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Films
by Kathi Maio

A FAMILIAR CYCLONE AND ITS TWISTED DEBRIS


ON A SHELF above my work desk are two little figures: a sweet, peachy, and sparkly Glinda figure, smirking as she waves a star-topped wand, and a black-clad scowling green figure clutching a broom and holding, thanks to me, a button bearing the legend "I Haven't Been the Same Since That House Fell on My Sister!" The fact that I own and display these two figurines indicates something more, I think, than my obvious fascination for opposing female archetypes and cheesy plastic kitsch. They indicate how pervasive and popular the characters and themes of L. Frank Baum have continued to be since he first published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz back in 1900.

The success of his tale of a young farmgirl whirled away by a cyclone from her gray Kansas life into a realm of enchantment and adventure was an immediate hit with young readers. So much so that Baum was doomed to write variations and spinoffs of his own creation for the rest of his life. And then there were the stage productions—the first adapted by the author himself in 1902—followed by the film adaptations. Again, some of the earliest silent Oz films actually came from the Oz Film Manufacturing Company, an independent Hollywood studio Baum founded with associates in 1914.

A film like His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz (1914), sad to say, has all too much in common with many of the later filmed retellings of the Oz stories. It featured a few impressive (for the day) special effects. And it also featured a female central character who is much less interesting than the original Dorothy. In it, the evil King Krewl has the evil witch Mombi freeze the heart of his lovely niece, Gloria, when she refuses to marry an absurd fop, Googly-Goo, whom the King has selected as her husband. The beauteous Gloria (Vivian Reed) spends the rest of the film stumbling around (sometimes literally), in a daze. Male figures continue to fall for the passive, entranced beauty, but she ignores them and everyone else. She is a pretty doll, acted upon by others. Dorothy does appear in the movie, along with pals like the Tin Woodsman and the Scarecrow, but the film is clearly, centrally, about the plight of the pretty mannequin-like "princess."

Luckily, none of the old silents became the iconic screen version of Baum's fantasy, though. It is the 1939 musical version, directed by Victor Fleming and written by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf. Young Judy Garland—although a bit older than the original Dorothy—remains the ideal embodiment of that young heroine. Vulnerable, even tremulous, she is also open-hearted and brave—the perfect dewy-faced heroine to march valiantly out of the Great Depression and New Deal into a future that, for this country, would very shortly include World War II.

A Smithsonian documentary called The Origins of Oz details the life, times, and varied career of L. Frank Baum. But it also points out the perpetual appeal of those beloved 1939 ruby slippers in the Smithsonian's own collections. People worldwide come to exclaim over their display. And this likely has little to do with Baum's original storybook. (After all, in the novel, the slippers are silver and are posited to symbolize the populist "free silver movement" that advocated a bimetallic standard of silver as well as gold.) No, it is the 1939 cinematic masterpiece that enchanted audiences around the world and that so influenced the Baby Boom generation when the film was re-broadcast as a television event every year, in the days prior to VHS, DVD, and livestreaming media.

The draw of that film is obvious and undeniable. The gaudiness of the Technicolor photography and extravagant sets, the wonderful songs by E. Y. "Yip" Harburg and Harold Arlen, the incredible costumes and makeup, the impressive (for the day) special effects, and a few brilliantly physical performances by some of the greatest vaudeville performers (Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley) of all times are all a part of the appeal. But it is the movie's message of loyal friendship and self-empowerment that has really captivated generations of audiences.

Nineteen-thirty-nine was not the end of the Oz chronicles, of course. Baum's stories, characters, and themes have ricocheted through American culture, non-stop, ever since. (Excuse me while I change out of my "Don't Make Me Release The Flying Monkeys" tee in favor of my "Auntie Em: Hate You! Hate Kansas! Taking the Dog. Dorothy" number.) In the fiction realm, novels have included Geoff Ryman's 1993 whirlwind of Oz intersections, Was, while Gregory Maguire's Wicked (1995) spawned a franchise as well as one of the most successful Broadway shows of the last ten years. And just this year, Maguire provided a foreword to an anthology (featuring stories by a wide spectrum of authors, including several familiar to readers of these pages), edited by John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen, called Oz Reimagined: New Tales from the Emerald City and Beyond.

