Saturday, March 9, 2013

A personal reflection on Oz and popular culture; and, a review of Oz, the Great and Powerful (...on opening weekend, no less! For once, I'm timely!)

Although never before a subject of this blog, I am partial to -- and even protective of -- the Oz franchise. Of course, the foundation of said franchise is L. Frank Baum's 14 Oz novels. The first of these, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), was -- surprise, surprise -- adapted into the 1939 MGM screen musical that's incontestably one of the most well-known movies of all time. (A bit more soon on how disproportionately less well-known those subsequent 13 novels have long been...)

Like countless others, across multiple generations, I grew up with the MGM version.When (at some point in the mid-`80's) my father for the first time brought home a copy from the local VHS rental store (remember those?), he told me, "You'll like it -- it's like a cartoon." To me, that registered as, "It's identical to a cartoon" ... so when shortly thereafter I discovered first-hand that it was 100% live-action, I was nonplussed. But after a full viewing or two, I began to warm up to it. Overall, though, I wouldn't say that I ever more than simply liked it; I certainly was never head-over-heels for it.

It was during both the summer of `88 or `89 (or was it `87 or `88?) that I spent a couple of weeks attending a children's day camp program. One day toward the end of one or another of those two-week sessions, all of us kids were herded into the one pavilion on the grounds. A cart-on-wheels hosting a TV and a VCR was brought out. (Yes, there was an electrical outlet or two in the pavilion.) There was no confusion as to the situation: we were to sit on the cement floor and watch whatever videotape was about to be shown to us. . Word quickly spread: "We're watching Return to Oz."

(I believe this image made upthe original theatrical poster, but obviously, this is a DVD cover scan.)

I was startled and intrigued -- there was a Return to Oz?! From the moment the movie was underway, I was GLUED to the screen. At first, it was due to (unexpected but very welcomed) familiarity; I was very curious to see what was going to happen to Dorothy Gale and the land of Oz this time. Before long, I was absolutely riveted and transfixed by the movie, remaining on the figurative edge of my seat up until the the last frame. (My seat was the floor, so its literal edge was the building's walls.)

Rejoining Dorothy, her parents, and their farm again a few months after Wizard was a surefire hook, at least for me (even though neither any of the characters nor the setting looked as though they did in that other movie. But I quickly got over that, anyway.) But what made this new narrow so compellingly, fascinatingly, preciously harrowing was the learning that Dorothy hadn't lived so happily-ever-after, after all. We find that her parents have grown intolerant of her affection for this place called "Oz", which they're sure is nothing more than the product of a child's overactive imagination. So, they have her committed to an asylum, left under the "care" of a clearly malevolent, sadistic psychologist and head nurse. Woah ... and that's only for starters!

Within just a few minutes of screen time, circumstances have conspired so that Dorothy is back in Oz ... but she's instantly beset by an unrelenting series of perils. E.g., having survived crossing the Deadly Desert, she is then attacked by a murderous Lunch Pail Tree.

But, seconds later, she discovers a torn-up, destroyed Yellow Brick Road. Immediately distraught, horrified, and direly panicked (...or was that me?), she runs along the road's remnants until she reaches Emerald City ... only to find it, too, in ruins. Not only that, its inhabitants (including, heart-breakingly, some very familiar ones) having been turned to statues of stone.

Along her ensuing journey, one-by-one, Dorothy makes a small group of charming, quirky new friends. (She seems to have a knack for that.) Together, they evade being hunted down by sniveling, craven, scavenger-esque, bloodthirsty, genuinely creepy Wheelers. Then, they manage to overcome the wrath of Queen Mombi. This beheaded wretch keeps a room lined with display cases, which house scores of other women's severed heads; Mombi uses these one-at-time in place of her own missing noggin, switching them upon any whim. She sees fit to lock Dorothy and Co. up in a tower. But they narrowly escape by taking to the skies (courtesy of the latest addition to their motley band, the Gump). Without pause to so much as catch their collective breath, commence flight across the Deadly Desert. Their destination: the mountain stronghold of the Nome King, the tyrant responsible for Oz's devastation. He functions as the film's arch-villain; he's no lightweight, but in truth, Mombi leaves much more of a (possibly traumatizing) impression on a child's mind. (I've found that, if you bring up this movie in conversation, others of my generation will immediately respond, "Oh, yeah -- the movie with the lady who takes off her head!"; or, if their memory needs to be jogged, saying, "The movie with the lady who takes off her head" usually does the trick.)

