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Dorothy Gale Week: Conclusions

the-road-to-ozSo what have we learned this week?

We’ve learned that Dorothy Gale from Kansas is a character who can survive almost anything. She’s a child with a wise, kind heart, and one who can stand up to all manner of wicked witches, evil dictators, nomes, monochromatic elephants, monsters, wheelers, androids, and Richard Pryor. But I think we’ve also learned that, unlike many of the other characters the Icons project focuses on, she’s not necessarily the most important part of the story. Dorothy, even in those early days of L. Frank Baum, was most effective when used as the audience’s viewpoint character, the little girl from the real world who allows us to see Oz through fresh eyes. Giving her a ton of Oz-rich backstory can work well (like in Tin Man) or be a disaster (such as in the 1925 Wizard of Oz), but either way, it’s not strictly necessary to tell an Oz story. There are plenty of other ways to do it. And if you don’t believe that, start hunting down the public domain Oz books available freely online, or even visit your local library.

Because reading is good.

Anyway, since (as we’ve said) Dorothy isn’t strictly the most important character in Oz, let’s move on to another story told through the eyes of someone who’s not, technically, the hero. Arthur Conan Doyle knew, when he was creating the smartest man in the world, that the audience would only understand the stories if there was more of an everyman to relate to, and thus he created Dr. John Watson. But Watson isn’t the star, is he friends? Come back in late May for the third Icons week, when we turn our eye to the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes.

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Dorothy Gale Week Day 5: Fairuza Balk in Return to Oz (1985)

returnozDirector: Walter Murch

Writer: Walter Murch, Gill Dennis, based on the novels The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Cast: Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh, Piper Laurie, Matt Clark, Sean Barrett, Michael Sundin, Tim Rose, Mak Wilson, Denise Bryer, Brian Henson, Lyle Conway, Justin Case, John Alexander, Deep Roy, Emma Ridley, Sophie Ward, Fiona Victory, Pons Maar

Plot: It has been six months since Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) came home following her adventure in Oz. Her Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) is working to rebuild the farm, destroyed by the tornado, and Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) is worried that the little girl is sleepless, stuck imagining the fairy land she “dreamed” about before. Dorothy scolds a chicken named Billina who has been unable to produce eggs, and finds an old key in the chicken coop. The design on the end of it seems to bear an “O-Z” – the symbol of the land of Oz. She shows it to Em as proof of her stories, but it only furthers her resolve to bring Dorothy to the a doctor. She tells Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson) her stories of Oz, of her friends, of the Ruby Slippers that were lost as she flew home. Worley unveils an electrical device with a “face” that may cure her, and Dorothy sees a reflection of a girl (Emma Ridley) looking at her. The doctor and his nurse (Jean Marsh) prepare Dorothy to stay overnight for treatment. Dorothy is strapped onto a gurney for treatment, but she’s frightened by the device placed on her head. Before the Doctor can turn it on, the power to the hospital is knocked out by a storm. The Nurse goes to check on a screaming patient while the Doctor tries to repair the power, leaving Dorothy alone so the mysterious girl can unstrap her and let her free. Rushing outside, the girls are separated by a flash flood, and Dorothy clings to a floating chicken coop to ride out the storm.

In the morning, Dorothy finds that her hen Billina is in the coop with her, she begins speaking (voice of Denise Bryer). The coop has washed up on the edge of a desert, with lush, green land nearby. Dorothy realizes they must be in Oz, which means the sands beneath them are those of the Deadly Desert, which transforms any living creature that touches it to sand. Dorothy carries Billina to safety, leaping from one stone to another until she reaches the grass, unaware that some of those stones are watching her. The creature watching from the rocks rushes off to inform his king that she has returned to Oz, and has a chicken with her.

Dorothy and Billina find the old farmhouse where it crashed in Munchkinland, but realize the Munchkin City is gone, and the Munchkins with it. The Yellow Brick Road has been reduced to rubble, and she races along it until she comes to the destroyed remains of the Emerald City. The people have been turned to stone, including the Tin Woodsman and Cowardly Lion. They are attacked by creatures with wheels for hands and feet, who chase them into a hidden chamber. The lead Wheeler (Pans Maar) tells them they’ll destroy them, for the Nome King doesn’t allow chickens in Oz. Turning around, Dorothy finds a clockwork man with a plate that proclaims him “The Royal Army of Oz.” Winding him up with the key she found in Kansas, he activates and introduces himself at Tik-Tok (Sean Barrett). Upon the orders of the Scarecrow, he was locked in the chamber to wait for Dorothy’s return after the people began to turn to stone. Tik-Tok defeats the Wheelers and interrogates the leader, who tells them the Nome King is responsible for Oz’s devastation, and that only Princess Mombi can tell them where the Scarecrow is. In Mombi’s palace, they find a beautiful woman with a room full of interchangeable heads. She imprisons Dorothy in the attic, planning to come back for her when her own head is a bit older.

In the attic, Dorothy finds a pumpkin-headed man named Jack (Brian Henson), who tells her he was built by Mombi’s former servant to scare the witch. Instead of destroying him, Mombi tested a “Powder of Life” on him, then locked up the remaining powder with her original head. Jack believes his “mother” was enchanted by Mombi and hidden away. Dorothy and Jack sneaks out to steal the powder, but Mombi is alerted when her original head (Jean Marsh again) wakes up and shouts for help. The others have constructed a flying contraption from couches, leaves, and the mounted head of a Gump (Lyle Conway), which they bring to life with the powder and escape. They fly until the Gump comes apart and crashes on the mountain of the Nome King (Williamson), where the Scarecrow (Justin Case) is imprisoned.

The Nome King (happy that Billina has seemingly disappeared, although she is merely resting inside Jack’s hollow head) has transformed the Scarecrow into an amusing ornament for his vast collection, and claims his conquest of Oz was simply taking back what belonged to him – the gems from the Emerald City were all mined from his underground kingdom, after all. As she weeps for her missing friend, the Nome King seems genuinely touched by her tears, and offers her an opportunity to win him back – if she or her friends can guess which ornament he is, he will be set free. The Gump goes first, but fails in his effort and is transformed into an ornament himself – a condition of the contest the Nome King failed to mention before. Jack goes next, then Tik-Tok, and each are transformed. The Nome King offers to send Dorothy back home using the Ruby Slippers, which he found after she lost them, but she insists on trying to save her friends. She manages to rescue the Scarecrow, who was turned into an emerald, and realizes the people from Oz are all green ornaments. They quickly rescue the Gump, and the Nome King grows angry, sending an earthquake through the mountain. They find and transform Jack as the Nome King attacks them, enraged, tired of the games. He grabs Jack, lifting him to his mouth, but he’s stopped by a sudden clucking sound. Inside Jack’s head, Billina lays an egg, which rolls into the Nome King’s mouth. As he shrieks, he begins to crumble away, revealing that eggs are poison to Nomes. The mountain collapses, and Dorothy takes the Ruby Slippers from the Nome King’s body, using the magic to bring them back to the Emerald City, bring the people back to life, and return Oz to its former glory. With them is a green medal that was somehow stuck to the Gump. Dorothy guesses the truth, and transforms the medal back into the missing Tik-Tok.

The people of Oz ask Dorothy to stay and be their queen, but she wishes to return to Kansas. As she debates what to do, the women whose heads Mombi took tell the truth about her serving-girl: she is Ozma, queen and rightful ruler of Oz. (Also Jack’s “mother” and the girl who helped Dorothy escape the hospital), lost after the Wizard came. Freed from Mombi’s magic, Ozma is restored to the throne and promises to send Dorothy home, on the condition that she signal her should she ever wish to return to Oz again.

Thoughts: This film is an old favorite of mine, probably my first experience with Oz beyond the MGM Musical. It may, in fact, be what first stirred me on to read the further Oz books, when I heard it was essentially a combination of the second and third novels in the series, The Marvelous Land of Oz and Return to Oz. (Honestly, I don’t remember if I read the books before I saw the movie or vice-versa. I would have been 8 years old when this movie was released, and certainly old enough to have discovered the Oz shelf at the St. Charles Parish Public Library where I would be utterly lost for the next few years – a sojourn for which I am eternally grateful.) The writers took the characters and plots of both books and blended them together in a very satisfying way, creating a story that evokes parts of each of them, but manages to feel complete in and of itself. I won’t go into what parts came from which book (read them yourself – they’re in the public domain and free on the internet), but I can say that if I hadn’t read them myself, I wouldn’t have guessed the movie is a mash-up.