Meanwhile, Warner Brothers, who acquired the 1939 classic MGM film, sells a wide variety of memorabilia (read: tchotchkes) and jealously guards their property rights. Yet even their inclination to go all litigious on any media or manufacturer that dares to mimic anything close to any aspect of the beloved Garland flick hasn't stopped a great many motion picture and television spin-offs from appearing in the intervening decades. On TV, we have been given everything from the Japanese anime series The Wonderful Wizard of Oz/ Oz no Mahôtsukai (1986-1987) to the far-from-the-source 2007 Syfy mini-series, Tin Man.

Oz movies have also been frequent and wildly uneven in quality.

An African-American update, The Wiz, was released in 1978, and is largely remembered for the performances of Michael Jackson as a sweet, quotation-filled Scarecrow, and Richard Pryor as the sad and lonely Wiz. Like the 1939 movie, the Sidney Lumet-directed Wiz was a musical. (The most remembered of the completely forgettable numbers is probably "Ease on Down the Road.") Set in a real and imagined New York City, the movie follows the basic Baum fable fairly closely, but suffers because of a key piece of casting. Incongruously, Diana Ross (then in her thirties) was cast as Dorothy. Worse, although she was clearly a full adult, and supposedly a schoolteacher, her wimpy Dorothy seems petrified, even in her own home. (Somebody, get that woman some therapy for her agoraphobia!) All of the capable pluck of Dorothy is absent here. When not yelping in terror, this Dorothy wears a pained expression. Since Diana Ross is herself a strong and willful woman, one can only assume that it was screenwriter Joel Schumacher and director Lumet who are most responsible for this strange interpretation of one of the most active female heroes in American children's literature. Whoever took the protagonist in this direction, it's a pity. And it helps explain the movie's failure to find an audience.

A few years later came a Disney variation called Return to Oz (1985), loosely based on Baum's sequels, The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz. Surprisingly dark for a film identified as Disney, the movie was directed and written (with co-author Gill Dennis) by noted film editor and sound designer Walter Murch. There is much to like about this latter Ozian fable, not the least of which is Fairuza Balk's resolute (if psychologically haunted) performance as young Dorothy.

One almost wishes that Murch had made the movie, with a sizeable budget, twenty years later. For the film often has a lumpy and awkward quality based on the not-sufficiently-animated puppeted Baum-based characters that include a talking chicken, a rolly-polly wind-up robot, a jack-o-lantern boy, and a hodge-podge flying sofa called the Gump. The story is here, but the fantastical support cast would have come off so much better if Murch had had the latest VFX in his toolbox. And today, a fantasy film might even have the courage to depict Baum's transgendered plot twist, when a boy named Tip is transformed back to his destined self, the Princess Ozma. (Understandably, the 1985 movie wouldn't touch that story element with a barge pole!)

Until recently, I would have said that the nadir of the Oz adaptations came with the 2005 feature The Muppets' Wizard of Oz, starring R&B Songstress Ashanti as Dorothy Gale. But that was before I saw the new Disney blockbuster, Oz the Great and Powerful.

Here is a film that suffers the opposite problem from 1985's The Return of Oz. The CGI and other effects are all top-notch. It's the characters that are utterly deficient.

Designed as a kind of prequel to the classic story, the movie explores how an American "humbug" hustler became the great Wizard of Oz. But while the monochromatic opening sequence in Kansas is a marvelous tip of the hat to the 1939 classic, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that the heart of this latest film is as empty as Jack Haley's Tin Man torso. The emotional void of the film is all the more disappointing because Sam Raimi, who directed Oz the Great and Powerful, has heretofore been able to give a good deal of humanity and complexity to his characters, even when he was shooting a superhero movie like Spiderman. What happened here? Part of the problem lies in the writing by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, which runs to empty stereotypes. And then (as with The Wiz) there is a key issue of casting.