I consider the film's only major fault to be abrupt transition from the Mombi sequence to the Nome King sequence, which is the story's climax -- it feels as though we skip the film's entire middle act, jumping right to the finale. Regardless, once Dorothy and Co. reached their destination, the film is as spirited, ingenious, and unique as its earlier scenes.

This final act includes:

1. upon reaching the mountain, the Gump's makeshift "body" collapses in midair, causing Dorothy and Co. to plunge to the rocks below.

2. The heroes taking their first, apprehensive into the Nome King's throne room -- the tension and suspense is of the you-could-hear-a-pin-drop, cold sweat-inducing variety. This buildup maximizes the Nome King's reveal, imparting his evil, imposing, calm and reserved but lethal essence.

3. The Nome King -- as a malevolent grin crosses his face and a mocking twinkle flashes in his eyes -- lifting his robe to show Dorothy that he's wearing her (iconic) ruby slippers. He relishes this blindside -- perhaps the peak of the psychologically torturous he subjects Dorothy and Co. (and the audience) to. He achieves this by drawing out the length of time that they're kept in the dark as to what ghastly fate he has in mind for them; his sardonic, taunting formalities as "host" to his "guests" betray an unspoken sinister intention. Barely suppressing a smirk and using evasive language, between the lines, he suggests that he indeed has some sort of unspeakable horror up his sleeve -- quite a feat of execution on the every level of this scene, from the writing to the acting to the production.

4. The Nome King's scheme revealed: a "game" in which, one-by-one, each of the heroes is transported to the Nome King's treasure room, given three guesses as to identifying the inanimate object that he's turned Dorothy's old friend the Scarecrow into. Each blows his three guesses (and thus joins Scarecrow in being transformed into an ornament), until there's only one left to take their turn: Dorothy. At first, she's absolutely stumped, and her despair is related all too strongly. Nail-bitingly, with only seconds to spare, she figures out the rhyme and reason as to how to identify which objects are her friends. One moment, our heart is racing; the next, we're absolutely overjoyed as Dorothy and Scarecrow are reunited. (They're overjoyed, too.)

5. No sooner has Dorothy "cracked the code" than the Nome King does a complete 180 and loses the exceedingly measured composure he'd maintained up until this point, somehow transforms his physical form to giant-sized proportions (I think he absorbs a lot of the rock that comprises the mountain, or something), goes on a furious rampage, and causes the mountain to start caving in on her heroes. (They make it out, of course.) As he's about to eat Jack Pumpkinhead (whom is barely a morsel to the Nome King, given his newly-adopted size), his Achilles' Heel is conveniently discovered, and he crumbles away to nothing.

Obviously, with the mountain caving inn, replete with lots of quaking and clouds of dust (I think the sky even becomes a searing red), and this King Kong-sized monster having gone absolutely ballistic, this is obviously supposed to the "Big" finale; the crown set piece. In that respect, it certainly does the job. (I would be remiss  to not mention claymation maestro Will Vinton's superb work on this scene. The jagged, gaunt-featured, seething, spasmodic animation of the gargantuan, volcanic Nome King and the fiery, war-like, scorched-earth visual palette is so acutely attuned to the essence of the scene, it's as though Vinton works in high-res, while the rest of the world is low-res.)

In summation: I witnessed Dorothy, who was kind of like an old friend, being REALLY put through the ringer. It was a flooring experience. It hit with so hard a wallop, the rejuvenated, de-statue-ized populace rejoicing in a massive victory celebration in the now-restored-to-its-former-and-rightful-glory Emerald City at film's end was all the more elating to me for it.

In short, I loved every frame of the movie. As I have ever since.

