Wizard casts its spell over Oz legacy

We’re off to see the Wizard. Again.

Hold tight to your sparkly ruby slippers, though, because there’s no Dorothy this time, no Cowardly Lion or Tin Man.

You know the story, of course. Young Dorothy Gale is swept up in a tornado and whirled away from her black-and-white Kansas home to be thumped down in the eye-poppingly colourful Land of Oz. Desperate to get home and evade the clutches of the Wicked Witch of the West, Dorothy travels with the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion to the Emerald City, to ask the great wizard of Oz to help her get back to Kansas.

Sadly, and apologies if this is a spoiler for anyone, the great Wizard turns out to be a little old charlatan who hides behind a curtain yanking on various levers and bellowing into a microphone.

But who was the Wizard of Oz? How did he become the ruler of the Emerald City? These and no doubt many other questions will be answered in Oz the Great and Powerful, which is directed by Sam Raimi and stars James Franco as the Wizard and Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams as witches Theodora, Evanora and Glinda, respectively.

It’s the latest in a long and inventive series of musicals and movies based on the children’s books written by Frank L Baum (there are 14 Oz books in total). The first book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was first published in 1900, and proved an instant success, becoming the bestselling children’s book for two years running. It was also adapted for the stage as a musical, and ran on Broadway for almost 300 consecutive nights in 1903.

The first filmed version of The Wizard of Oz appeared in 1925, a silent movie starring Dorothy Dwan as Dorothy and Charles Murray as the Wizard. Not to be confused with any kind of classic, the first Oz movie offers a Toymaker telling the story about how Dorothy is really Princess Dorothea of Oz, who is supposed to marry Prince Kynd, who has been usurped by Prime Minister Kruel. Today it’s most notable for the casting of a certain Oliver Hardy, in the year before he first teamed up with Stan Laurel, as the Tin Woodsman.

Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) was nowhere as dark in tone as Frank L Baum’s original book, and cut out a good chunk of the book’s final section, but today it is considered the definitive movie version. Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin were both considered for the role of Dorothy, although it’s difficult now to imagine anyone but Judy Garland singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ or ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard’. Famously strapped into a very tight corset to make her appear flat-chested and thus young enough to play teenager Dorothy, Garland had a very unhappy experience on the set of The Wizard of Oz, and the movie wasn’t exactly a commercial smash. It cost a whopping (for the time) $2,800,000 to make, and earned just over $3 million at the box office.

From such relatively humble beginnings, however, a cultural phenomenon was born. Now a staple of the Christmas TV movie schedule, The Wizard of Oz spawned a number of spin-offs. The Wiz arrived in 1978, starring Diana Ross as Dorothy. Swept away from her home in Harlem, Dorothy encounters a young Michael Jackson masquerading as a Scarecrow when she arrives in Oz, and later discovers that the Wizard — or Wiz — is none other than Richard Pryor (Glinda the Good was played by Lena Horne). Adapted from an African-American Broadway version from 1975, with a soundtrack by Quincy Jones, it was directed with some zest by Sidney Lumet, a director — Network, 12 Angry Men — you wouldn’t have necessarily thought of first if you were hoping to make a commercially successful soul musical.

The title might suggest otherwise, but director Walter Murch never intended Return to Oz (1985) as a direct sequel to The Wizard of Oz. Leaning more heavily on Frank L. Baum’s original books, this finds Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) committed to a psychiatric hospital when she can’t stop talking about her adventures in Oz. When she escapes she finds herself back in Oz, where she encounters characters such as Jack Pumpkinhead, Mombi and the Nome King, who has found Dorothy’s ruby slippers and used them do devastate the Emerald City. Darker in tone than the original film, Return to Oz consequently suffered at the box office, but it’s arguably truer in spirit to Baum’s skewed good-overcomes-evil vision. If you ever get to see it, watch out for Piper Laurie playing Dorothy’s Auntie Em.

Had they cast Miss Piggy as Dorothy in The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (2005), it may well have gone down as the greatest movie of all time. Sadly, pop chanteuse Ashanti got to don the ruby slippers, while Mademoiselle Piggy got to play all four witches in Oz. The story remains broadly the same, albeit with significant changes: too poor to afford a dog, for example, Dorothy here owns a prawn called Toto. That’s right, a prawn. Gonzo played the Tin Man, Fozzie Bear stood in for the Cowardly Lion, and Kermit the Frog played a distinctly green Scarecrow — and gets to ask the Wizard of Oz (Jeffrey Tambor) if he’s ever met Frank Oz (perversely, this movie was one of the few Muppets movies that Muppet creator Frank Oz didn’t work on). Queen Latifah takes over from Laurie Piper as Auntie Em, and Quentin Tarantino turns up playing himself and ranting about turning The Wizard of Oz into a kung fu / samurai epic, complete with exploding Emerald City.

Happily, Emerald City is embedded deeply enough in the cultural consciousness to survive even the worst that Quentin Tarantino’s imagination can conjure up, and the appeal of the Land of Oz shows no signs of abating. The success of Gregory Maguire’s ‘Wicked’ novels (which began in 1995 with the publication of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and continued on through Son of a Witch (2005), A Lion Among Men (2008) and Out of Oz (2011)), and the subsequent Broadway musical smash based on Wicked, has created a whole new generation of fans. A movie adaptation of Wicked will arrive in 2014, directed by Stephen Daldry.

As for Oz the Great and Powerful, it’s good to know that its makers haven’t forgotten the story’s roots. It may have cost $200m to make, compared with the $3m it cost to make the 1939 classic, but when we first meet Oz, working as a magician, he is plying his trade with the Baum Brothers’ Circus. It may be a blink-and-miss-it moment, but it does suggest that in paying attention to the tiny details, director Sam Raimi is intent on paying full tribute to the imperishable legacy of Frank L. Baum.

* Oz the Great and Powerful opens nationwide on Mar 8.


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