Book Review: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum

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In the introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, illustrated by W. W. Denslow, the Chicago author writes that he aspires to create a “modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.” Since it was published in 1900, his Oz stories, and this one in particular, have earned an enduring literary and cinematic legacy. Whether Baum achieves his goal is open to debate. But his main character, Dorothy, embodies the virtue of loyalty to herself in this coming of age tale about developing good character as the essence of adulthood.

Not that Baum had that in mind or even explicitly identifies the theme in his short children’s novel (I read the Signet Classic edition). But that’s what his fairy tale means, with Dorothy, who lives “in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife”, as the child on the brink of becoming an adult. As in MGM’s classic 1939 musical, her loyalty to herself is often displayed through her fierce protection of her smart and scrappy little dog, Toto.

The fantasy’s three wise men, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, carry the action throughout the strange, dark world of Oz. Baum’s original tale is less fanciful than the film, of course, without music and Technicolor and with the Wicked Witch of the West relegated to a single short section toward the end of the story. Here, unlike the film, the witch does not track the quartet with a crystal ball; their misfortunes and challenges arise organically most of the time. This allows for the depth of characterization that comes from a resourceful trio that each already embody the qualities they seek.

For example, Scarecrow confides to Dorothy that, with his head filled with straw, he wonders: “how am I ever to know anything?” The Tin Man, among the most developed characters, tells her that when he was a woodsman, he fell deeply in love with a Munchkin girl that lived with an old woman who “was so lazy she wished the girl to remain with her and do the cooking and the housework.” Intent upon stopping their union, the old woman enlists the Wicked Witch, who keeps cutting off the man’s body parts until his whole body is made of tin. But he keeps coming back until, finally, the girl cannot return the love of the one who is no longer the man with whom she fell in love. One day, it rains and he is left without his oilcan to rust in the woods. As the Tin Man tells Dorothy: “It was a terrible thing to undergo, but during the year I stood there I had time to think that the greatest loss I had known was the loss of my heart. While I was in love I was the happiest man on earth…”

The Cowardly Lion, too, considers himself deficient in certain ways while struggling to find courage. Each of the three represents the three basic literary conflicts; Scarecrow, who through no fault of his own is born without a brain, represents man versus nature; Tin Man, who is decapitated by an old woman’s wicked accomplice, represents man versus man and the Cowardly Lion, who goes after little dogs to mask his own fear, represents man versus himself. With Oz as the place to get mystical resolution, each eventually discovers that there is no such thing. Instead, they learn that it’s a hard life and that they will have to achieve their fullest virtues in action and earn their way to a joyful life. As the wizard, who is flawed but kind, tells Dorothy, “everyone must pay for everything he gets. Help me and I will help you.”

For her part, the witch is cruel. When she learns that the girl whose house landed on and killed her sister is traveling with an entourage, she tells a pack of uber-wolves: “Go to those people and tear them to pieces.” The witch is both magical and evil but her powers are less than omnipotent and, as a villain, she is an ultimately small and insignificant slavemistress. The violence depicted is jarring and the subtext of a modern girl trying to make sense of the world around her is compelling, and, if Baum’s story remains unusual, dark and strange, it is also engrossing and still relevant over 100 years after it was published. The theme of making one’s own character in a cruel yet beautiful world remains a striking piece of fiction, especially for a character that’s a girl. At one point, take-charge Dorothy, whose journey in Oz differs in significant ways from the MGM film adaptation, steps up and plainly asks: “Can you straighten out those dents in the tin Woodman, and bend him back into shape again, and solder him together where he is broken?” This can-do Midwestern spirit permeates a classic American children’s tale.

Movie Review: Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return

LegendsofOzAn independent animated picture, Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, is a 3D-animated musical based on Roger Stanton Baum’s children’s books (the author is the great-grandson of Oz story creator L. Frank Baum). Despite some good efforts and finely crafted moments, this is a poorly conceived and executed movie. It is a mess that defies description and it is best left unseen.

I saw the film at an advance screening with an audience of mostly children – companies sometimes stack the screening audience – and their parents or guardians and none of them seemed to enjoy the picture, though they’d entered the theater with enthusiasm. I could easily see why. Billed as a continuation of The Wizard of Oz, Legends of Oz finds Dorothy (voiced by Glee‘s Lea Michele) waking in her home in post-tornado Kansas. But this movie pretends that the original movie never happened, ignoring Dorothy’s dilemma over her dog Toto, ditching the three uncles, who do not appear, and for some reason aging Auntie Em backwards like Benjamin Button. Only Dorothy seems to have aged.

The Gale family’s faced with a government crony trying to condemn their damaged property, which might have been an interesting framing device except that mid-70s-era cars and a younger aunt already deliver a confused starting point. Soon, by way of a rainbow transporter made by the Scarecrow, Dorothy is summoned back to Oz to defend against the Wicked Witch of the West’s evil brother the Jester (voiced by Martin Short). Again, this might have been interesting – he is as obsessive about controlling every aspect of everyone’s life as Obama and, for story purposes, the crony back in Kansas – but Short’s vocal antics and the general plot, pacing and characters are too irritating, frantic and manic to take root.

The Scarecrow (Dan Aykroyd), Lion (Jim Belushi) and Tin Man (Kelsey Grammer) and Glinda (Bernadette Peters voicing too old for the cartoon character) are all back but the magic is missing. New characters, with a couple of exceptions, are as annoying as an itch you can’t scratch. An owl (Oliver Platt) who is too fat to fly and a very grating and bipolar princess made of china (Megan Hilty) join Dorothy’s trek back to Oz – no Munchkins in sight though the flying, menacing monkeys loom over the not quite as yellow brick road – and they all march toward the Jester to stop his reign of terror. Two new characters, an old tree (Patrick Stewart) who allows himself to made into a boat and a giant military marshmallow (Hugh Dancy) from Candy County help Dorothy make her way to Emerald City.

Songs by Bryan Adams are fine, though one rock number is awful, and the animation is often very well done but it comes and goes. In the first song, Dorothy walks around the Kansas town – no sign of Miss Gulch – singing a nice song but her lips aren’t moving, then they are, and on and on. It turns out that Hugh Dancy as the voice of Marshall Mallow can sing and his songs are lovely – he falls for the little china doll who some may want to smash with a mallet – but inconsistency abounds and distracts. Would Scarecrow really say “copy that”? Does the villain calling one of the monkeys a “fuzzy, evolutionary reject” really put the audience in Oz?

The best song, “Work with Me”, sang as everyone unites to build the boat to Emerald City, brings rodents and beavers around to pitch in. The tune ends too soon. Then it’s back to Dorothy taking another journey to self-awareness without any of the charm of the wonderful world of Oz. Legends of Oz is written by Randi Barnes and Adam Balsam and directed by Daniel St. Pierre and Will Finn, both of whom worked on Disney’s The Little Mermaid. This picture has evidence of skill yet none of a proper impetus. Disney’s prequel Oz the Great and Powerful proved that new Oz stories are possible to depict without making a debacle. Legends of Oz is not a debacle. The spirit of the original film was that Dorothy imagined herself saving an imaginary world in order to better grasp how to deal with reality and save something she loves (her little dog). Here, it feels more like Dorothy is already grown up with nothing to learn and that she fantasizes about Oz as a crutch for boosting morale, which minimizes the theme of the 1939 masterpiece (read my review of The Wizard of Oz here). The character, story and movie deserves better.