As I've probably made self-evident, it means far more to me than the MGM movie. But the world at large feels differently: since that serendipitous summer camp viewing, I've learned that the movie did poorly at the box office and was panned by critics. (Return was a Disney production. There are interesting parallels between its troubled production and under=performing release and reception with that of -- on both counts -- The Black Cauldron. Both were very unfortunate victims of the much-touted identity crisis the studio went through in the `80's, and the intertwined shakeups in upper management.) And it's not hard to surmise that it's largely fallen into obscurity. Hence why I have a longstanding attitude of resent toward the MGM movie, and staunchly defend Return as though I take it personally (which, really, I do).

I've long believed my view is completely justifiable, no matter how atypical it is. (Many people don't even know that MGM's The Wizard of Oz was based on a book, let alone that he wrote 13 sequels.) For one thing, I can't imagine my first instinct -- and probably not even my last -- upon finishing reading the original novel (or almost any novel, for that matter) would never be, "Hey, I can just see the story as a movie, all in my head ... but it shouldn't just be a dramatic fantasy-adventure story; it should be a family musical, too!" Given that predisposition, you can imagine that I respect Return to Oz for countering the almost universally celebrated MGM movie's template and not being a musical. Compound that with the fact that the visages of Tic-Toc, Jack Pumpkinhead, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion are clearly based on John R. Neill (for all intents and purposes, canon) illustrations for most of Baum's Oz books; playing up Oz and its denizens as bizarre and colorful, as opposed to just colorful; and the commitment to taking the form of a dark fantasy-adventure, and you have a movie more suited to my tastes (it probably even had a part in shaping them), despite that it seems it was doomed to be overshadowed in the popular consciousness by its predecessor.

(In all fairness, Baum himself wrote the book for multiple Oz stage musicals. But I would contend that, not just in terms of Oz, but as an overall rule, theater is more appropriate a venue for "musicals" than is film. (But we have to consider cultural context: in 1939, a movie (mostly in color wasn't state of the art, but it'd only been several years since the prospect of a sound film was still new, amazing territory. So color and sound, together? It's not hard for me to imagine the MGM thingie being the Avatar of its day...)

Also, with Will Vinton's animation and the resourceful, inventive sets and costumes, the movie is a vital relic belonging to an `80's wave of children's fantasy films (which also included The Neverending Story and Jim Henson's Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal), the methods of which have sadly been considered obsolete since the advent of CGI. The Wheelers are particularly impressive: each foot secured in a single-wheeled shoe and eat hand gripping a wheel by a handle, the actors rode around on all fours, giving a magnificent acrobatic performance. (To hide the handles and footwear, their sleeves and pants were especially long -- but this was brilliantly incorporated into their costume designs and the modified physicality adopted by the actors. Not only was it so well-realized that not for a second does it appear that the extended sleeves and pants are only there to hide something ... even if you know that that's just what they're doing. It also augmented the Wheelers' unnervingly alien presence and sinewy, gnarled, worm-like appearance.)

And, lastly -- but importantly -- I commend Return, which was a hybrid of Baum's Land to Oz and Ozma of Oz, for not only acknowledging the existence of the rest of the series, but embracing it.


It has always both bewildered and frustrated me that in the nearly-75 years since the MGM film, with the exception of Return, whenever some major production company, in whatever media, takes a whack at a new Oz offering, they invariably play entirely off and heavily allude to MGM's production, while ignoring Baum's canon beyond the first novel. At the same time, this state of affairs relieves me, because it ensures that none of 13 other books are ever tainted by association with a bad adaptation.

Though it defies what would be my intuition if I had any say in the making of a new Oz feature film, stage production, TV series -- or even video game or comic book (kudos to Eric Shanower -- I think I understand why each successive outfit that takes on the Oz brand falls into this mode: the MGM film is SO widely known, and Baum's books by comparison are so obscure, that they're playing to mass audience's familiarity -- and presumed fondness for -- a teenage Judy Garland playing a child, three guys with idiosyncratic costume fetishes (one of 'em's a fury; the other, dressed in all metal, I think is into BDSM, or something), and a woman with a green face and pointy nose whom, as she's melting, gets really histrionic in the way she repeatedly exclaims that she's melting.

