The SciFi channel was pushing this mini-series in a big way a few weeks ago, so I carved out some time to watch it. It’s a reinvention of “The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz,” the rest of L. Frank Baum’s delightful series of Oz books. The 1939 movie has sucked most of the oxygen out of the room, but there’s a lot more to his imaginary landscape than just that one trip down the yellow brick road. They really deserve a lot more readings than they get.
But I digress. In this reinvention, the germ of the plot and basic outline of characters is transposed into a scenario where “The O.Z.” (Outer Zone) is a parallel realm to where we live, and those in the know can move seamlessly back-and-forth. At the beginning, a bunch of storm trooper-like guys (the “longcoats”) use a cyclone as a diversion to come over to our side and snatch young D.G. to bring her back. Something goes a little wrong and they lose track of her. She’s captured by a bunch of miniature militiamen (aka Munchkins) with a bad attitude but escapes with the help of a fellow prisoner.
The prisoner, filling the role of the scarecrow, we find out later is a former advisor to the queen. A brilliant scientist, he had some information on weapons technology that he wouldn’t give up voluntarily, so they swiped part of his brain and put a zipper on top of his head to keep it closed. So, he’s looking for a brain.
They meet up with a former cop who’s hard-bitten and cynical after watching his family beaten and presumably murdered by the longcoats. So, he’s got no heart, get it?
Later on the meet a lion-like guy who can see the future. The bad guys wire him up and torture him to get him to reveal more, so he’s somewhat shellshocked and appears, that’s right, cowardly.
That all works for me. The rest of the story picks up the familiar tropes — the yellow brick road, the wizard, the city — but repurposes them in a way so that they’re recognizable without being cute. The wizard is a former magician. The city is like the “Center City” in Spielberg’s “AI”. In good deconstructivist fashion the emerald and the city are two different things. The yellow brick road is overgrown and thoroughly obscured. The witch melts, but into a greasy black pool. The apple trees are magical but in a different way. Auntie Em, Uncle Henry and Toto are there, too, but they are most definitely not what they appear to be.
Zooey Deschanel plays D.G. (get it — Dorothy Gale?), a waitress in a dead-end coffee shop who finds herself not in Kansas at all. She’s got this great wide-eyed look, but combines it with a no-nonsense attitude where she’s amazed by everything she sees but intimidated by none of it. She really pulls the whole thing together.
The only problem is the ending. Once upon a time, it was enough to tell a story where personal discovery and the arc of a character provided drama enough. When Oedipus found out who he was and what he’d done, that was enough. Sophocles didn’t find it necessary to have an asteroid heading towards Thebes so that even as messengers were delivering pieces of the puzzle the hero was racing to save humanity against Dr. Evil and her “laser beam.” He wisely put the sphinx and the plague in the prologue, and let the play be just about the inner drama.
So here, the discovery of the relationship between D.G. and the witch, and who they both really are, could and should have been enough. But no, that’s not 21st-century enough. There has to be an evil plan to destroy the world as we know it to be thwarted first.
BO-ring. To put it even more directly, would the 1939 movie have benefitted if an additional 45 minutes were added on, in which the Wicked Witch of the West gained control of the ruby slippers and was on the verge of using their tremendous power to blot out the sun and plunge Oz into eternal darkness using a tremendous machine emitting a bright green ray into space, but only through the pluck, wisdom, courage and heart of our intrepid heroes they were able to stop her?
I don’t think so. So at the risk of a spoiler, you can pretty much shut it down after you find out what happened in the cave.
Still, all in all a pretty good way to waste six hours in front of the TV.