The first of an occasional series of posts in which I fix storytelling problems in movies. Before reading, take a moment to review the original storyline: Wikipedia's summary page
Sam Raimi’s "Oz the Great and Powerful" is a shiny tribute to the power of CGI. Lush backdrops, beautiful costumes and makeup and gorgeous actors’ faces lit up the screen for over two hours. But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because, alas, the plot has holes. The story of Oscar Digg’s arrival in Oz and his subsequent struggle to become a better man, a man who would be called “Wizard of Oz”, suffers from—first of all—the same problem most prequels do: that is, they have to have sad endings.
Why does a prequel require a sad ending? Simple. Because the beginning of the original movie is not a happy beginning. In screenwriting, characters who change must go through a reversal: if they are to end up at point “A” by the end, then they must begin at point “Not A”. If “A” is “happy”, then the character must start out unhappy. The same can be applied to situations and events as well. In this particular instance, we already know from having seen “The Wizard of Oz” that the Wizard is a fake, and that he’s old, and not terribly happy. He also has some unresolved conflict with the Wicked Witch of the West. So at the end of the prequel, Oscar/Oz must be fake, old, unhappy, and have a conflict with the Wicked Witch of the West. Therefore at the beginning of “Oz the Great and Powerful”, he must not be these things. He should be real, young, happy, and must get along with the Wicked Witch.
Raimi’s version of the movie gets three of four of these starting points correct. Oscar, as played by James Franco, begins the movie as a young and happy but fake wizard who gets along with Theodora (as she is called before she becomes Wicked). Even though he charms her, though, he is not truly interested in her, rather he is interested in—shall we say, the feminine form. He is an unrepentant skirt-chaser, having chased and released numerous female assistants of his show in Kansas, and he falls for each of the three witches in the movie as he meets them. Yet he never learns his lesson or changes his ways, ending up as happy in the end of the movie as at the beginning. This is a major problem for Raimi’s film if it is to be taken seriously as a prequel to the movie we all already know.
I need to identify one more major problem in Raimi’s film: that is, that there is no magic in Oz. No living tin-men, no talking scarecrows, no talking lions. Yes, we have a doll that can speak, and other animals that can talk, but there is a serious lack of magic in the movie, which doesn’t make sense considering that there is magic in “The Wizard of Oz”. I will solve both of these problems by turning this fluff piece into a classical tragedy.
At the beginning of the movie, Oscar Diggs is a magician who is so talented that he begins to believe he is actually magic. Annie is his true love, but he is too focused on his career as circus magician to give her the attention that she deserves and therefore she marries John Gale instead. Heartbroken but keeping it bottled in, Oscar continues to perform and is eventually carried away to the Land of Oz.
The first person he meets in Oz is Theodora, who shows him around and tells him about the prophecy of the Wizard of Oz. With full confidence that he is the wizard they have all been waiting for, he falls for her—and she for him—and they make plans to rule Oz as King and Queen. Theodora warns him, though, that there is one rule of magic in Oz, and it’s that magic cannot affect non-magic things. For example, spells and curses, etc. only work on witches and wizards and those things that are intrinsically imbued with magic. Unknown to Theodora, this does not pose a problem for Oz, because his “magic” is done with technology and sleight of hand, not spells and potions.
Evanora, who is clearly a bad witch (as opposed to her sister Theodora, who still has much good in her), disapproves of this coupling, which could interfere with her plans to become Queen in her own right. She has been keeping Theodora isolated to use her as a pawn in her campaign against Glinda the Good. Evanora exploits Oz’s inexperience by telling him lies about Glinda and sending him off to kill her, although secretly Evanora expects him to die trying. This part is no different from Raimi’s version.
As in Raimi’s film, Oz meets Glinda by accident and recognizes her as the analogue of Annie, his lost love, and he is so struck by her that he forgets about Theodora—or rather, he remembers her but can no longer love her. He plans to make Glinda, not Theodora, his Queen as she helps him become King.
Evanora sees this development through her crystal ball and shows Theodora parts of it, in triumph because although he has taken the throne, she can again use her sister as a tool to overcome the new King and Queen. Theodora becomes evil as a result of her sister's coercion and her own broken heart.
Theodora appears to Oz, who tries to apologize, but she will not listen. She curses him with her strongest evil magic but the spell bounces off of him, and explodes all over the Land of Oz. Oz the man explains that he was never magic, and that he is a “fake”. This is a moment where the audience will feel sympathy for both Oz and Theodora. Enraged, the witch exits, leaving him alone, and all around him are the effects of the magic: dolls come to life, scarecrows start to stir, etc.
Oz’s conscience dictates that he must now clean up Theodora’s mess: that is, he must find and help all the people and beings affected by the spilled magic. In order to so do, he enlists the help of Glinda, who does not know he is a “fake” but still thinks of him as the Wizard of the prophecy. Unable to tell Glinda the truth, Oz eventually grows away from her and is as alone as when Annie left him.
Oz is now both the Wizard of Oz and the charlatan behind the curtain. His experiences have aged him, he is unhappy because he feels fake, and the Wicked Witch hates him. Glinda idolizes him but doesn’t really know him. When Dorothy arrives in Oz, the Glinda sends her to him as she has all the other magicked beings in the last several years, having even gone as far as fabricating a yellow brick road leading to his abode in the Emerald City.
There’s your classical tragedy, your “fall from grace”: experienced, believable, and lovable Kansas magician Oscar becomes a fake Wizard with no friends, perpetually paying for the heart he has broken in his quest to help those who apply to him for brains, courage, family, etc. as a result of his hubris.