Cases in point: Rankin-Bass' 1964 Return to Oz, which is a REALLY lackluster "sequel" -- its plot conceived entirely by Rankin-Bass -- limited in focus to the characters from the MGM flick; 1978's The Wiz live-action feature film, which was a remake of Baum's Wonderful Wizard of Oz/MGM's Wizard of Oz; DiC's 1990 ABC Saturday morning animated series, the characters designs and scenery being (actually very good) likenesses of the cast and imagery of that MGM thing, but to its credit consisted of original stories (and was, quite honestly, pretty good overall); and the 2003 Broadway musical Wicked, a new take on the backstory of the two Wicked Witches(*) and Glinda the Good Witch, so iconic in the public's mind because of that MGM shindig. [(*)Of course, in the movie, we only saw ONE of the two Wicked Witches' legs and feet.)

What's flooring is that Baum's Wonderful Wizard of Oz was only the start ... er, and not in the sense that it was the first book in his series, but that he went onto create scores more characters, Oz locales, and characters ... and yet it would seem that it's never occurred to anyone in a position to do anything about, "Hey, if we want to make more Oz movies, there's TONS of unused source material, and some of it has the potential to be REALLY COOL!" I suspect the stark reality is that if this has ever happened, some producer or executive has put their foot down and barked, "The audience isn't gonna know what the hell all that stuff is! Attract 'em with what they know -- it's much more sure a bet!" Saddest of all, Return to Oz's failure may even be seen as vindicating this belief.


When I heard that Disney had some sort of new Oz movie in the works, I was wary, but not uninterested. When I first saw a trailer, I sighed at the heavy -- very deliberate and very cunning -- use of visual evocations of that old MGM whatchamacallit. But I still saw that there was the potential for a decent fantasy-adventure movie, so I wasn't completely repelled.

In the past couple months, I hadn't given the movie much thought. Earlier this week, a Yahoo! article I happened to come across on Disney's financial hopes for the film and addressing uncertainties as to how the movie will go over with the public, piqued my interest. Especially when it asserted, without mincing words, that the movie is NOT a musical and IS an original story, and that the studio had resisted the director's efforts to make it "dark" ... well, I couldn't help but conclude, "Okay, I wanna see this thing ... so I CAN'T WAIT 'til Friday!"

And, indeed, I DID see it today. (well, yesterday, at this's 2:30 A.M., and I've been working on this since before midnight...) What'd I think? I certainly enjoyed it quite a bit. But not only did I enjoy it, I genuinely LIKED it ... and that's saying something, considering what a hard man to please I can be when it comes to new Oz stuff!

Some of my -- ahem -- assorted thoughts:

The Wizard's character arc was well-constructed, and James Franco's performance was endearing, delivering at every turn what was needed. (I could tell before I even knew it for a fact that they'd wanted to cast Johnny Depp, but I'm VERY glad they didn't, for not only would he have indulged in flamboyant, detached archetypal Tricksterish mannerisms, but he wouldn't be able to sell the Wizard's overcoming his arrogant, selfish asshole inclinations and ultimate full actualization of his innate good self ... because, well, Johnny Depp can't not reek of arrogant, selfish asshole.

Anyway, enough about the guy who butchered the characters of both Willy Wonka and Barnabas Collins. The movie was more preoccupied with frankly bitchy female siblings fighting than I would've opted (I'm dead certain that was Wicked's influence), but in truth, even though the Witches were such whole-cloth archetypes (jealous sister; scorned lover; the kind-hearted underdog), I was compelled by the conflict between them ... which wasn't merely between THEM, but was at the crux of the large-scale conflict that was the reason there was a story being told in the first place. So, bottom line, "chick" stuff like this isn't my thing, but their functions were integral as the Wizard's.

