Thursday, March 11, 2010

Beyond "The Wizard of Oz"

The latest movie property up for a remake is "The Wizard of Oz," the 1939 MGM musical based on the book by L. Frank Baum. The LA Times recently announced that there are two major projects in development, one with Warner Brothers and one withe New Line. And neither of them have anything to do with "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," an animated film helmed by John Boorman slated for 2011. Or the long-anticipated film version of "Wicked," the Broadway musical about the Wicked Witch of the West. Or the string of recent Oz-themed television projects, including a Syfy miniseries and a Muppet musical.

I'm glad that "Oz" is back in vogue, and I'm not too worried about the multiplicity of competing projects. The Oz books have long been in the public domain, and there have been dozens of adaptations of "The Wizard of Oz" over the years, in every possible medium you could think of, stretching all the way back to stage plays and radio dramas in the early 1900s. The story has been retold in graphic novels, anime series, rock operas, ice show spectacles, and a disturbing line of Todd McFarlane figurines. This is a property that is so iconic, so deeply ingrained into our collective cultural memory, it won't wear out its welcome any time soon.

On the other hand, as an old-school fan of the original Oz books, I can't help thinking that Hollywood isn't taking advantage of the available material. L Frank Baum wrote fourteen novels about Oz and its inhabitants, and later authors contributed at least two dozen more official volumes and hundreds of unofficial ones. Some of the series' best characters, like Queen Ozma, Jack Pumpkinhead, Scraps the Patchwork Girl, the Hungry Tiger, the Nome King, Polychrome, and the Shaggy Man have rarely found their way to the screen. Instead, filmmakers have been happy to rehash, remix, and reinvent the familiar plot and characters of "The Wizard of Oz" ad infinitum.

I think the reluctance to explore the farther reaches of the Oz landscape is due in part to the notable failure of "Return to Oz," the 1985 Walter Murch film that was conceived as a semi-sequel to the 1939 "The Wizard of Oz." Taking elements from "The Land of Oz" and "Ozma of Oz," the second and third Oz books, it had a much darker tone than the MGM musical and included several truly terrifying moments that alienated young moviegoers and their parents. But "Return to Oz" is my favorite of the Oz adaptations by far, as it comes much closer to the feel of the Baum books, and featured some of the best work of Jim Henson's Creature Shop, Will Vinton Claymation, and other top special effects houses of the era.

Twenty-five years later, with so many adaptations and "reimaginings" going in darker and edgier directions, I'd say it's high time Hollywood tried again. If a "Wizard of Oz" remake does become a hit with audiences, there's plenty of unexplored territory in the Oz universe to sustain a full-blown film franchise. However this would require a fairly straight adaptation of the original and not a modern update - a conceit that's been central to so many other Oz projects. I don't think this will be a hard sell, as most contemporary and futuristic versions of "The Wizard of Oz" have fallen dead flat, "The Wiz" not withstanding.

The trick will be finding creative types with the guts to commit to the older material, but again, that shouldn't be difficult. Audiences have been rediscovering the 19th century tales of Lewis Carroll's Alice and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes in theaters this season. "The Wizard of Oz," first published in 1900, is practically modern in comparison! But more than that, the Oz books present a great challenge to filmmakers: Can they finally do justice to one of the most beloved, most enduring children's series of all time?

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