Friday, March 8, 2013

Return to Oz

A little later today, I'll be off the see the Wizard -- the latest one, as portrayed by James Franco -- without especially high hopes, as the film has been widely panned for all of the reasons -- unconvincing characters, jumbled plot, over-reliance on digital effects -- that I was most concerned about when I first heard of it last year.  Still, having seen every other surviving film version of L. Frank Baum's story (along with the musical Wicked), I feel a certain obligation to check in on my old favorite fairyland, if only to reflect on how it's changed.  Of course, no film will ever be able to complete with the glorious 1939 musical version, a film I have watched more than any other, starting in the 1960's when it was hosted on television every spring by Danny Kaye, and when -- since I didn't have a color set -- the "not in Kansas anymore" line wasn't about color, but about the slow greyscale panorama of plastic plants, concealed Munchkins, and the invisible, ethereal chorus (referred to in the screenplay as "optimistic voices"). It remains, for me, the most important film of my childhood, and one that I will always love more than any other.

But as critics have lined up to disparage this latest effort, they've been painting with a rather broad brush -- and in some cases, a roller -- as with Chris Heller's piece in today's Atlantic, where he laments the "Sad, Century-Long History of Terrible 'Wizard of Oz' Movies." And, though there there sure have been a few stinkers along the way, as well as versions that I simply personally can't for some reason, stand watching (The Wiz), there have also been some remarkable films.  L. Frank Baum himself staged his Oz tales as "Radio Plays," combining puppets, full-size actors, film, and lantern slides; he also licensed them to the Oz Film Company, whose efforts -- uneven at best -- can be seen on supplemental DVD's with most sets of the 1939 film as well as on YouTube.  A 1925 silent, featuring Larry Seman as the Scarecrow and Oliver Hardy (yes, that Oliver Hardy) as a rather rotund Tin Woodsman, is marginally better, and deserves remembering for its innovation of the "dream sequence" concept, in which the Kansas farmhands are played by the same actors as Dorothy's later friends in Oz.

The 1939 film, for all its wonders, was not an immediate hit; it wasn't until it started being shown on television in the late 1950's and early 1960's that it gained the wide audience of children who took it directly into their hearts; what other televised film can count among its fans both Denzel Washington and Salman Rushdie?

For Chris Heller, the greatness of the 1939 film forms a narrative bridge -- I'll resist calling it a rainbow -- from which to disparage every other film adaptation of Oz, even those I somehow suspect he hasn't actually seen. For, among the list of films he disparages there is in fact one true gem -- an adaptation of Baum's Oz stories that is richer, darker, and more faithful to the original books than even the 1939 film: Walter Much's 1985 Return to Oz.  Murch, for whom this has been, so far, his only turn in the director's chair, is perhaps best known for his work on sound design; in the years of difficulty Francis Ford Coppola spent editing Apocalypse Now!, Murch was perhaps his closest collaborator. Murch got and kept the Oz job at the recommendation of George Lucas, whom Disney at one point had wanted to replace him -- and thank goodness they didn't. Return to Oz is gloriously, richly, darkly, deeply true to the spirit of Oz, and Fairuza Balk in her film d├ębut is brilliant as Dorothy.

Heller makes fun of the frame narrative, in which Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, desperate to find a cure for their daughter's delusional chatter about Oz, take her to an "electrical" physician for what appears to be some early form of shock therapy. It evokes the dream-residue frame narrative, and deepens it -- this film is about a child's determination not to condemn and reject her love of a place she believes in with all her heart. Her new companions -- a talking hen named Billina, a wind-up man known as Tik-Tok, and a pumpkin-headed mannikin named Jack -- are perfectly brought to life from the pages of Baum's original stories. The villains are Mombi (a conflation of two other wicked Baum witches) and the Nome King (one of Baum's most original creations, whose one great fear is eggs -- played in a career-best turn by Nicol Williamson). The ending is far more satisfying and emotionally resonant than that of the 1939 film -- for Fauruza Balk's Dorothy knows, as do we, that Oz is in fact a really, truly, live place.

I don't want to spoil the movie for those who haven't seen it -- but if somehow, like most people, you missed this film (when I saw it in a theatre in 1985, it was just me and the guy collecting for the Jimmy Fund), you simply must see it.  If Oz the Great and Powerful turns out to be as bad as some say it is, I can't think of a better antidote.


  1. I saw that movie this weekend. =) I don't want to spoil it either, but I both liked and disliked certain parts of it. I have yet to see Wicked, but I would one day like to. Perhaps we can discuss more in class! I'm curious to hear about your portrayal of the "magical" aspects of the recent release compared to the more historical story behind the original.

  2. I saw Oz the Great and Powerful in 3D last weekend and it was actually much better than I'd been led to expect by some of the harsher reviews! I still don't care for James Franco very much, but oddly enough, in Oz his somewhat wooden acting style corresponded well with his character's lack of real magic skills, and the latter third of the movie quite won me over -- I had never expected that a Hollywood film would ever use a projecting phenatokistescope for its dramatic conclusion!