Sunday, March 31, 2013

"Ozvious" Differences

Happy Easter all! I hope everyone is having a good day painting eggs, gaining a few pounds eating calorie coated chocolate rabbits and picking red jellybeans out of Easter baskets. Here where I live, it was a lovely, lively day until the rain came down like small daggers. Other than that, I'm having a pleasant Easter and I hope that many more pleasant Easters are to come.

Anyway, I still have Oz on the mind. After all, a new Oz film has hit theaters and we are once again skipping down the yellow brick road, fighting winged monkeys and floating in bubbles (although this time, the bubbles don't look like giant gum balls). I saw Sam Raimi's Oz The Great and Powerful a few weeks ago and I thought it was the best interpretation of Oz since the 39 masterpiece (although Return to Oz comes pretty darn close). Some critics didn't like it, but as a massive Oz/Baum fan, I thought the film was simply fantastic. You can check out my review here:

Anyway, in my previous "Ozsome" post, I mentioned that there were many significant differences between the 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the 1939 classic we all know and love. Sure the 39 film has the book's basic gist as well as it's well known moral, but the 39 film strays far from the original novel in many ways. To showcase these ways, I've decided to have a Top Ten List in which I point out the book and the movie's most obvious differences. If you're an Oz explorer looking for new and exciting facts, I hope this article can hit the spot and maybe inspire you to read L. Frank Baum's original fairy tale. Like the 39 film, it's filled with some of the most magical stuff you will ever see in your life.

10. Summoning Winged Monkeys With A Golden Cap 

Anyone who has seen the original Wizard of Oz knows that the Wicked Witch of the West's castle is inhabited by countless blue faced monkeys and grungy, big nosed Winkie soldiers. It's quite obvious that the flying monkeys are just lumbering minions to the Wicked Witch that serve as her pets and ghastly mission carriers. But in the original book, the winged monkeys were nowhere to be seen throughout the witch's palace and the only way she could get them to carry out her missions was through a golden cap. Every time she put it on and chanted the spell "Ep-pe, Pep-pe, Kak-ke, Hil-lo, Hol-lo, Hel-lo, Ziz-zy, Zuz-zy, zip" (let that all sink in for a bit), the monkeys would come to her aid, and they not only capture Dorothy and bring her to the witch's castle, they also bring along the Cowardly Lion. The Scarecrow and Tin Man are unfortunately torn apart and left to die. After the witch's death, Dorothy uses the cap's power, ordering the monkeys to help her and her friends get to the Emerald City as well as fly over the hill of Hammerheads. At the end of the story, Dorothy gives the cap to Glinda, who gives the cap to the monkeys and tells them they are free.

Quite a huge contrast from the original movie, isn't it? It may intrigue you though to learn that the golden cap does in fact appear in the famous film. After the scene where Dorothy and her friends escape the sleeping spell of the poppies, the Wicked Witch looks into her crystal ball in horror and disgust. Her head monkey Nikko hands her the cap and the witch proceeds to tossing it across the room out of anger. It's a very brief nod to the classic book and it is said that a scene involving the golden cap was planned, but never filmed. Either way you put it, the golden cap does appear in the film, and you have to watch the film with eyes of a hawk, otherwise you will miss it.

9. Mice In The Field of Poppies

In order to get the ruby slippers, the Wicked Witch of the West uses a spell to make the poppies outside of the Emerald City put Dorothy and her friends to sleep. Of course, the Scarecrow and Tin Man don't fall asleep because they are not flesh and blood, and Glinda uses her magic to conjure a snowfall, awaking Dorothy, the Lion and little Toto. This is one of the most iconic scenes out of the entire film, but it was completely different in the book. The poppies are cursed to begin with and although Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion fall asleep, the Scarecrow and Tin Man don't shout for help and Glinda doesn't sprinkle snow upon them to wake them up. The Scarecrow and Tin Man team up with thousands of field mice, who pull a wooden tractor carrying the Lion out of the poppy field because the Scarecrow and Tin Man aren't strong enough to lift him. In Baum's Oz sequel The Marvelous Land of Oz, the mice assist the Scarecrow in defeating the evil General Jinjur. Yeh, it's very odd to think that talking mice helped our favorite straw friend and man made out of tin in the original book, but you have to wonder. Where did MGM get the idea for Glinda to sprinkle snow upon the sleeping Dorothy?

It all goes back to the original 1902 stage play. In the play, Dorothy and the Lion fall asleep in the poppy field, only to have a Good Witch cause an instant snowstorm, reviving them. This was the prime inspiration for the scene in the 39 film, and although the field mice are absent, we still have the Tin Man crying like a little school girl. For some reason, that always makes me laugh.

