Today I finished the commentary track for the MGM version of The Wizard of Oz. While it’s probaby the most iconic, 1939’s Oz isn’t my favorite take on the franchise. While it ranks high in cultural and cathartic value, I’ve experienced a wide range of Oz stage plays, feature films and animated adaptations related to the book series as a whole–and not necessarily the first book in the series.
Today I’m going to share a few of my core favorites.
5. Tin Man (2007)
Directed by British director and producer Nick Willing (best known for his television work), Tin Man followed a modern day heroine named DG (probably a composite based on Dorothy Gale and Princess Ozma) into the Steampunk Outer Zone, or O.Z. Tin Man, named for Neal McDonough’s rogue marshall character, is basicvally the story of a young woman connecting with her past.
Tin Man was probably to my liking due to its character driven plot and use of backstory. Though there were a few plot holes and cheesy lines along the way, the twists and turns held my attention and helped inspire me to write my first Oz novel (a novel which, thankfully, remains unpublished to this day. It just wasn’t ready.). The TV film certainly tapped into the cathartic value of the original source material and managed to break some new ground.
4. The Wizard of Oz (1982)
Originally created for a Japanes audience, the animated film was dubbed in English with a cast lead by Aileen Quinn as Dorothy. Speaking of Dorothy, the artwork seemed to be more loyal to John R. Neil, the illustator of the second and subsequent Oz novels (The Marvelous Land of Oz onward), as the protagonist had blonde hair instead of the traditional brunette attributed to Gale in the orginal.
What I loved about this Oz was that it walked a balanced line between original and traditional. Many of the characters appear closer to their portrayls in Baum’s book, with none of the MGM elements (ruby shoes instead of silver, a green skinned Wicked Witch, etc) in place. The coloring is soft. I remember being transported by the sky, following Dorothy’s trail through hills and winding woods exactly as if I were there. I first saw this version on YouTube on Chrtismas 2009 when I was home sick. It did more for me than just pass the time.
3. The Muppets Wizard of Oz (2005)
While it wasn’t warmly reviewed, I felt the Muppets take on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was probably the most loyal, in terms of mood and the path of the original story. It was definitely a “modern spin” (why do I dislike that phrase so much?), and some of the humor was a bit awkward, even for me, but I had this feeling while watching it, like I was reading one of the Oz books. The spirit was just there.
You’d really have to see the film to know what I’m talking about. What more could be said about The Muppets Wizard of Oz except it starred the Muppets and took you through a more loyal adaption of L. Frank Baum’s first Oz book, devoid of any of the over utilized MGM elements?
2. The Marvelous Land of Oz (1981)
There was something about the 80’s.
Based on Baum’s first original sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and directed by John Clark Donahue for The Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis, The Marvelous Land of Oz is very dear to me. Not only is Marvelous Land my favroite Oz book, the play stands alone as a cunning work of art.
Following Tip’s journey from slave boy to princess, The Marvelous Land of Oz was pegged as a musical like the 1939 MGM film. As such there are some brief, easy to swallow musical numbers peppered through–and I’m not the biggest fan of musicals. Wendy Lehr was fantastic as Old Mombi She really brought the character to life in a hillarious light for me. The essence and thematic spirit of Baum’s source material was very much alive here.
1. His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz (1914)
There existed in the early 1900’s a series of silent Oz films produced by L. Frank Baum in one fashion or another. In Scarecrow‘s case, Baum actually wrote it. We can consider this surreal, dreamy piece as Oz mythology. I say dreamy because it really does play out like a dream, and that’s part of the substance that worked for me. The locations and sets are natural and minimal enough for me. The feel of the characters remains as loyal as possible too. Dorothy Gale wanders into the plot at a pivotal point in the beginning, but isn’t truly the focus of the movie. That would be the Scarecrow, a straw doll brought to life in the fields by semi-etheral native girls, dancing in a ring before disappearing.
The Wicked Witch of the West appears here in her most loyal adaption. She wears the eye patch of Denslow’s drawings as well as the braids and carries a parasol around. She’s kind of a village witch, named after and fused with Old Mombi from subesquent Oz books. The Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion are here as well, seeming like astral projections from the book. The whole film is an uncanny experience. I highly recommend it. You’ll feel like you’re dreaming with your eyes open.
Honorable Mention Goes to: Return to Oz (1985)
See what I said about the 80s?
Now the look and feel of this one comes straight from the books. There’s no teenage Dorothy or humanoid Cowardly Lion here. The Lion walks on all fours and the Tin Man and Scarecrow are derived from images straight from the books. There’s an unsettling feel to this entire movie, but it’s also kind of homey and cozy all at the same time. The true essence of Oz is here, a place that is “sometimes beautiful and sometimes dark and terrible.”
Fairuza Balk plays Dorothy here. As stated previously she’s not a teenager but a small child like in the books, and never mind continuity errors even if this was marketed as a sequel to MGM’s 1939 film. Based on The Marvelous Land of Oz and Princess Ozma of Oz (the second and third books of the series), Return to Oz follow Dorothy’s return to the Emerald City and her battle with the Gnome King, aided by haunting and iconic characters like Jack Pumpkinhead and the Gump.