Fairuza Balk is the most age-appropriate Dorothy we’ve had yet (she was 11 at the time the film was released), and puts out a decent performance. She’s a young actor, obviously still learning, and you frequently hear the stilted delivery of a child actor trying to remember her lines. But there’s a nice bit of emotion and determination in her voice, even during those abrupt and unnecessary pauses. She feels like a Dorothy who’s already been through a lot and has to reconcile the world she experienced with the ordinary one in which she was raised. It’s a nuanced idea, one that Baum never dealt with much in the books (except perhaps in The Emerald City of Oz), and rather daring for Disney to attempt in the 80s.

Except for Dorothy and Mombi, most of the cast is realized through the use of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, doing a job that these days would probably be mostly CGI. I find the practical puppetry of Tik-Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead far more impressive than most computer animated creations, however, and they add a sense of realism to this fantastic setting. The character designs also skew very close to the illustrations in the original Oz books  — even the three characters from the original Wizard of Oz are made up to look like their book versions rather than Jack Haley, Ray Bolger or Bert Lahr. Of all the versions of Oz I’ve looked at this week, this is the one that feels most like the fantasy epic it is at its heart, and I attribute a lot of that to the designs of the characters and sets used here. There’s also some well-done stop motion animation for the Nomes, which are more like living rocks here than the dumpy creatures of the novel. The animation, done by Claymation creator Will Vinton, looks very impressive, and I can try to reconcile the changes to the characters with an attempt to make them more menacing – although the Nome King in Baum’s novels is one of the few truly credible threats to the power of Ozma and Glinda, his appearance is by no means something that will inspire fright.

Return to Oz was thought of by many people as an attempt to do a sequel to the Judy Garland movie, but this film has only a few nods to the MGM musical – the use of Ruby Slippers being the most obvious. The sequence in Kansas at the beginning, like in the MGM movie, introduces actors that would reoccur in Oz and elements that would reflect back on Dorothy’s second adventure (the pumpkin, the lunchpail, and the mechanical man most obviously). Fortunately, the end of the movie makes it pretty clear this time, it’s not just a dream, which Baum never intended in the first place.

As far as deviating from Baum’s intentions, the villains are farther off than anything else. Mombi has little in common with her counterpart from the books, borrowing her most distinctive aspects from Langwidere, the head-swappin’ princess from Ozma of Oz. The Nome King himself, though, is the biggest departure, showing a sense of compassion that doesn’t bespeak the character from the book at all, although the temper he displays at the end feels appropriate. His appearance is also very different from the pudgy, deceptively silly character he is in the books. In this version, he begins as a creature made of solid rock, and slowly becomes more human with each person added to his collection of ornaments. Once Dorothy starts setting her friends free he grows more and more inhuman again, finally crumbling to skeletal rock after Billina’s egg poisons him. It’s an interesting idea that would probably work with some villains, but doesn’t really fit the Nome King of L. Frank Baum’s novels all that well.

Despite that, this movie feels more like Baum’s Oz than any Oz movie I’ve ever seen – not perfect, mind you (the Emerald City’s sudden proximity to the very edge of Oz still strikes me as being somewhat ridiculous in the context of any version of the first story), but closer than anything else. We’ve still yet to have a truly faithful big-screen adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, let alone the rest of the books in the series, but if we ever get them, the look and flavor of this movie wouldn’t be a bad template to use at all.

Now I know I promised you five films for each week of this project, but I feel a little bad, as the most recent significant version of Dorothy Gale I can find in cinema is nearly 30 years old. Hollywood really needs to pick up the pace. But in order to have something a little more recent, just for perspective, come back tomorrow for a Dorothy Gale Week bonus! This time we’re going to the small screen to see how Zooey Deschanel depicted Dorothy Gale (or “D.G.”) in the 2007 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries Tin Man.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Dorothy Gale Week Day 4: Diana Ross in The Wiz (1978)

The Wiz (1978)Director: Sidney Lumet

Writer: Joel Schumacher, based on the play by Charlie Smalls and William F. Brown, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum

Cast: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Mabel King, Theresa Merritt, Thelma Carpenter, Lena Horne, Richard Pryor, Stanley Greene

Plot: In modern-day Harlem, a family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner. Dorothy (Diana Ross) is a schoolteacher, living with her Aunt Em (Theresa Merritt) and Uncle Henry (Stanley Greene), who wishes for her to break free and find a life of her own.  Her dog Toto rushes out into a snowstorm after dinner, and Dorothy races after him. A cyclone appears in the snow, grabbing them both and pulling them into the air, where we see the cyclone being manipulated by a woman in the stars (Lena Horne). She drops Dorothy into a pit of sand near a graphitti-covered wall, and the people painted onto the wall come to life. Although initially frightened, the people from the walls begin celebrating her for killing the Wicked Witch of the East, knocking down a sign on her during her descent. The people, the Munchkins, were trapped in the wall by the Witch’s magic, and now are free. Miss One (Thelma Carpenter), the Good Witch of the North, thanks Dorothy and gives her the Wicked Witch’s Silver Shoes. Miss One doesn’t have the power to send Dorothy home to New York herself, and she knows the Wicked Witch of the West will be uninclined to help. Even Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, will likely be unavailable. Instead, she suggests Dorothy follow the Yellow Brick Road to talk to the Wiz.

As Dorothy walks through the strange city, unable to find the Road, she finds a Scarecrow (Michael Jackson) being tormented by a group of crows. She shoos the birds away and frees the Scarecrow. When he realizes the crows had tricked him into captivity, he reveals to Dorothy his head is stuffed with garbage instead of a brain. She suggests he come with her to see the Wiz for help. The Scarecrow finds the rubble of yellow bricks and they finally trace them to the Road. As they walk through the remains of an amusement park they find a trapped mechanical man beneath some rubble (Nipsey Russell). The Tin Man says it’s okay – he lacks a heart, and cannot feel. They help him to his feet and he joins them. As they pass the library, the Tin Man notices a statue of a lion is watching them. Inside the statue they find a real Lion (Ted Ross), who boasts to them but is soon revealed as a coward. He joins them as well.

Following encounters with creatures in the subway and a group of “Poppies” that try to tempt the friends away from the path, they arrive at the Emerald City, where the Great and Power Oz summons “the one with the silver slippers” to his chambers.  Oz, appearing as a giant mechanical head, hears their requests and bargains with them: he’ll aid them if they can destroy Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West (Mabel King). They find Evillene in a sweatshop beneath the city, where her Winkie captives are toiling away, when she hears of Dorothy’s quest. She sends out her motorcycle gang, the Flying Monkeys, to capture the girl. Although they are captured easily, Evillene finds she cannot take the Silver Slippers from Dorothy against her will, and instead begins torturing her friends, cutting the Scarecrow in half, flattening the Tin Man, and dangling the Lion from his tail as he shouts to Dorothy not to give up the shoes. When the Witch is about to throw Toto into a flaming cauldron, the Scarecrow tells Dorothy to pull the fire alarm, setting off the sprinklers. Toto is saved, and the water melts Evillene to nothing. The Winkies, free from the Witch’s enchantment, release Dorothy and her friends and celebrate. When they return to the Emerald City, they find the Wiz (Richard Pryor) has closed up shop, and is a phony, powerless little man sleeping on a cot. He reveals he’s just an ordinary man from Atlantic City, and only sent Dorothy to destroy Evillene because he feared her. As her friends lament, Dorothy points out to each of them how they’ve already proven they have everything they need. It seems that Dorothy will be trapped, though, when the woman in the stars appears. She is Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, and reveals to Dorothy that her silver shoes have the power to send her home, now that she truly knows herself. The Wiz asks Dorothy if she can help him, and she tells him that he, like the rest of them, can only be helped by letting people see who he really is. She says goodbye to her friends and she and Toto finally return home.

Thoughts: I can’t believe my first official Reel to Reel encounter with the dreaded Joel Schumacher comes in the form of this Broadway adaptation. There’s just something terribly twisted about that. Anyway, Schumacher’s script takes some liberties not only with the Oz formula, but even with the original play, which skewed closer to L. Frank Baum’s book. The play kept Dorothy on a farm, it’s the movie that moved her to a school in Harlem and put in the metaphor of Oz as a fantastic version of New York City. Fortunately, the changes actually work to create something that feels very different than other versions of Oz, yet still undeniably taps into the soul of what Baum created.

What I like about this version of the story is that is really shows the diversity of the basic Oz concept. The writers of the play and creators of the film took the skeleton of Baum’s story and created something different and unique. The appearance of the Munchkins, for example, is initially terrifying, even for someone who knows the story and surmises that they don’t actually mean her any harm. Resetting Oz in a dark fairy tale version of New York is an effective change as well, giving it a feeling of urban magic that sets it apart from the very rural feel of most traditional interpretations of the story.