8. Half tiger, half bear. OH MY! 

One of the most famous quotes out of the 39 film is "Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my". Of course, we get ourselves a Lion, but there are no tigers or bears seen in the film. In the book, Dorothy and her friends encounter vicious kalidahs, half bear and half tiger hybrids with sharp claws. As they make their way across a log, the kalidahs follow them, only to have the Tin Man chop at the log with his axe, sending the kalidahs down to the ravine below. Of course this scene would have been very costly and time consuming had it been in the film, but it's interesting to note that the kalidahs appear in the Muppets' take of The Wizard of Oz, portrayed by Statler and Waldorf. I can't help but feel that if the kalidahs were in the 39 film, they would have been stop motion, kinda like King Kong. How "wizard" would that have been!

7. China People And Broken Clowns 

I remember when I was little, the area junior high had a Wizard of Oz play. As a little lad, I was expecting the play to be identical to the 39 film I was a SUPER fan of at the time. But there were many noticeable differences. For one thing, the flying monkeys captured Dorothy AND the Cowardly Lion (as I mentioned before) and one of the characters the group encounters on their way to the Emerald City was a China doll who chanted "Don't chip me, don't chap me, just leave me quite alone". For many years, this element of the play intrigued me, until I read Baum's original novel and then, it all came clear to me. The character was based upon the Dainty China Country from the book.

Dorothy and her allies wonder into the China village on their way to Glinda, the ruler of Quadling Country. There, they meet many inhabitants made of porcelain, including a cow with a broken leg and a clown with several hundred cracks in him. Apparently, he tried to stand on his head, but fell and broke himself several times. Imagine how much glue was needed to put him back together! Anyway, the Dainty China Country is entirely absent from the 39 film, but the village has made an appearance in the most recent Oz The Great and Powerful film. In it, the character of Oscar Diggs (James Franco) and the monkey Finley (voiced by Zach Braff) wonder into China Country, which has been ransacked and shattered by the Wicked Witch's minions. They also meet a little girl made of China whose legs have been broken off, but the kind "wizard to be" repairs them with glue. What a nice guy!

6. Scary Hammerheads

What are some of the scariest elements from The Wizard of Oz. Blue monkeys with awkward faces? The Wicked Witch with her horrid cackling? Peed off trees who don't like apples being picked off of them? Scarecrow wielding a pistol for no apparent reason (seriously, look closely in the haunted forest scene)? Crazy, long necked, wide eyed hammerheads? Yeh, I got you there. Like the China Country, the Hammerheads are not seen in the 39 film, although any fan of the broadway show Wicked will get a glimpse of them in the Emerald City number.

These frightening, smiling creatures wouldn't let Dorothy and her friends pass while on their way to the home of the Quadlings, and to escape their reign, they used the golden cap to summon the Flying Monkeys, who fly them over the Hammerheads' hill and into Quadling village. The hammerheads are very threatening and intimidating, similar to Kaa the Snake from the Jungle Book or Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. Just look at their long, snake like necks and huge, bulging eyes!

5. Glinda, The Not So Witch of the North

Who descends from a giant pink gum ball and waves a starry wand around? Glinda, the Good Witch of the North of course. Yes, there's no question about it. Glinda, the Witch of the North is one of the film's most memorable and cherished characters. And to think Billy Burke was 53 years old when taking on the role of the glamorous fairy. Some will argue that she's over the top and that her accent makes them want to pull every piece of hair out of their heads, but there's no denying that Glinda is one of the film's most iconic characters. Glinda in the book however is far diverse from her well known movie counterpart.

It may shock you to know that Glinda was NOT the Witch of the North in the book, but instead the Witch of the South who rules over the Quadling village. After the Wizard of Oz unexpectedly departs without Dorothy, she and her friends must travel to Glinda, who, like her movie counterpart, tells Dorothy that her shoes will take her home. Instead of wearing a big puffy pink dress and a plastic crown, she wears a small crown and a standard white gown. And don't expect Glinda to travel via bubble, for she spends her time in the story seated upon a throne, a dignified woman and powerful ruler of the Quadlings. There's a massive difference between this Glinda and movie Glinda, and although she doesn't wave her wand around like a "goodie good" and speak in a high pitched voice, she is still beautiful and triumphant within the pages of the book.

4. A Shape Shifting Wizard

Getting back to scary elements in The Wizard of Oz, the first appearance of the Wizard is pretty darn intense. We've got fire and a big green head that looks like a Ferengi from Star Trek. Either way you put it, the Wizard had us hiding under our beds whenever he was on screen, but maybe if he was like his novel counterpart, we wouldn't have crapped our pants so much.

