Category Archives: Wizard of Oz series

Return to Oz (1985, Walter Murch)

Return to Oz has gumption. It’s got confidence and professionalism too, but its gumption is something different. Director Murch is making it work with what he’s got—a scale limited by budget and reality—because he’s sure of the project. Gumption.

He knows he’s got the right lead—eleven year-old Fairuza Balk as Dorothy. He knows the special effects he’s going to rely on are going to be impressive, whether the grand claymation as stop motion finale, the various mechanical aspects of the suits (Return raises the question of whether it’s people in costumes or people in suits), the talking chicken as second lead for the beginning of the second act, all of it. Except the street gang villains, who have wheels attached to their hands and feet. The effects are fine because they’re doing it and the design of the outfits is… inventive, but they’re still nerdy white guy street gang villains from the eighties. It’s campy—eighties camp. And Return’s never campy.

Also impressive are the voice performances. Denise Bryer as the chicken, Sean Barrett as the steampunk robot, Brian Henson as the effects-heavier Scarecrow-stand in, Jack Pumpkinhead. Murch knows how to time the effects shots to get the later effect. Return is beautifully edited; director Murch cut his teeth editing before directing it and the film editor Leslie Hodgson has some wonderful cuts. The film’s technically strong. It’s principal cast is good. Balk’s great. So what’s the problem. Besides the budget and effects only being able to do so much? It doesn’t have a good ending. It’s way too small. While the film isn’t a sequel to The Wizard of Oz: The Movie, it does acknowledge that film’s legacy. Return is grittier, late nineteenth century Kansas far less idealized, Balk is a tween in definite danger, there is a villain who takes off their head, and there’s electro-shock therapy. And there’s Piper Laurie as Aunt Em, which is an interesting casting decision and maybe not the best one. Laurie’s playing a literal “Piper Laurie mom-type” to the point I wondered who they got who looked so much like Piper Laurie. Because I assumed Laurie would be able to handle the accent and she’s not. It’s not good. It’s a missed opportunity. Same goes for Uncle Owen (sorry, Uncle Henry) Matt Clark. Missed opportunity. Clark’s fine, but he’s got no added value presence. Return is a perfect franchise starter thirty years too soon; Murch is too busy focusing on how they’re going to realize the magic to worry about the supporting performances. Same goes for Jean Marsh as the bad witch. She’s got no charm, no energy.

On the other hand, Nicol Williamson is amazing as the villain. Like, Murch gets it with Williamson, because he’s voicing the villain; the visual villain is an effects sequence and Murch knows he’s got to sell that effects sequence. So Williamson’s performance matters. Again, bigger budget, more time, it’d probably have been fine. But Return is very much a victim of reality. Besides the budget, there’s the weight of the de facto sequel, there’s the state of special effects. Most of Return is really, really good. They just don’t have the ending. It’s too little. The film’s promising Balk’s Return to Oz, Oz meaning her friends—and the familiar characters—it’s promising the magic. Balk finds herself having to fight through a lot of darkness to find the happy again. She’s got a hero arc and needs a solid resolution to it. Murch doesn’t have the money for it and rushes it, minimizes it. Maybe it could be rushed, maybe it could be minimized, but it can’t be both. It’s too little for what the film’s built up.

And then the epilogue is sweet enough but not strong enough. Return to Oz is almost there. It’s so close and for a good while, it seems like it’s going to make it. And you want it to succeed because, maybe Henson’s Jack Pumpkinhead aside, the new sidekicks are good enough, especially in the grittier Oz.

Finally, David Shire’s score. It’s a perfect metaphor for the film. It gets really close to clicking, then doesn’t. Shire’s music is perfectly adequate for a “kid in the olden times” picture, but not for a magical adventure.