On the other hand, there are some aspects in which this version skews closer to Baum than most other film versions… Dorothy wears Silver Shoes instead of Ruby Slippers, and doesn’t (technically) encounter Glinda until the end of the story, keeping the Witch of the North in her proper role at the beginning, whereas the MGM film and most other versions just have Glinda fill both of those parts. On the other hand, the implication that Glinda manipulated events just to bring Dorothy to Oz is a new idea to this version. It would be easy to see it as somewhat cruel, but I think it feels more like the actions of a fairy godmother, putting the pieces in just the right place to do her charge some good. Baum didn’t really have a particular moral lesson for Dorothy, the MGM film added a considerable weight to the idea that “there’s no place like home.” With this film, the message seems to be exactly the opposite – there’s a big world out there and it takes courage to find it.

Diana Ross works very well in this incarnation of Dorothy.  At the beginning of the movie she comes across as very timid, even frightened of the smallest things. She slowly changes as the movie goes on, first needing to find a well of courage when she saves the Scarecrow, and expressing joy in the antics of the Tin Man. By the time they reach the Emerald City (which the Wiz then changes to Ruby, then to Gold on whim), she’s becoming more fully-formed. At first, he won’t allow her friends to see him, but Dorothy refuses to speak to him without the others. Ross still has some timidity in her voice here, but it’s paired with determination in a way that shows how far she’s grown as a character already.

The small tweaks to Dorothy’s friends all feel very natural and in keeping with the concept that they all really had what they wanted all along. Michael Jackson’s Scarecrow, for instance, is never particularly foolish, and we accentuate this point by having him periodically pull a scrap of “garbage” from his head with some sort of wise fortune cookie-style quotation on it. Nipsey Russell’s Tin Man, from the beginning, has a lively energy that simply doesn’t fit the conceit that he has no feelings. He seems thrilled from the beginning to have friends and a purpose again. The Lion is the only one who really displays his fault – cowardice – and in fact has a fine moment after the encounter with the Poppies where he laments his weakness. Dorothy, as usual, helps him back from the edge (literally), and from then on when they approach danger, he may tremble, but he pulls himself together in the end.

The music in this version takes a few different paths. “Ease on Down the Road,” probably the most famous number, is vibrant, energetic, and fun. Evillene’s “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” has a similar energy, but a much more sinister flavor. Other songs, like the Scarecrow’s “You Can’t Win,” are considerably darker, and still more project homely feelings, or soulful rhythms. A lot of them are particularly quiet and emotional – Dorothy’s “Believe in Yourself” in particular clearly is meant to reach right to the heartstrings. It makes for an eclectic mix that fits nicely with the wild, unique vision of Oz presented in this movie. Some of them do tend to go on a little too long, with endless refrains and dance numbers that probably work better on stage than in the filmed version, but there’s nothing that ever really gets tedious… just a few moments where I wanted them to get on with it.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen this version of the story, and I’m rather sorry it took so long. While not really like the classic versions, it has a spirit and vibe of its own that’s very entertaining and very satisfying. As far as efforts to “reimagine” Oz have gone, this is one of the better ones.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Dorothy Gale Week Day 3: Liza Minnelli in Journey Back to Oz (1974)

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????Director: Hal Sutherland

Writer: Fred Land & Norman Prescott

Cast: Liza Minnelli, Milton Berle, Margaret Hamilton, Paul Ford, Paul Lynde, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Danny Thomas, Mel Blanc, Dal McKennon, Larry Storch, Risë Stevens, Jack E. Leonard, Herschel Bernardi

Plot: In this animated kind-of sequel to the 1939 MGM film, a storm is brewing in Kansas again, and Henry (Paul Ford) is getting worried. His niece Dorothy (Liza Minnelli) feels a-tingle, remembering  how a similar storm once swept her away to the land of Oz, but her Aunt Em (Margaret Hamilton) swears to her that Oz is simply a figment of her imagination. As she sings to Toto about wishing to return, a cyclone snaps the two of them up and pulls them into the air. When Dorothy comes to her senses, she realizes she’s landed by the Yellow Brick Road in Oz, and rushes off to find her old friends in the Emerald City. Setting off, Dorothy encounters a creature with a pumpkin for a head (Paul Lynde). Pumpkinhead is fleeing from an evil witch named Mombi (Ethel Merman), who created him to help her conjure some powerful, terrible work of magic. Dorothy tells Pumpkinhead to come with her to the Emerald City, where her friend the Scarecrow will help him.

Dorothy finds Mombi’s hut, where a crow (Mel Blanc) invites her to peek at the cauldron simmering on the fire. Mombi traps her and reveals her brew will create an army of green elephants to conquer Oz and destroy the Scarecrow. When Mombi leaves to get firewood, Pumpkinhead sneaks in and rescues Dorothy. As they escape, they encounter a carousel horse called Woodenhead (Herschel Bernardi), stuck upside-down in the ground. They free him and he joins their party.

Arriving at the Emerald City, they warn the Scarecrow (Mickey Rooney about Mombi’s attack just as the Witch and her Green Elephants arrive. Dorothy and her friends climb on Woodenhead’s back, but Toto and the Scarecrow are captured in the escape. Dorothy, Pumpkinhead and Woodenhead set out for Tinland, to enlist the aid of her old friend the Tin Man (Danny Thomas).  At first he’s eager to help, but loses heart when told of the army of elephants. The Cowardly Lion (Milton Berle) initially puts on a show of bravado, but quickly reverts back to quaking when told of the elephants. Glinda, the Good Witch (Risë Stevens) who has been watching the proceedings with her… “Glinda-Bird”… arrives to offer her aid, and gives Dorothy a package which she warns her not to open until she arrives at the Emerald City.

Mombi sends a group of enchanted trees after the friends, but Glinda – watching through the Glinda-Bird – gives Pumpkinhead a magic axe that turns them into… well… hippies. Saved, they return to an Emerald City that has rapidly fallen into decay. They are attacked by an elephant, but Dorothy opens Glinda’s box and a swarm of magic mice pop out and chase it away, freeing them to assault the palace. The mice make it to Mombi’s chambers and chase her the gardens, where she disguises herself as a rose bush. The mice have sent the elephants on a stampede, though, and she is trampled flat. Toto, recognizing Mombi’s true form, leads Dorothy to the flattened rose, who blames Dorothy for her fate just as she dies. As she withers, the elephants fade and the Emerald City is restored to its former glory. The celebration is short-lived, though, as Pumpkinhead has fallen along with the rest of Mombi’s creations. Glinda tells Dorothy her magic cannot restore him, and Dorothy weeps for her fallen friend. As she cries, her tears touch Pumpkinhead’s face, and the magic of her love restores him to life. The Scarecrow awards his friends, making Woodenhead his own royal steed and knighting Pumpkinhead, then offers Dorothy anything she desires. She asks, as always, simply to return home.  The Scarecrow find a loophole in the Oz Constitution that will only allow Dorothy to return home the way she came, and Glinda creates a cyclone to carry her back.

Thoughts: In the 1970s theatrical animation could be divided pretty squarely into two categories: Disney, and everything else. This Filmation effort falls into the latter category: limited animation, competent but unimpressive voice acting and weak music. The idea of doing an Oz sequel was all well and good, but Filmation went with stunt casting (Judy Garland’s daughter voicing Dorothy, original Wicked Witch Margaret Hamilton doing a cameo as Aunt Em, plus several celebrities of the time) and an uncredited rewrite of Baum’s second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz. This movie plucks some of the characters from that book – Mombi and Pumpkinhead – turns the Sawhorse into a Merry-Go-Round horse, then turns the plot into something that’s trying hard to be The Wizard of Oz all over again. Instead of that other story, in which a young boy named Tip and his friends wind up stumbling on a plot to conquer Oz by an army of angry women, this movie has Dorothy once again marching to the Emerald City, once again picking up unusual friends along the way, once again being plagued by a Wicked Witch out for revenge. It’s incomprehensible to me why, with 14 Oz books to choose from by Baum alone, filmmakers never seem to look past the first three for inspiration, and often try to shoehorn elements from the latter two into the mold of the first one all over again. It’s equally baffling why they would create new elements when the originals (such as General Jinjur’s all-girl army, which the elephants are standing in for) work so much better. And for Heaven’s sake, why elephants? Okay, they’re big, they’re powerful, but the way the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion react to them you’d think elephants are their natural predators or something. Even mammoths might make sense, but the Tin Man going into a panic over green elephants simply doesn’t make any sense.