Getting back to the movie we're supposed to be talking about, the visual (in particular, in terms of technology) and referential (the Wizard's professed idolization of Thomas Edison) anchoring to the late 1800's-early 1900's era gave the movie a decided Baumian-appropriate period feel. (In a way, it even may have bordered on being "Steampunk"-ish.) The motif of the animated title sequence struck me as as being uncomfortably just a little too (speaking of Johnny Depp) Tim Burton-ish (especially given the accompanying Danny Elfman score!) ... but they were well-done (well, in a production at this level, they wouldn't not be, but still...), and the title and credit faunts WERE genuinely Baumian, and the visuals overall were appropriate to the era-specific Baumian feel.

As is, honestly, a given in this post-Avatarworld, the movie was replete with breathtaking, resplendent (digitally-rendered, of course) imagery of the fantastical landscape of Oz. Which is all well and good, but I would think there'd have been more of a temptation to incorporate Baum's numerous other Oz locales introduced over the course of those 13 other books (as well as some of the other characters and indigenuous populations) ... but instead, we largely got generic the-landscape-of-a-whimiscal-fantasy-realm imagery. The major exception, of course, was the China figurine people and the Chinaware structures of Chinatown ... based on a latter chapter of Baum's Wonderful Wizard of Oz that the MGM adaptation omitted. (And "China Girl" was very amusing and likable, despite her being the the foremost example of the movie being prone to snarky, "hip", modern lingo. This is a tendency that's plagued Disney since [at least as far back as] Robin Williams' Genie, and has spawned the likes of Shrek and its forgettable followers.)

So, yes, Chinatown and China Girl = awesome, even though they shouldn't have, given the sensibilities at play. But even so, there's SO much more untapped ideas of Baum's that were ignored for the sake of rehashing the antagonism between the Wicked Witches and Glinda. I can't complain too much, because the story and characters passed the "Is it solidly developed-and-executed?" test ... and the aforementioned panoramic CGI imagery was a viscerally pleasing ... but still, it's endemic of that old "When the hell is someone gonna realize there's tons of untouched OTHER Oz books?!" situation.

Spoilers begin creeping in as of the following paragraph, so I'm going to make a jump cut...

And, truthfully, the movie's creators did a fine job of building a world and making the audience believe in that, given how easily one was overtaken to root with zeal for the populace of Oz in their revolt against their would-be Wicked Witch dictators (one of them being openly genocidal, with her calls to the Winged Monkeys to "show no mercy" and let the streets run with blood). (Yes, the movie actually went there ... how much darker the studio would not let director Sam Raimi have the movie be, one has to wonder ...)

Finally, as calculating, cunning, and wry as they may have been, all of the cues to be all like, "Ah-HA, that's that thing from the original!" brought out an (all-too idiotically-)pleased smile from me. (Fanbaiting -- or even general audience-baiting -- tricks like this were rampant in the Star Wars prequels, ESPECIALLY Episode III.) But I really have to hand it to them: mirroring the peak of the Wizard's story arc and that of the story itself, the filmmakers -- to paraphrase the Wizard -- "saved their best trick for last". The surprise stunt that he pulled off to defeat the villains and save the day, in an exceedingly clever, delightful way, actually DOUBLED as the revelation of the origin Wizard's shtick exposed at the end of ... uh, what's it called? ...oh, that MGM doohickey ... you know: his giant, translucent face bellowing proclamations from the center of a roaring blaze and a wall of smoke, an illusion he pulls off while operating -- wink, wink "behind the curtain". This set piece's full effectiveness and significance depends on the audience's memory of the MGM "original" (I've been avoiding saying "the MGM original" all this time, would you know it...). But to someone (who's spent their life under a rock, surely) unfamiliar with the, er, original, it wouldn't throw off their following of the story. In short, it wasn't a cynical, contrived, notsalgia-baiting ploy ...but an earnest, refinedly constructed homage to the, er, original. (Ahem, rather, the MGM film adaptation of the original book). Topping it off, in the glimpses into the hidden projection room, the period-specific, Edison-evoking mechanic imagery drove home the aesthetic established at the film's start.

In short: I'm sold.

