pleasing. But then I found the song as it appears in the stage show, and it seems rather awful in its orginal form. Compare, if you want to, an American high school version:
with the cheesy sounding stage version:
I think that's a valuable lesson in how many voices arranged well can improve a song a lot.
Anyway, the story is an elaboration on the Wizard's explanation as to how he arrived in Oz in Chapter 15 of the original book, but there was very little information there to go on. I think that making it about a selfish loser who redeems himself in another world was basically a good idea that fits thematically with the original story.
But - and I think I'm really ready now - did I like the movie overall?
Yes I did.
The biggest surprise is the unusual decision to make the adult theme of romantic/sexual jealousy a key part of the story. Well, as I have said, the original Oz story is a bit more serious than is normally credited, too. But I just did not expect that the deeply flawed man who is destined to become the Wizard would be shown to be bad by way of being a chronic womaniser, even though it appears he once had a true love to whom he has been incapable of being faithful.
I am not at all sure how kids will take this, but it seems to me that it really pitches the movie more towards a teen and adult audience. (My 10 year daughter said "he liked one woman, then another, and another. I just don't get it." She enjoyed the movie anyway.) It is similar, I suppose, to the way the Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland started with a bit of a mini Pride and Prejudice theme. (I saw that movie on TV recently, and thought it was pretty bad.)
The movie is visually impressive; unlike many reviewers, I don't criticise James Franco for being annoyingly self absorbed when he is playing a character who is meant to be self absorbed; it made me realise again what a funny character voice Zach Braff has; and it has a pleasing sort of, I don't know, depth? to it. It is my guess that its best features are a result of Raimi's sensibilities. Even though I am no fan of the superhero genre, generally speaking, he did do a very good job with the Spiderman franchise. It's funny how a man who started with zombies handles romantic themes well, isn't it?
It's not perfect, and don't get me wrong, I still consider the whole world of Oz to be rather peculiar; but I was pleased to have seen it.