The performances, as I said, are merely adequate. Liza Minnelli is clearly cast simply for the gimmick of having her take up her mother’s role, as she brings nothing to the part. She’s not terrible, but there are most certainly more talented voice performers who could have done more, granted the character the sweetness and innocence she demands. As it is, the only thing that really can be said about Dorothy in this film is that she “kinda sounds a little like Judy Garland.” The animation is weak as well – Filmation does a far better job with the non-human characters than Dorothy. She’s surrounded by characters like the Tin Man and Pumpkinhead, which at least look amusing, but Dorothy herself is a stiff, unemotive creature that only really has one expression. This isn’t one of those times where I’m willing to chalk it up to the limited resources of the time, either. If Disney could make magical, powerful characters in the 1930s, the only excuse for the poor animation of the 70s is pencil-pushers cutting corners, and that I refuse to forgive.

Some of the other characters are better, at least. Milton Berle as the Cowardly Lion and Mickey Rooney as the Scarecrow fit the parts nicely. Danny Thomas’s Tin Man is less impressive, and Paul Lynde… well, he’s pretty much Paul Lynde talking out of a Jack O’Lantern. Ethel Merman’s Mombi isn’t bad at all, but she’s playing a typical, stereotypical witch, not particularly doing anything innovative. But my biggest problem with them is more along the lines of characterization than animation. The notion that the Tin Man or Lion would ever refuse to help Dorothy is preposterous. Hell, the entire point of the Lion’s story arc in the first book (or movie) is that he will always overcome his fear to help his friends! You mean to tell me you wave a little thing like an army of magic green elephants in his face and the king of beasts will lose his ability to fight? Absolutely not, my friends. I cannot accept this. The scenes with the Tin Man and Lion ultimately have no impact on the plot anyway, they’re included simply so that the recognizable characters could put in an appearance. It would have been just as effective and far less insulting, from a story standpoint, if the movie skipped from the escape from the Emerald City to the point where Glinda pops up. (It would actually be better, in fact, because if Glinda was watching the whole time, why the hell did she wait so long before taking action?)

Speaking of Glinda, here we see one of those oft-used fantasy tropes that usually irritates me: the “don’t open it until the proper time” gimmick. Writers often use this to create some false suspense, but at least they usually make some effort to explain why the giver of the gift won’t say what it is: magic, arbitrary rules of the game, “you wouldn’t have believed me,” something. None of those are brought into play here, though, there was no reason for Glinda to make a secret out of the box’s contents. It’s just there so we can have a brief moment in the forest where Woodenhead suggests opening the box to escape the trees and Dorothy can tell him no, reminding us that she’s a good little girl who does as Glinda tells her.

The songs, like the voice acting, are merely adequate. Each character gets at least one, Dorothy gets several, none of them are particularly memorable. This was par for the course for films of this nature, sadly, and that’s even sadder when you compare it to the incomparable music from the 1939 film.

When I learned of the existence of this movie, I was initially very excited – as I always am when I find out about a version of Oz I haven’t encountered before. Sadly, the whole thing fell very flat for me. It was at least more recognizable than the 1925 Wizard of Oz, but in truth, that’s mostly because it was built on the back of the Judy Garland film. That’s not to say you can’t tell a good Oz story that way – many people have – but this didn’t hold up for me. Still, I can see a lot of similarities to the cartoons I grew up watching, the ones that hold a special place in my heart even today. On the other hand, I can also recognize that a large number of those cartoons I loved as a kid are terribly weak when looked back upon with a discerning eye. I suspect that if I had watched this movie as a child, I’d probably upon it with rose-colored glasses. As it is, I’m just left sliding the disc back into its NetFlix sleeve and feeling a little disappointed for the second time in this week’s experiment.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Dorothy Gale Week Day 2: Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Wizard of Oz 1939Director: Victor Fleming

Writer: Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum

Cast: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin, Clara Blandick

Plot: On a farm in Kansas, Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) has to defend her dog, Toto, from the angry reproach of her neighbor, Mrs. Gulch (Margaret Hamilton). Because Toto has bitten Gulch, she’s within her rights to take the dog and have it destroyed. Dorothy and Toto run away, encountering a carnival performer called Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan), who convinces her to return home to her upset Uncle Henry and Aunt Em (Charley Grapewin & Clara Blandwick). When she returns, a tornado has sprung up and her family is hiding in the storm cellar. Dorothy and Toto rush into the farmhouse, which the tornado plucks from the ground and hurls through the air.

Dorothy crashes in a brilliantly colorful land called Oz, where she finds herself the darling of a group of small people called Munchkins.  She is met by a good witch named Glinda (Billie Burke), who explains that Dorothy’s house crushed the tyrannical Wicked Witch of the East. Her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton again) arrives for vengeance, but finds she cannot harm Dorothy directly, as Glinda has given her the dead witch’s powerfully magic Ruby Slippers.

Glinda sets Dorothy on a path to the fabled Emerald City, where the Wizard of Oz may be able to help her get home. Along the way she is joined by three others, each who need help from the Wizard: a living Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) was made without a brain, a Tin Woodsman (Jack Haley) who was crafted without a heart, and a Lion (Bert Lahr) who is sadly a coward. The three of them encounter the witch several times, narrowly escaping her traps before finally arriving in the Emerald City. When they go into the Wizard’s chambers, they encounter an enormous floating head that tells them he can grant their wishes, but will only do so if they can bring him the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West.

Dorothy and her friends travel to the Witch’s palace, where she is captured by the Witch’s flying monkeys. The other three disguise themselves as guards and rescue her, but encounter the witch upon escape. In desperation, Dorothy hurls a bucket of water at the witch, who immediately melts away, destroyed by her one weakness. Returning to the Emerald City, the Wizard tells them he needs time to think about their requests. As the friends despair, Toto discovers a little man (Morgan again) hiding behind a curtain, operating a machine that projects the image of the head. The Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, it seems, is a humbug – a simple performer from the United States who accidentally drifted into Oz years ago in a hot air balloon.

Recognizing that the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman and Lion already possess those very things they most desire, he gives each of them a small token: a diploma to signify the Scarecrow’s wisdom, a testimonial in the shape of a heart for the Tin Woodsman, and a medal to proclaim the courage of the Lion. For Dorothy, though, the only thing he can do is repair his balloon and take her home himself. Before they’re about to leave, though, Toto leaps from the basket. Dorothy rushes after him, and the balloon drifts away with the Wizard alone. Dorothy fears she’ll be trapped in Oz forever, but Glinda appears again and reveals that the Ruby Slippers she wears have the power to transport her: she need only click her heels together three times and recite “There’s no place like home.” When Dorothy does this, the world swims around her and she wakes up back in Kansas, surrounded by her Aunt and Uncle, three farmhands who bear a striking resemblance to her friends in Oz, and Professor Marvel, who has come to check on her. Although they all believe she dreamed her adventure in Oz, Dorothy doesn’t care – she is content to simply be home.

Thoughts: After yesterday’s somewhat disturbing look at a silent Oz, spending time with the MGM classic is just what I needed. This is the movie we all know and love, the apex of the musical fantasy, the film that virtually everybody in the world has seen as a child, hidden from the flying monkeys, sang along with the Munchkins, and then later pretended they didn’t like a few years later while going through a hipster phase. It is, in fact, a masterpiece.

Although the film seemed like it was going to be a disaster for much of the production, with prospective directors and screenwriters playing musical chairs before we finally landed on the people who got the credit, the final result is something that was spectacular to look at in 1939 and is still lovely today. The transition from the sepia tone of Kansas to the brilliant color of Oz is beautiful both artistically and technically. The shift demonstrates a transition from a sad, humdrum world into a place of incredible wonders, and when you consider most people in 1939 would never have seen much color before, it’s easy to see it as a game-changer. The color in this film mattered as a storytelling choice, it sold the idea that color can influence the telling of the tale. This was Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer all over again, looking at the camera and proclaiming “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” This (if I may briefly tangent) is why I still don’t care for 3-D movies – no matter how pretty any of them may be, I’ve yet to see a movie become more effective as a story because it is in 3-D, the way this film could never have been filmed in black and white.

Judy Garland has become the gold standard for Dorothy Gale. Not only is the actress most identified with the role, but a vast majority of the artistic representations since then have used her likeness and costume as the basis, even though later Oz books specified her as blonde and depicted her in different clothes than the blue checkered dress. In truth, at 16 when the movie was filmed, Garland was really too old to fit the part as written (at one point, then 10-year-old Shirley Temple was a frontrunner for the role). Yet her youthful charm, innocence, and amazing voice sold her like few actresses have ever sold a part. You cannot use the name Dorothy without summoning up a vision of Judy Garland, and that’s all to the good.

