• Otter Views: The Franchise of Oz

    by Tom Stevens

    A chance to see an Oz “prequel” movie through 3-D glasses lured me to the Imax theater, where I beheld all the vivid colors and computer graphic wizardry of which Hollywood is now capable. It was big fun. And while prominent critics have savaged Disney’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” on too many counts to repeat here, the Cannery Row audience liked the film enough to applaud at the end.

    True, this isn’t the soulful 1939 MGM classic that gave the world Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow.” Like the first “King Kong,” the 1939 “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was sui generis. The makers of the current film acknowledge that with enough respectful curtsies to keep the Oz fan base from melting down.

    The news that Disney is planning a sequel to its prequel did get a few critics throwing fireballs. Grumbling from some quarters that Disney wants to “franchise Oz” set me dancing like the scarecrow, because Oz has been a franchise for a century. If Disney wants to add another chapter, I say, bring it on.

    The ghost of L. Frank Baum would probably approve. The “Oz” creator failed for years as an actor, journalist, storekeeper and décor salesman before finding his groove as a children’s author. An 1897 “Mother Goose” project illustrated by Maxfield Parrish and an 1898 “Father Goose” that became a best-seller enabled Baum to support his wife and four sons by writing.

    And did he ever write. Between 1897 and his death in 1919, Baum wrote 55 books and 15 plays under his own name and six pen names. He was as restless as he was prolific. By the time “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” appeared in 1900, Baum had moved on to “Queen Zixi of Ix” and a life story of Santa Claus. But letters from young readers begging for another Oz book turned him grudgingly back toward the Emerald City.

    Before a stroke felled him at age 62, Baum wrote 13 more Oz books, helmed the first Oz movie in 1910, wrote several Oz plays, and even produced an Oz musical 90 years before “The Wiz.” In a strange foreshadow of his later interpreters Walt Disney and Michael Jackson, Baum in 1905 planned a “fairy paradise for children” to be built on an island off Southern California. An 11-year-old girl from San Francisco named Dorothy Talbot was to serve as the island’s first princess, but that’s as far as the project got.

    Michael Jackson, alas, is gone, but if Disney wants an Oz franchise, Baum certainly laid it out. Characters like the regal Ozma of Oz, the mechanical Tic-Toc Man, the goat-riding Rinky-Tink, the frivolous Patchwork Girl and the goofy Woggle Bug all await their own 3-D treatments.

    If Disney wants to stay abreast of the “Star Wars” franchise, which just announced several more films, it can always turn to the extended Oz canon. You see, Dorothy, after Baum died, writers like Ruth Plumly Thompson kept readers traveling through the lands of the Winkies, Quadlings, Munchkins and Oillikins.

    In my childhood, these tales arrived from a grandmother in faraway Kansas on Christmas and birthdays. Eventually the family bookshelf bulged with “Oz” books illustrated by the great art deco caricaturist John R. Neill. Many titles celebrated characters “in” of “of” Oz, including the Wishing Horse, the Purple Prince, the Gnome King, Jack Pumpkin Head, the Hungry Tiger, Captain Salt, Handy Mandy, The Yellow Knight, and a snarling crew of “Pirates in Oz.”

    Once Thompson and her fellow sequel writers had run through their headliners, the series started featuring places (“Wonder City” and “The Hidden Valley”), things (“The Merry-Go-Round,” “The Emerald Wand” and “Scalawagons”) and even prepositions (“Trouble Under Oz”). In all, the pre-1939 Oz franchise spun out 40 novels (“the famous 40”). Add the recent “Wiz” and “Wicked” projects, and we’re pushing 50 treatments. Take that, “Star Wars.”

    The Oz books I remember most fondly – “Pirates,” “Ozma,” “Rinky-Tink,” “Kabumpo” and “The Gnome King” – are among the childhood possessions I now wish I had kept. But nature had other ideas. By the time I realized I would never again see the likes of those John R. Neill drawings, termites had reduced my old cloth-bound Oz books to spittle and crumbs. Sic transit gloria mundi.

    To its credit, “The Great and Mighty Oz” introduces a character who could have sprung from the fevered imaginations of Baum or Thompson.  She is a porcelain doll who lives in a village of crockery and tea pots as fanciful as any storybook realm from the “famous 40.” As played by James Franco, Disney’s “prequel” wizard starts out as a skirt-chaser, but the China girl brings out his better angels. As for the witches, you’ll have to see for yourself.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on March 15, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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