Return to Oz is rather awesome, but it’s also a bummer. They made the magic, they just didn’t know what to do with it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Walter Murch; screenplay by Murch and Gill Dennis, based on novels by L. Frank Baum; director of photography, David Watkin; edited by Leslie Hodgson; music by David Shire; production designer, Norman Reynolds; produced by Paul Maslansky; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Fairuza Balk (Dorothy), Mak Wilson & Denise Bryer (Billina), Michael Sundin, Tim Rose, & Sean Barrett (Tik-Tok), Stewart Harvey-Wilson & Brian Henson (Jack Pumpkinhead), Stephen Norrington & Lyle Conway (Gump), Jean Marsh (Mombi), Piper Laurie (Aunt Em), Matt Clark (Uncle Henry), Emma Ridley (girl), and Nicol Williamson (The Nome King).


This post is part of the Wizard of Oz Blogathon hosted by Rebecca of Taking Up Room.

The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming)

By the time the door opens and Dorothy (Judy Garland) finds herself over the rainbow, The Wizard of Oz has already completed one full narrative arc and is starting another. The film opens with Garland in a crisis–she’s a teenage girl on a farm where no one has time for her (it’s a busy farm, after all)–and events quickly fall into place forcing her no alternative to run away. Events just as quickly get her to reconsider that decision and set her back home. Full narrative gesture; all it needs is a resolution scene….

Only there’s this tornado and it has other ideas, like whisking Garland up and away into the far off land of Oz.

The opening sequence, set in Kansas, is sepia-toned. Oz is Technicolor. Cinematographer Harold Rosson does both gorgeously, but there’s also a difference in composition (probably because the Kansas sequence has an uncredited King Vidor directing)–Kansas is expansive, familiar, and sort of empty. The horizon is just sky. Oz is expansive, sure, but its not familiar at all and its packed. Garland quests through this beauteous landscape, initially by herself, but soon with friends; there’s the easy constraint of having the yellow brick road to guide her. Everything alongside the yellow brick road–corn fields, apple trees, dark and dangerous forests–is wild and expansive. The Wizard of Oz has phenomenal matte paintings, which director Fleming and cinematographer Rosson stretch into the foreground. The art direction, set decoration, all of it is wondrous.

Matching that wondrousness is Garland’s adventure, which is full of song, occasionally dance, and the pursuit of happiness. While Garland just wants to get back to Kansas, the friends she soon makes have entirely different desires.

The Wizard of Oz runs just over a hundred minutes. Almost twenty are spent on the opening Kansas scenes, the final quest–different from Garland’s initial one–takes up the last half hour. So in the remaining fifty minutes, the film has to introduce Oz to both Garland and the audience, but then also bring in her sidekicks, allies, and nemesis. It does so steadily, never hurriedly. These sidekicks become teenage Garland’s wards, some more so than others; she’s already on her quest to meet the Wizard and she has the idea of inviting others in need along with her.

First is Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow, who’s in need of a brain. He’s just got straw. Then it’s Jack Haley’s Tin Man, who needs a heart. Bert Lehr’s Lion needs some courage. All the while, Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch is out to get Garland for dropping a house on her sister and stealing her shoes. Actually, Garland’s innocent–I mean, the house-dropping isn’t her fault and it’s Billie Burke’s idea to swipe the shoes (to protect Garland from Hamilton). All Garland’s got to do is get to see the Wizard.

Hamilton haunts this first quest, keeping tabs on Garland and company’s progress, threatening them when possible. The second quest has Garland and her friends having to mount a direct assault on Hamilton’s castle and her army of flying monkey soldiers. The Wizard of Oz, in its hundred minutes, is three very different films.

The performances are uniformly fantastic, though Garland, Bolger, Hamilton, and Frank Morgan are the best. Garland’s Dorothy is never youthfully callow for long, she’s thoughtful and determined. Even in the Kansas sequence, where she gets into it with aunt and uncle Clara Blandick and Charley Grapewin over her misbehaving dog–basically, everything in Oz is the adorable dog’s fault, but he also saves the day more than once (and is awesome just to watch amid the singing and dancing on the ornate sets)–Garland navigates getting in the way, both in terms of the narrative and just physically, quite well. Once she gets to Oz, she’s got to stand back and observe, then switch immediately into a more active role; Garland keeps her performance even between the two extremes.