Despite the various cast changes, it’s now virtually impossible to imagine anyone filling in the other principle roles than the actors we had. Ray Bolger flawlessly plays the wise man who doesn’t understand his own worth, Jack Haley has tenderness without seeming weak, and Bert Lahr is a living cartoon, silly and heartwarming all at once. Morgan and Hamilton, similarly, have become the benchmark for their parts as the Wizard and Witch. Hamilton in particular deserves special credit, I think, taking a character who had little personality in the original novel and creating one of the most enduring villains in cinematic history.

The film leaves out certain sequences from the book, and changes too many things for it to really succeed as an adaptation, but the alterations are forgivable in the context of the film MGM was trying to make. Sequences like the China town (brought back by Disney in this year’s Oz the Great and Powerful) would have been difficult to make convincing with the special effects of the time. Other scenes featured Dorothy’s friends getting rather violent in defense of the little girl – could you imagine seeing Ray Bolger standing atop a pile of crows after snapping their necks or Jack Haley swinging his axe to behead a pack of ravenous wolves? The original story left a lot of blood on the page that never made it to the movie screen, and that’s honestly okay.

This is one of those films that’s so well-known, so well-loved, it’s hard to  imagine anything I could say that hasn’t been said already. As an Oz fan, I’m still waiting for a truly faithful adaptation of the L. Frank Baum novel, but as a fan of musical cinema, this is one of the greatest movies ever made.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Dorothy Gale Week Day 1: Dorothy Dwan in The Wizard of Oz (1925)

Wizard of Oz 1925Director: Larry Semon

Writer: Frank Joslyn Baum, Leon Lee & Larry Semon, adapted from the novel by L. Frank Baum

Cast: Dorothy Dwan, Mary Carr, Virginia Pearson, Bryant Washburn, Josef Swickard, Charles Murray, Oliver Hardy, Frank Alexander, Otto Lederer, Frederick Ko Vert, Larry Semon, G. Howe Black

Plot:  A toymaker (Larry Semon) crafts a set of dolls for his granddaughter, recreating the characters from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, then sits her down and to read the book with her. Or rather, he reads some alternate universe version of the book that only exists in this movie, because despite the fact that Baum’s own son got a screenwriting credit, it is almost unrecognizable from the book. My friends, I have written about 80 or so different movies since I first started this project, but this may be the craziest thing I’ve ever watched. Normally I don’t blame you if you skim over my somewhat detailed synopses, but this time I implore you… read on.

In this version, the people of Oz have managed to achieve a tense, suspicious peace many years after their baby princess was kidnapped and lost. In the place of the royal family is the treacherous Prime Minister Kruel (Josef Swickard).  His actions (which are completely undefined) are beginning to bring the people of Oz to rally around Prince Kynd (Bryant Washburn), who demands the return of the rightful queen. Kruel turns to his advisor, Ambassador Wikked (Otto Lederer), who suggests they take their case to the Wizard (Charles Murray) and ask him to use his power to distract the people while Kruel schemes. Nobody knows the Wizard is merely a huckster – a man with impressive tricks, but no real magic.

Upset by the story, the toymaker’s granddaughter urges him to read the part about Dorothy and her friends, and he complies. In Kansas, we meet a rose-adorned girl named Dorothy (Dorothy Dwan) and her loving Aunt Em (Mary Carr). Her Uncle Henry (Frank Alexander) is less enamored of her, and grows angry at her for wasting time on the farm, where a farmhand (Oliver Hardy) defends the women as Henry berates them. Semon and G. Howe Black also appear as buffoonish farmhands, also victims of Henry’s temper. Semon and Hardy (both nameless) fight over Dorothy’s affections, and Henry gets angry at them all. Dorothy turns to Em, upset at Henry’s cruelty, and Em confesses that he isn’t really her uncle. She tells Dorothy the story of how, many years ago, baby Dorothy was delivered to their doorstep in a basket, and if you don’t know where this is going then congratulations on making it this far in life without ever having watched a movie before. Anyway, Dorothy arrived with a letter to be opened by her on her 18th birthday and not a moment before.

Back in Oz, things are getting even more tense, as Kynd warns Kruel that coronation day is approaching. He has until the new moon to produce Oz’s rightful queen, or Kynd will throw him into the dungeon. Kruel knows there are papers in a faraway place called Kansas that will save his regime, and sends Wikked on a journey to find them. The granddaughter, showing the sort of patience that would no doubt lead her to blow up her high school science lab in later years, forces her grandmother to jump back ahead in the story to Dorothy, who now is celebrating her 18th birthday. She goes to Henry, reminding him that today is the day he gives her the papers that came with her upon her birth. Before he can do so, Wikked arrives, flying in a biplane and landing on Henry’s farm. He demands the letter that came with Dorothy, offering to bribe Henry to prevent Dorothy from knowing the contents of the letter, but Henry grows angry and shoos them away. Wikked turns to the farmhands, who are fighting over Dorothy’s hand, and tells Hardy that she will never marry him if she reads her papers. Henry is about to give the papers to Dorothy, but Wikked and his thugs capture them at gunpoint. Henry manages to hide the letter, and Wikked has Dorothy tied to a watertower, threatening to burn the rope and let her fall if he doesn’t get the papers. Semon manages to catch her, because physics don’t apply in silent movies, and gives her the letter, which he found. Wikked tries to attack again, but apparently even God wants them to just get the hell to Oz, because all of a sudden a storm comes out of nowhere, lightning striking the bad guys (and knocking off Semon’s hat and bow tie) and wind forcing everyone else inside. Dorothy, Henry and the farmhands, in the house, are caught by the wind and blown away.

The five of them and Wikked crash outside the land of Oz. Semon hands Dorothy the letter, which indicates that her true name is Dorothea, rightful ruler of Oz, and destined to take the throne upon her 18th birthday. Kynd, Kruel, and the Wizard come out to greet them, although only Kynd is happy. Kruel orders the wizard to do something to the farmhands while he deals with Dorothy and Henry, but the Wizard is powerless. The farmhands each disguise themselves so that they and the Wizard won’t get in trouble – Semon putting on the clothes of a Scarecrow, Hardy a suit made of tin. Kruel captures them all and Hardy and Semon each accuse the other of kidnapping Dorothy in the first place. Black (the remaining farmhand) and Semon are sent into a dungeon where they are immediately mistreated by people dressed like pirates. I think this movie is going to give me a nosebleed.

With Dorothy’s true status revealed, Wikked advises Kruel to marry the new Queen to maintain his power. Hardy is made a “knight of the garter,” which somehow makes him immune to metal, and Henry is made Prince of Whales, which is not a typo. Back in the dungeon, the Wizard approaches Black and has him don a lion costume so he can frighten his captors and WHY THE HELL IS THE WIZARD TRYING TO HELP THE FARMHANDS THIS DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE AND he and Semon manage to escape. Semon plans to help save Dorothy from being the victim of a frame-up (FRAME UP? WHAT IS SHE BEING FRAMED FOR?) and sneaks out of the dungeon, but winds up being chased back down by Hardy, where he and Black encounter real lions. But Semon isn’t worried because lions like “dark meat” and Black is actually black and I think I need to sit down.

Kruel and Dorothy are about to get married (I think) when Kynd shows up and engages him in a swordfight and the Wizard helps Semon escape the dungeon. Together they defeat Kruel, who confesses to kidnapping Dorothy in the first place, claiming he whisked her away to save her from a “hostile faction.” Dorothy turns to Kynd, who she has apparently fallen in love with because of his mustache, and Black and Semon fly away in Wikked’s biplane.

Thoughts: This is truly a bizarre movie, unlike any other version of Oz I’ve seen put to screen. The long, frankly tedious focus on the bumbling farmhands at the beginning makes it clear that the film was really intended as a starring vehicle for actor/director/co-writer Larry Semon (he in fact is the only actor credited on the only original movie poster I could find). As a historical footnote, the film is more notable for featuring a young Oliver Hardy, who would go on to be one-half of one of the greatest comedy teams of all time, whereas Semon would go on to die of pneumonia at the age of 39. This is especially notable as, even when he’s not wearing his old man makeup, he looks like he’s about 64 years old in this movie.

The story here is something of a chore to get through. I can handle a story that adds new things to the Oz mythology, but the almost unforgivable thing here is the way Semon and his co-writers spend a ridiculously long time showing the various farmhands going through comedic antics back in Kansas, this after the granddaughter has specifically asked to hear about Dorothy and the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and so forth. I’m also very uncomfortable with re-casting Uncle Henry as this cruel, heartless man who practically tortures Dorothy and Em, regardless of the question of Dorothy’s true parentage. Even worse, though, it’s internally inconsistent, as the cold-hearted Henry suddenly becomes Dorothy’s stalwart defender when Wikked shows up to take back her birth papers.

