And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at
your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’
It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.
Action director Sam Raimi’s sort of prequel to The Wizard of Oz has elicited a very mixed reaction from critics and fans, as well as we might expect. After all, the 1939 film is such a classic embedded in the hearts of sev eral generations of fan through its frequent appearances on broadcast and cable TV that only the most daring of filmmakers would take on Frank Baum’s iconic characters. (Note that later this year a remake of the classic is scheduled to be released, entitled L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by first time director Clayton Spinney! Yes, you read right, this director is beginning his directorial career by remaking the classic!)
Like the original film, Raimi’s starts out in Kansas as a black and white film. It centers, however, not upon a little girl, but on the man who will become the Wizard, Oscar Diggs (James Franco). Calling himself Oz, Oscar is a conman/magician performing in the Baum Circus. In each town the cad breaks the heart of attractive young women by wooing and abandoning them. When accosted by the strong man husband of his current conquest, he escapes in a balloon, is caught up in a tornado, and whisked to the magical land that is dominated by an evil witch, said to be Glinda (Michelle Williams). Or so says the glamorous witch he first meets Theodora (Mila Kunis). He also meets and picks up as followers Finlay, a flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) and China Doll (voiced by Joey King). Thanks to CGI, there are gorgeous giant flowers, a yellow brick road, and of course, the Emerald City.
Turns out however that it’s a third witch Evanora (Rachel Weisz) who is actually the evil witch—all three are sisters, but loving ones. Finlay and China Doll believe that Oz is the one predicted to come and save the land, but Oz, though he knows some good magic tricks, is far from being a savior. At the beginning of the movie he tells the girl he is rejecting (also played by Michelle Willaims) that he does not want to be a good man; he wants to be a great and powerful one. He repeats this to Glinda, who replies, “You’re capable of more than you know…” We might see in this the theme of the film, the transformation of a power-grabber into a server of others. The other famous character that comes to mind at this point is Hans Solo in Star Wars who also moves from self-centeredness to other-centeredness.
I was intrigued by Oz’s admiration and use of the genius of that time (the film is set in 1905), Thomas Alva Edison, inventor of the phonograph and motion picture. Oz reasons that if he lacks the magical powers of the witches, he can still use his knowledge of Edison’s inventions to save the day. With the help of his new friends he sets up a workshop similar to that of the Wizard of Menlo Park (as Edison was called in his time, Menlo, NJ being the site of his famous laboratory) to produce the machines that will create an illusion of his all powerfulness. (Interestingly, the managers of Turner Classic Movies scheduled the showing of the films Young Tom Edison and Edison the Man for showing during the opening days of Raimi’s film, not by accident I am sure.)
The film might lack the wonder of the original Wizard, but it still will hold the attention of young and old, even providing opportunities to talk about goodness and power and life as a matter of serving rather than getting.
1. What kind of a man is Oscar at first? Who or what is first in his life? How is he like the two disciples in the above passage from Mark?
2. Oscar says that he does not want to be a good man but a great man. What do you think he means by “great man” ? Can there be greatness without goodness? What does Jesus say about being “great” ? Do you think the world even now really “gets” what he taught? What are your reasons?
3. Compare the three witches. How is Oscar like two of them at first?
4. How does Oz begin to change when Finlay and China Doll start following him? How is this often the case, that other people bring out our better qualities? Our culture teaches the primacy of the “bad apple” spoiling the good ones, but what about the good transforming the bad? (Or, perhaps, the attractiveness of the good?)
5. How does the film show that knowledge can be better than raw physical or magical powers?