Bolger is one of Oz’s secret weapons. Unlike Haley and Lehr, he’s less Garland’s responsibility than her partner. In the last third, it’s up to Bolger to pick up the slack when Garland is separated from her sidekicks. All three–though most Lehr because he’s in a huge lion costume–do astoundingly well in their costumes and makeup. The makeup’s excellent, which should make it even harder for the actors humanity to come through, but Bolger, Haley, and Lehr do it. The Wizard of Oz is great at its character introductions; Bolger getting a little more agency in his introduction than the others carries him through the entire film.

Hamilton’s exceptionally evil, which is kind of the point of being wicked, I suppose, but she never lets up with it and also never goes over the top. She’s threatening this teenager and Hamilton keeps it in check. Part of Wizard’s magic is no one goes over the top.

Except Frank Morgan. And Frank Morgan knows how to chew through the scenery and director Fleming knows exactly how to feed it to him.

Great songs, beautiful production values, exceptionally luscious photography–The Wizard of Oz opens with a title card acknowledging the source novel’s legacy and promising a majestic film experience.

It delivers, again and again.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Victor Fleming; screenplay by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf, adaptation by Langley, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum; director of photography in Technicolor, Harold Rosson; edited by Blanche Sewell; music by Harold Arlen; produced by Mervyn LeRoy; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Judy Garland (Dorothy), Ray Bolger (Scarecrow), Jack Haley (Tin Man), Bert Lahr (Lion), Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch of the West), Billie Burke (Glinda), Clara Blandick (Auntie Em), Charley Grapewin (Uncle Henry), and Frank Morgan (Professor Marvel).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE JUDY GARLAND BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Wizard of Oz (1925, Larry Semon)

Imagine–if you can–The Wizard of Oz reconfigured as a slapstick comedy with some elements of political intrigue. According to IMDb, director and actor Larry Semon’s career took a serious hit from Wizard of Oz, since he just didn’t get the material. Near as I can tell, however, all the vitriol against the movie is based on its differences from the 1939 and the original novel, not so much against the film. It’s a standard slapstick comedy and some of the scenes are very well choreographed.

Even some of the other elements–but not the political intrigue–work out well enough. Dorothy’s farm life–in Kansas, Dorothy is still a character, in Oz she is not–has a few nice bits, even though it’s obviously filmed in California. California has a different look from Kansas, especially when shooting on location instead of in a studio. The tornado, one of the few familiar elements (the Yellow Brick Road, the witches, and any recognizable version of the Wizard are gone), has some great special effects. It’s one of those miniature effects where the viewer only knows it’s a miniature because he or she stops to think about how it couldn’t possibly be anything else.

The Wizard of Oz, apparently, is not a material to be taken lightly. Semon even had Baum’s son working on the film and he couldn’t even cut it any slack. The film uses a strange framing device, a man reading his daughter the novel (even she’s bored with the political mumbo-jumbo, in one of the film’s funnier self-awarenesses). The device isn’t so strange, since it’s still used today–and in some inexplicably beloved films–but its set looks German Impressionist, with rounded corners. It adds an ominous air to the scenes, but like the rest of the film, never pays off. Still, there’s nothing wrong with the film, just so long as you aren’t expecting Keaton slapstick. Or The Wizard of Oz.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Larry Semon; screenplay by Frank Joslyn Baum, Leon Lee and Semon, with titles by Lee, based on a novel by L. Frank Baum; directors of photography, Frank B. Good, Hans F. Koenenkamp and Leonard Smith; edited by Sam Zimbalist; released by Chadwick Pictures Corporation.

Starring Dorothy Dwan (Dorothy/Princess Dorothea), Mary Carr (Aunt Em), Virginia Pearson (Lady Vishuss), Bryant Washburn (Prince Kynd), Josef Swickard (Prime Minister Kruel), Charles Murray (The Wizard of Oz), Oliver Hardy (Farmhand/The Tin Woodsman/Knight of the Garter), Frank Alexander (Uncle Henry/Prince of Whales), Otto Lederer (Ambassador Wikked), Frederick Ko Vert (The Phantom of the Basket), Larry Semon (Toymaker/Farmhand/The Scarecrow) and Spencer Bell (Snowball/The Cowardly Lion).