I admit that I’m not exactly privy to the demands of a 1925 filmgoing audience, but I can’t imagine anybody who loved the novel (which was 25 years old at this point, enough for parents and their children alike to have grown up with the book) watched this and came away satisfied. So much of it simply makes no sense. How did Kruel come to power? What the hell is Prince Kynd actually the prince of? What were Kruel and Wikked doing that turned the people of Oz against them? And didn’t anybody find their names at all suspicious? Why do the farmhands disguise themselves? What the hell does it matter to them if the Wizard gets in trouble for faking his powers all these years? They have literally just met the man, and he’s working with the guy who wants to destroy them. Typing this paragraph is giving me a headache.

Considering the complete mess made of the story here, perhaps the thing that disturbs me about this movie the most is the way it completely strips away all of the magic of Oz. Not only is the Wizard a humbug, but there’s no magic anywhere – the scarecrow and tin man are just disguises, and the route between Oz and Kansas is easily accessible by a 1920s-era crop duster. The closest thing to magic is the storm that hurls them to Oz, and I’m still willing to chalk that up to the intervention of a deity that can’t believe they were 44 minutes into an adaptation of The Wizard of Oz and Dorothy hadn’t left Kansas.

The characters, meanwhile, are paper-thin. Dorothy Dwan (Semon’s wife) as Dorothy is less of a character and more of a living doll for the men to fight over. Her affections bounce between men from moment to moment with no reason or logic, and we’re never given a satisfactory reason why she should fall in love with Kynd in the end. The rest of the characters are similarly ill-developed, acting without any real motivation. Howe’s “Cowardly Lion” farmhand is the sort of racial stereotype you expect in a movie from this time period, which I usually try to tolerate for the sake of context, but the line about lions liking “dark meat” just sent me over the edge. In the end, the whole thing seems to exist solely to showcase Larry Semon’s slapstick abilities. That’s fair, I suppose – a lot of the comedies in the era of silent movies were little more than the star comedian performing their antics in front of a camera. But I have to ask – is an adaptation of The Wizard of Oz really the right place for that kind of one-man show?

The good news is that this movie is largely a footnote in Oz lore. Very few people watch it anymore, which is as it should be, and it’s not remembered very well. The bad news is that the one thing from this movie that did make it into the greater Oz Mythology is probably one of my least-favorite parts: the conceit that Dorothy’s friends in Oz are based on the people she knew back home. In and of itself, that’s not really a bad idea. It’s cute, it’s fanciful, and it has worked its way into many other fantasy films over the years. The problem, though, is that the way it was used in the 1939 film birthed the notion that Dorothy dreamed her entire Oz adventure. This is something Baum never intended, but something a lot of people think is Oz canon… and the whole thing rather cheapens Oz to me, almost as much as the stripped-down Oz we got in this movie.

I need to cleanse my palette, friends. I need a good movie to cleanse my mind. Fortunately, the next one on this list is the classic to end all classics. Tomorrow it’s time for Judy Garland in MGM’s 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

How many Oz movies are there, anyway?

Wonderful WizardAfter I posted my April Icons announcement (Dorothy Gale week) along with my March viewing list, a few people expressed surprise to me that there are so many movies based on L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. Ozophile that I am, I’m always on the lookout for new films and new entries into the land of Oz, but I forget at times that most people are only familiar with the 1939 MGM film starring Judy Garland (which will be a part of the Dorothy Gale Icons week, don’t worry). So that in mind, I’ve put together a list of Oz films, culled from a glance at IMDB.com. This may not be comprehensive, but even if I missed a bunch of movies, this should give you an idea that the world of Oz is so much bigger than many people think.

1. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910)
2. The Land of Oz (1910)
3. The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)
4. The New Wizard of Oz (1914, uses elements of Baum’s novel The Scarecrow of Oz)
5. The Wizard of Oz (1925)
6. The Land of Oz (1932)
7. The Wizard of Oz (1933 short)
8. Oz University (1936)
9. The Wizard of Oz (1938 Short)
10. The Wizard of Oz (1939 — This is the classic version that everyone knows… the FIFTH attempt at adapting the first Oz novel, and the last time anyone would try to do it directly for a long time…)
11. The Land of Oz (1960 episode of series Shirley Temple’s Storybook)
12. Return to Oz (1964 TV movie)
13. The Wizard of Mars (1965, based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Glinda of Oz)
14. Oz: The Tin Woodman’s Dream (1967)
15. The Wonderful Land of Oz (1969)
16. Favorite Children’s Books: The Wizard of Oz (1970)
17. Journey Back to Oz (1974)
18. 20th Century Oz (1976)
19. The Wiz (1978)
20. Thanksgiving in the Land of Oz (1980)
21. The Marvelous Land of Oz (1981)
22. The Wizard of Malta (1981)
23. The Adventures of a Man in Search of a Heart (1984 — Film about the Tin Woodman)
24. The Whimsical World of Oz (1985 — Documentary)
25. Return to Oz (1985 — Disney mashup of the novels The Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz)
26. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985 — Not strictly an Oz movie, but a Rankin/Bass film based on the novel by Baum with certain fairy characters and locations that would recur in the Oz books)
27. The Emerald City of Oz (1987)
28. The Marvelous Land of Oz (1987)
29. Ozma of Oz (1987)
30. Dorothy Meets Ozma of Oz (1987)
31. Toto’s Rescue (1989)
32. Trouble in Oz (1989)
33. The Wonderful Galaxy of Oz (1990 — Japanese sci-fi anime)
34. The Hollywood Road to Oz (1990 — Documentary)
35. The Dreamer of Oz (1990 — Biopic of L. Frank Baum starring John Ritter)
36. Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (1993)
37. We’re Off to See the Munchkins (1993 — Documentary)
38. The Magic Book of Oz (1994)
39. Christmas in Oz (1996)
40. The Nome Prince and the Magic Belt (1996 — Uses parts of five different Oz novels)
41. Toto Lost in New York (1996)
42. The Return of Mombi (1997)
43. Underground Advnture (1997, based on Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz)
44. The Wicked Witch Project (1999)
45. Twister: A Musical Catastrophe (2000)
46. Lion of Oz (2000, based on the novel by Baum’s great-grandson, Roger S. Baum)
47. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (2000 — Remake of 1985 Rankin/Bass film)
48. The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (2005)
49. Apocalypse Oz (2006)
50. Tin Man (2007 Miniseries)
51. The Patchwork Girl of Oz (2009)
52. The Tin Woodman of Oz (2009),
53. Heartless: The Story of the Tinman (2010)
54. The Witches of Oz (2011 Miniseries)
55. Tom and Jerry and the Wizard of Oz (2011 — Remakes MGM film with Tom and Jerry having a parallel adventure to that of Dorothy, surprisingly good)
56. Dorothy and the Witches of Oz (2012 sequel to 2011 miniseries)
57. Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

And upcoming…
L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (2013, an attempt at a more faithful adaptation of the novel than most others)
Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return (CGI musical based on Roger Baum’s novel Dorothy of Oz)
Oz the Great and Powerful 2

Again, this is by no means a comprehensive list. I left off foreign language versions (of which there are many), video games and TV series (although I kept miniseries and made-for-TV movies), and film releases of “live” shows like The Wizard of Oz in Concert and The Wizard of Oz on Ice. I also stopped counting straight-up adaptations of the first Oz novel after we reached the Judy Garland film, but they came back after a while. Other versions were made in 1950, 1967, 1975, two in 1976, and 1982. Plus, this list was created just by looking at L. Frank Baum’s IMDB page, it doesn’t list most of the Oz films, adaptations, or “reimaginings” in which he received no credit on the website.

And we could still be here watching these for weeks.

So again, while I don’t expect anybody to rush out and become the sponge for Oz that I am, it’s nice to call attention to the fact that for those who want more, there’s almost always more available.

Gut Reactions: Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

Oz-poster1Director: Sam Raimi

Writers: Mitchell Kapner & David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the works of L. Frank Baum

Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Tony Cox, Bruce Campbell

Plot: Carnival huckster Oscar Zoroaster Diggs (James Franco) is swept up by a cyclone and hurled away to the mysterious, magical land of Oz. There, he finds himself caught in a power struggle between three witches (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams) over the realm’s vacant throne. A prophesy claims that a wizard from another land will save Oz from wickedness, but can this humbug of a man find in himself the hero that Oz needs?