James Franco plays the central figure of the carnie magician, Oscar Diggs (nicknamed Oz), who flies away from a strongman's jealous rage in a hot air balloon and is sucked into a vortex of enchantment and danger in the land of Oz. Unfortunately, Mr. Franco isn't capable of conveying the growth of his character from hustler to hero. In fact, even his flim-flam man is flimsy. Franco can do greasy, but not slick. It's hard to believe that anyone would fall under his spell, on or off his sideshow stage. Here is a character who needs to convey the compelling charms of a true lothario. But Mr. Franco is no Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power. More to the point, he is no Robert Downey, Jr. or Johnny Depp. (Both actors were once attached to the title role in Oz the Great and Powerful. And it's not hard to imagine how much better either actor would have been in the role!)

Perhaps it is James Franco's lack of on-screen seductive power that makes the characterization of the three witches of Oz seem so insulting, too. For, in a completely retro spin, the witches of this Oz are less concerned with avenging family members or actively leading their people and consolidating their rule than they are with being the consort of the dubious new Wizard and/or letting his actions decide the balance of power in the kingdom. But if women are going to defer to or obsess about or compete over a guy, you'd expect the fellow to have the kind of personality and animal magnetism that cannot be denied. Most viewers will find it hard to believe that any woman would see Franco's Diggs as either a heartthrob or a natural born leader. And yet, that is exactly what the plot is predicated upon.

After he drops into the lush and intensely colorful land, Oz first encounters a sweet yet naïve witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis), who doesn't get out much, and readily falls under the spell of a man whose very name seems to indicate that he is destined to rule the kingdom. He's also a good dancer, which leads the witch to start thinking about romantic happily-ever-afters. Although Theodora is supposed to be a witch, she seems not only powerless, but clueless, during her early scenes.

Older sister Evanora—played with wonderfully elegant evil-witch malevolence by Rachel Weisz—is able to see through the new Wizard, but isn't above manipulating her besotted sister, to the point of emotional and personal destruction, if it furthers her own ends.

And then there is Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams, who looks lovely but is too good for this role). Rather than figure out how to reclaim her own throne using her own powers—something Baum's Glinda was clearly capable of—she looks for a stranger to help her heal her land. And like so many deluded human women before her, she also resolves to reform the scoundrel magician and make him a better man and wizard.

Alack and alas, it is heartbreaking to think that L. Frank Baum's turn-of-the-twentieth-century feminist-informed (his mother-in-law was abolitionist, suffragist, and Native-American activist, Matilda Josyln Gage) female characters should be reduced to what we are shown in 2013 in Oz the Great and Powerful. I am not surprised. But I am mightily disappointed.

Oh, there are entertaining bits to the movie. Perhaps you'll enjoy the exciting non-violent battle climax, or be charmed by the CG flying monkey, Finley (voiced by Zach Braff, channeling Billy Crystal doing his Yiddishe papa shtick), or the adorable CG China Girl (Joey King) dolly. And perhaps all the saturated colors and 3D trickery will be enough to make this a memorable and worthwhile film for you. But I am guessing not.

One wonders what L. Frank Baum would think of movies like Oz the Great and Powerful. He'd appreciate the technical innovations of modern cinema, most likely. But I doubt that he'd appreciate how his characters have been "updated."

The Library of Congress has called The Wonderful Wizard of Oz "America's greatest and best-loved homegrown fairy tale." That tale has not been well-served by its latest adaptation. But be warned, Gentle Reader! You must prepare yourself for future outrages, as well. Since Baum's original stories are all now in the public domain, the rip-offs of these familiar characters and themes are sure to continue. Next up, a 3D animated feature called Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return. From the trailers, it looks pretty bad. Sorry, Mr. Baum.

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