Oz, the Great and Powerful will never mean as much to me as does, and be championed so adamently by me as is, Return to Oz. But at the same time, I didn't leave the theater ruing that it should've been more like Return to Oz ... neigh, I was delighted. That's not a bad outcome at all, eh?

-- Ryan


  1. Ryan:

    The tales of your… um, “relationship” with the Original MGM Thingee very much also describe what it was like to be a fan of the BATMAN comic books during the period following the 1966 ABC TV show, until the 1989 Keaton / Nicholson theatrical film.

    The “Thingee” that everyone knows and remembers to the exclusion of ANY alternative vs. the version that captured your imagination – and that you always knew could be great if someone ever tried to do it right.

    …Interesting parallel, eh?

    Some ‘90s feature films of widely varying quality, Bruce Timm and many Warner Animation products, and the great Christopher Nolan Trilogy later, folks don’t think that way anymore. Maybe there’s hope for OZ.

  2. Joe,

    Good call -- your comparison is very apt, indeed. I see just what you mean!

    I remember reading a ca. 1970 Justice League of America letter column in which the results of a poll were announced: readers' top choices for who they'd like to play each League member in a screen version. Who "won" the Batman role? Adam West!I believe at that point, the O'Neil-Adams comic book revitalization of Batman was already underway ... so, in a post-Nolan world, it was daunting to realize that the "Thingee" had even gotten to most comic book fans!

    (I should dig through my collection and find the issue in question, and transcribe or scan the poll results blurb...)

    -- Ryan

  3. Ryan:

    Glad the comparison worked for you!

    Also, bear in mind that I very much liked the BATMAN TV Show and, as with many of my generation, it WAS my introduction to the characters and concepts -- and it WAS a memorable “Thingee”, to be sure. I enjoy Adam West and company to this day… in their proper perspective, of course!

    From that “Thingee”, I discovered the O’Neil and Adams comics, the Frank Robbins comics, the Engelhart and Rogers comics, the Aparo comics, the Moench comics and finally Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns” – and, through those, a whole new world opened that I never thought would exist beyond the comic-book page. Then came the ’89 film and the ’92 Timm series, and a general attitude shift occurred in the public at large.

    I’d expect the Original MGM Thingee was MOST folks’ introduction to OZ. It certainly was mine! And, that it may have also led certain individuals to the books, and other versions.

    Now, we have an accurate animated version of Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns” on DVD. Who knows what you OZ fans might have to enjoy in the future!

    And, yes, post that comics blurb. It would be interesting.

  4. Joe,

    The `60's Batman wasn't my first exposure to the character (that would be my Superfriends, one of the first shows I called my "favorite"), but it was one of my earliest. Due to the the reawakening of "Batmania" spurred by the two Tim Burton-Michael Keaton films, the `60's show enjoyed a syndication renaisance. This found me faithfully watching two episodes back-to-back, at 5 and 5:30 P.M., every weekday afternoon on WPIX 11. (I believe that was the station, at least...)

    Still having barely ever read a Batman comic, it didn't know that I was supposed to be saying, "Hey, Batman wearing blue is passe! And he's supposed to be brooding, only work at night and stick to the shadows, and never make corny jokes!" ;) It was B:TAS and discovering Frank Miller, as well as the team of Doug Moench and Kelly Jones, that turned my perspective around. I've since been known to regard the `60's show with contempt, but in truth, when over the years I've happened to catch a bit of an episode here and there over, I have to say, that it really does have its quaint charms.

    I'm going to try to find that letter column blurb this afternoon.

    -- Ryan

  5. Have you checked out the four novels Gregory Maguire wrote that comprise the "Wicked" series?

    I'm sure a blu-ray edition of this film is on its way, now that the current film is a proven hit. A sequel is in the works, but without Sam Raimi. Given the continuity they've created (Baum himself was not into continuity much and tended to contradict details in his work for the sake of telling the stories he wanted to tell), we stil haven't seen Locasta-the Good Witch of the north, Ozma and the Nome King or Mombi. I imagine a 3rd film would probably introduce Dorothy and the SILVER slipppers as well.