Thoughts: Before I really dig into this movie, I think it’s only fair that I (briefly) tell you about my personal history with Oz, so you can understand where my opinion is coming from. Like most people these days, my first exposure to Oz was the 1939 MGM film, which I saw as a child and enjoyed. When I was a bit older, though, at my local public library (visit ‘em kids, they’re awesome) I found an entire shelf of Oz books by the creator, L. Frank Baum. I devoured the books they had (which, as it turned out, weren’t all of them), and since then I’ve been a devoted consumer of any book, movie, or comic book I can find that offers a different vision of the land of Oz. Although I think there is plenty of room in media for many, many different Ozzes (a phenomenon I discussed in more depth on my other blog yesterday), in my heart, my favorite visions of Oz are those that pay due deference to Baum.

And it’s with that perspective that I can say I enjoyed Oz the Great and Powerful immensely. (Don’t worry, I’ll put up a warning before I get into any spoilers for those of you who haven’t seen it.)

The biggest problem with prequels, as George Lucas proved, is that it’s difficult to maintain suspense when the audience already knows where the characters will be when the story ends. This isn’t really a big problem with this film, though. Baum gave precious little backstory on many of his main characters, and almost none on the witches of Oz (although subsequent writers would often turn to this as their inspiration), and that leaves the screenwriters an enormous amount of room to play in. They also create a version of Oz that is mostly consistent with the books, while still giving a few nods to the 1939 film that they know is what most people will use as their measuring stick.

The casting is very good. Zach Braff as Finley the Flying Monkey brings a totally unexpected element of comedy to the film, one that serves to give us a glimpse of light in very dark moments. Each of the witches feels very natural in their respective roles – Mila Kunis’s naïve Theodora and Rachel Weisz’s sly Evanora work very well as the sister witches, and from the beginning present an interesting question to the audience… which of the two will someday become the insidious Wicked Witch of the West, and which one has a date with a house that’s going to fall out of the next tornado?

Michelle Williams is almost perfect as Glinda. While Billie Burke’s portrayal from 1939 is that of a hands-off fairy godmother, the sort who prefers to pulls the strings and not get directly involved, Williams is a much fiercer, braver woman. The display of power she puts forth in this movie is impressive, and certainly more in keeping with the character Baum created. He didn’t go in for the pyrotechnics quite as much as this movie does, mind you, but it’s easy to see Williams’s Glinda capable of maturing into the strong, confidant witch she becomes in the original books.

Then there’s Oz himself, James Franco. Oddly enough, he’s the only one of the main cast that doesn’t always work for me, and it’s for an strange reason. Franco plays Oz as a snake oil salesman, a con man who has a good heart buried somewhere deep inside, and that’s all well and good, that’s how he should come across. But there are moments in the film where it feels like he’s actually overselling the overselling, moments where you’d want Sam Raimi to ask him to dial it back down to 11 from 12 or 13.

As for Raimi’s directing… it’s fantastic. His visual effects team has built a brilliant, remarkable Oz that satisfies me on absolutely every level. Even the 3-D in this film is superior to most others. It’s funny – I’ve long said that I’ve never seen a movie that convinces me that 3-D is a tool that improves storytelling, that there is no movie that does for 3-D what the 1939 The Wizard of Oz did for color… and this film almost does it. Raimi’s transition from Kansas to Oz is a truly remarkable moment, and one that uses 3-D in a very clever way, similar to the way the ’39 film did with color. It’s visually stunning and, for a few scarce moments, I was glad I saw it in 3-D. Then later on he starts throwing monsters and spears straight at the camera and I was over it. Raimi also throws in a few moments of self-reference, which I think are fun as well… there’s one scene that’s almost straight out of his own Army of Darkness, which had my friends and me in hysterics, probably because we’re the only people in the theater that got the joke.

I’ve got other things to say about this movie, including a few problems, but nothing I can discuss without putting up a spoiler wall. So if you’ve read this far and you haven’t seen the movie yet, let me assure you that it has my wholehearted recommendation. It’s a great fantasy film, probably too scary for the little kids, but well worth watching in the movie theater. And I won’t even judge you for choosing the 3-D this time.

SPOILERS AFTER THIS LINE. ———————————————————————————————-

Aside from Franco being a bit over the top, my biggest problem with the story itself is one of timing… not pacing, timing. Once Franco arrives in Oz, it feels like things happen entirely too fast. For one thing, I think it’s clear too early in the film that it is Theodora, not Evanora, who is fated to become the Wicked Witch of the West. In fact, I think it’s clear too early that Evanora is the real villain, and not the “Wicked Witch” the sisters are warning us about. Granted, as soon as we learn the “Wicked Witch” is named Glinda, the audience should know Franco is being conned, but that moment should be played as a reveal and never really gets that chance.

Theodora’s emotional turns are also hurt by the sheer speed of the piece. I’m not entirely sure (after just one viewing) but it seems like no more than three days pass between her meeting Oz and her transformation. In that time she falls madly in love with him, decides she’s going to marry him and become his queen, and then grows to utterly hate him when she sees a glimpse of him talking to Glinda and learns that he “romanced” her sister the same way he did her. (Incidentally, I think the film does a nice turn leaving it a little ambiguous as to whether or not this actually happened. We see Oz work his charms on various women in the movie, but never Evanora, which leads me to suspect he never did. Instead, I got the impression Evanora pulls off the con on her sister because she was spying on the two of them in her globe the whole time.) The sheer speed with which Theodora’s affections turn weakens the character, making her the fantasy equivalent of the internet Overly Attached Girlfriend meme. Even more problematic, she truly becomes wicked not because her heart is broken, but because after her heart is broken she allows her sister to make her evil. It’s still the character making a choice, but I think it’s a weak choice, she doesn’t “earn” her evil, so to speak… not so much a monster as a victim, which will give her death at Dorothy’ s hands a level of forced tragedy I don’t think works.

It seems very clear to me that this movie was made to be the beginning of a franchise, despite its prequel status – and in fact, Disney was already talking about sequel plans the day before the movie was released. I’ve got no problem with this turning into a franchise, but it’s a little too obvious that was the intent… instead of taking us from point A to point Z (“Z” being where The Wizard of Oz begins), this gets us to about… let’s say “J.” The film ends with Oz in power and the witches banished, but there are a lot of things that don’t mesh up. Evanora doesn’t have the Silver Shoes (or, if you insist on going with the MGM version, Ruby Slippers). Theodora isn’t in command of the Flying Monkeys. Both sisters have been driven out and humiliated, where Evanora pretty much has dominion over Munchkinland when the original begins. Probably lots of other little bits I’m forgetting now, but will remember when I (inevitably) see the movie again.

The biggest sequel hooks come in for the Wizard himself, though… specifically, he’s not the recluse we know he’s doomed to become. He and Glinda have a romantic relationship, which simply doesn’t fit the first movie (or any other incarnation, for that matter). This gives the screenwriters a delicate task – they have to do something to alter the relationship in such a way that they are no longer together, that he has retreated into his palace, but where she still has enough faith in him to send Dorothy down the Yellow Brick Road when she drops from the sky. Then there are Finley and the China Girl, Oz’s surrogate family. Their inclusion in this story is actually wonderful, but it has us poised for tragedy. The moment Finley swears his life debt to Oz, pledging to remain with him until he (Finley) dies, I had a chill at every moment he was in danger. We know that the Wizard has no Finley when Dorothy arrives, and there’s simply no way the character Zach Braff played would ever turn on his friend… which leaves only one possible reason for his absence in the later stories.

I appreciated a lot of the little touches that were brought in from the original book, for example, the inclusion of all four of the peoples of Oz, and not only the Munchkins as the original film did. The prominence of the China Town was good too, although it does raise the question of how it will be rebuilt to the point it will be when Dorothy arrives. (Then again, as this is a point left out of the original film, perhaps the filmmakers don’t plan to address it again.) And although there were a few creatures we encountered that didn’t come straight from the books, there was nothing that would feel out of place in a Baum story, and so I’m perfectly happy with that.

As a lifelong Oz fan, though, there’s one glaring red flag waving in my face, one thing that simply flat-out contradicts any version of Oz I’ve ever seen, one thing I’m having a little trouble getting over, and that’s the notion that Glinda is the daughter of the murdered King of Oz. This doesn’t fit in anywhere, and I have a hard time wrapping my brain around it… not only idea that Glinda is the king’s daughter, but also the question of what this means for the true ruler of Oz in the original novels, Princess Ozma. Considering how much work was done to mine the book, making a change of this magnitude is really troublesome to me. At the end of the movie, I kept waiting for an exchange like this:

OZ: Hey, if your father was the king, doesn’t that mean you should be queen?

GLINDA: No, I had to renounce my claim to the throne when I chose to become a witch. My sister was supposed to take over, but she’s been missing ever since our father died.

Not a perfect solution, I admit, but at least it would be something. The point is, it’s not a minor quibble, but a major chance to the Oz canon that I think the sequels simply have to address.

That said, as big an issue as I have with that element, I still really enjoyed this movie. It’s a modern Oz with a timeless feeling, which is as much as anybody could possibly have hoped for, and I hope to see Disney march forward with this franchise for a long time… even, if they have the guts, rolling into an actual adaptation of the original novel. Despite all the different versions of Oz that have hit the screen, very few filmmakers have dared try a full-on adaptation of the original, fearing comparisons to the MGM film. If the Disney juggernaut doesn’t have the courage to finally make a version of The Wizard of Oz that’s closer to the book, nobody ever will. And that, my friends, is where I really want to see this franchise go.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

The Christmas Special Day 15: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)

life-and-adventures-of-santa-claus-movieDirector: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.

Writer: Jules Bass, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum

Cast: Earl Hammond, Earle Hyman, Larry Kenney, Lynne Lipton, Bob McFadden, Lesley Miller, Peter Newman, Joey Grasso, J.D. Roth, Alfred Drake

Plot: In the forest of Burzee, the Great Ak (Alfred Drake) summons a council of the immortals. As dozens of fairies, nooks, and other fantastic creatures come together, the Great Ak tells them the mortal named Santa Claus is about to be visited by the Spirit of Death. This mortal, Ak says, has earned possession of the world’s one and only Mantle of Immortality. To convince them, the Great Ak tells them his story, the tale of the life and adventures of Santa Claus.

Sixty years prior, the Great Ak found a mortal baby abandoned in the snow. He gives the child to a lioness to rear, but the fairy Necile (Lesley Miller) is curious about what a “child” is. She observes the lioness and decides she wants to care for the baby herself. She begs the Great Ak permission, which he grants, assigning the lioness to remain with the baby as its protector. Necile names the baby Claus, “little one” in her language. Claus doesn’t remain little for long, though. In the view of the immortals, he begins to grow up in the blink of an eye, and young Claus (voiced by J.D. Roth) begins his education in the ways of the forest. Ak decides Claus should see his own people, and takes him on a magical tour of the world of Man, where Claus sees terrible misery, violence, and suffering. He also begins to understand that he is mortal, unlike Necile and his friends, and one day he will die and become just a memory to his loved ones. Claus decides to live in the world of mortals, hoping to make it better, and he takes his lioness protector and teacher Tingler (Bob McFadden) with him. As he grows older, he begins to visit the nearby settlements of mankind, taking particular care in being a friend to the children. (His voice also changes, just like real life! Adult Claus is voiced by Earl Hammond.)

One winter night, as Claus carves a cat out of wood, he finds a child outside his home, nearly frozen. He brings the boy inside to warm up, and the child quickly takes a liking to Claus’s cat, Blinky. As the child sleeps, he finishes carving the cat, paints it, and gives it to the boy when he wakes up. When the other children in town learn of the wooden cat, they all want one of their own. He starts making cats, then other animals and dolls for the children… he has invented the toy. He brings his friends the Nooks to his home to help make toys in bulk, but soon receives a threat from a beast called King Awgwa (Earle Hyman), lord of the dark creatures who convince children to misbehave. King Awgwa abducts Claus, but the immortals easily rescue him. The Awgwa realize they cannot capture him easily, but they can prevent him from delivering his toys. They attack him the next day as he travels, stealing all the toys he’s made and taking them to their caves. The attacks continue, over and over. Finally, the Great Ak, Master Woodsman of the World, takes out his Silver Axe and leads the fairies and nooks into battle with the Awgwa and a mighty dragon. The Great Ak and his forces defeat the Awgwa, and Claus is free to deliver toys again. His sled is now so heavy with toys he can’t pull it, and his friend Peter Nook (Peter Newman) offers to allow Claus to use some of his reindeer to pull the sleigh, provided he can return them to their forest home by daybreak. The reindeer are impossibly fast, eventually finding the ability to fly through the air. Claus begins making regular trips to deliver toys, and is soon beloved by children everywhere, who call him “Santa Claus.” He returns home too late, though, and Peter is angry. Claus asks him to allow him to use the reindeer again, and Peter finally agrees, but only for one night a year… Christmas Eve. With just ten days, Claus won’t have enough toys to make the trip and will have to skip an entire year, unless he can find the toys stolen by the Awgwa. He goes to bed on Christmas Eve, convinced he’ll lose a year, but Peter Nook arrives with the reindeer and the sleigh full of recovered toys.

Years later, Santa Claus has won the love of all the world, and now stands on the brink of death. He decorates a tree with small toys as a symbol of his good work, and Tingler vows to decorate the tree every year. In the forest of Burzee, the Great Ak petitions the rest of the immortals to give Claus the Mantle of Immortality. In all the world there is only one, and can only be given to one mortal. Touched by his story, the immortals agree to present it to Claus. Just before he dies, Necile delivers the golden shroud to her son. Revitalized, he thanks Ak, pledging to prove himself worthy of the mantle for all time to come.

Thoughts: It had to happen sooner or later, my friends. This, I’m sorry to say, is the last Rankin and Bass special in our Reel to Reel countdown. It’s not one of the best-known specials either, but it’s one of my favorites. Based on the novel by The Wizard of Oz creator L. Frank Baum, this is a version of Santa Claus’s origin that doesn’t quite jive with any of the others we’ve seen, doesn’t fit in with the rest of the Rankin and Bass “universe,” but stands on its own as a lovely fairy tale version of this holiday icon’s story.

The Baum touch is one of my favorite things about this special, I admit. I am an unabashed fan of all things Oz and I love to see different takes on the Oz mythos. While Baum never directly linked this book to his Oz novels, there are enough of his magical creatures common to the different books for me to accept this as a part of the Oz Universe. Which I know is something only a nerd of my particular stripe cares about, but as I can say that for roughly 87 percent of the observations I’ve made this month, I feel perfectly justified in doing so again.

Children may find parts of this special a bit odd. Although it was made in 1985, it’s a faithful adaptation of a novel written in 1902, before many of the elements now considered part of Santa Claus lore became standard. He’s still a plump, jolly man who enters through the chimney, who rides in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. But kids will ask why his toy shop is in the Laughing Valley instead of the North Pole, why his toys are made by nooks instead of elves. My nerd response will be to tell them this is the Santa Claus of Earth-2. Of course, then you’ll have to explain that, so maybe you’d better just find a way to explain it that suits your own children.

Most of the Rankin and Bass specials are more or less timeless. If there’s anything that links them to their era it is a tendency to model their narrators after the stars who voice them (Fred Astaire in Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and Andy Griffith in Frosty’s Winter Wonderland being prime examples). This one is a little different, with the nook (or fairy or gnome – I’m not sure) named Tingler being clearly inspired by Chico Marx, of call people. Which would have made a lot more sense in an early Rankin and Bass special – this was made in 1985. It’s an odd choice, one that most kids watching this won’t even notice, but older viewers will see it quickly.

This special doesn’t have as much music as most Rankin and Bass specials either. The “Big Surprise” number the children sing to Claus is the centerpiece, coming almost exactly halfway through the film and helping Claus realize exactly what his mission will be. It works pretty well as far as providing the character with motivation, but it isn’t as great a musical number as we’d like from Rankin and Bass. The special also isn’t as funny as we’ve come to expect from Rankin and Bass. Except for the Biblical specials, most of their cartoons at least had an element of comedy to them. This has almost nothing. Claus is motivated by seeing true darkness in the world, and although the battle sequences aren’t gory or bloody, they’re fairly intense for a film of this nature. The violence is real, not played in a cartoonish nature.

These elements are all perfectly good, though. This isn’t another cookie-cutter Santa movie like so many of them are. (To fully understand what I’m talking about, just turn it on the Hallmark Channel or Lifetime whenever you’re reading this. If it’s still December, there’s a 90 percent chance they’re showing a Christmas movie starring washed-up stars that is virtually indistinguishable from all of the other Christmas movies starring washed-up stars they show this time of year.) If you’re looking for something a little different – something that still has the charm and joy that comes with the names of Rankin and Bass but that is totally unique from every other version of the Santa Claus myth you’ve seen this year, this is the special for you.

NOTE: This story was remade as a traditionally animated direct-to-video movie in 2000 starring Robby Benson of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Don’t get the two confused. While the Benson version is… okay… the Rankin and Bass version is great.