The Wizard was a shapeshifter in the book, taking on the form of not only a big head, but a beautiful woman, a ball of fire and a many eyed rhinoceros as well. Sure, he is revealed to be a man behind a curtain in the very end, but he proved himself to be the master of illusion, taking on a form most suitable for each character. Of course, the big head was the only form to make it into the film version, but it's still interesting to see the illustrations of the Wizard's many forms in the original novel. And like the kalidahs, it was one of the many things from the book that made it into Muppets' Wizard of Oz. 

3. Wanna Go To The Emerald City, Better Put On Some Glasses!

The Emerald City is one of the most famous settings in all of film. From color changing horses to guards who cry from their foreheads, this city is one I would love to stay in from time to time. But the Emerald City in Baum's original tale has very little green in it. In fact, it's not even green at all. In order to make the city green, the inhabitants must wear green tinted spectacles which simulate green buildings and scenery . Without them, the city is pretty much dull and colorless, and it just wouldn't catch on if it was known as "Dull City".

I think this is one of the many elements that would have been great to see in the film version, but it's no biggy that they didn't have it. It probably would have been ridiculous in some people's eyes to have all the characters wear green shades in the Emerald City and it's much simpler to have the city colored green to begin with. I'm glad though that they included this element in other Oz adaptations including Wicked and, you guessed it, Muppets' Wizard of Oz. It's odd that the most fateful version of Baum's story is done with talking frogs and pigs. Fascinating.

2. Old Witches With Eye Patches

Margaret Hamilton's green Wicked Witch of the West rivals adversaries like Darth Vader and Hannibal Lector as the greatest movie foe of all time. With her crackly voice, her jagged teeth, her black clothes and hat and her sharp fingernails, the Wicked Witch of the West is what we think of when "witch" comes to mind and she has come to symbolize pure wickedness in all it's glory. If I were to show you a picture of the Wicked Witch of the West from the original book, you probably wouldn't guess it was her, because she looks nothing like the green witch we have come to love to hate.

The book witch, in my eyes, is even more hideous than her motion picture interpretation. She's an old crone with an eyepatch and she wields an umbrella (by any chance are you related to Oswald Cobblepot?). She also appears to be yellow skinned and instead of black cloaks, she wears gypsy like clothing and collars. I have seen many Oz illustrations throughout the years where both looks were mashed together. Sometimes, the witch was green skinned but included the eyepatch. Sometimes, she was plain skinned, but still retained the black clothing. Some interpretations, including Oz The Great and Powerful have given the book witch's haggard appearance to the Wicked Witch of the East, who isn't even the Wicked Witch of the West's sister in the book, but is revealed to have been in league with her in later Oz books. Out of all the Oz differences, this is very significant, but not nearly significant as the next one.

1. Silver Shoes Instead of Ruby

The Ruby Slippers, worn by Judy Garland in the film, are probably the most famous shoes ever. With their shiny red glimmer, they are sparkling to the eyes and really stick out when Dorothy frolics down the road paved in yellow brick. In the book, there are no ruby slippers, but instead silver shoes, very slick in appearance, yet still glamorous. This is one of the many elements that was to be included in the film version, but to show off the new Technicolor technology that had just come out, the filmmakers changed the shoes from silver to ruby red. It was all an act to make them stick out more on film, and when it comes to the great history of the iconic footwear, things tend to get convoluted. One of the many pairs worn by Judy Garland in the film is currently held in the hands of famous actress Debbie Reynolds and there was even a time when a set of the shoes were stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

Still, the silver shoes are still legendary in their own right and are still included in many Oz depictions. In the musical Wicked, the shoes transform from silver to red as the Wicked Witch Elphaba tries to make her sister Nessarose walk on her own.

Whether they are minor differences or great noticeable ones, there are certainly many to behold when reading the book and the watching movie version of L. Frank Baum's classic story. Like many movies based on books, The Wizard of Oz departs greatly from the source material, yet still captures the story's overall heart and meanings. I think Baum would be quite proud of the 1939 film based on his legendary story, for it brought to life the brilliance he thought up in his head and made his world even more grandiose. Forever live the world of Oz. Keep taking us on wild adventures!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Disney and Lucas: Creators of Worlds

Originally Written: November 29 2012 

It was certainly something when I found out that Lucasfilm would be bought out by The Walt Disney Company this past Halloween, and that the long awaited Episode 7 would hit cinemas as late as 2015. Many were delighted to hear the news, for the idea of new Star Wars films would bring enlightenment and excitement in the coming years, others were infuriated, cringing at the very thought that the galaxy far far away was now in the same family as Muppets, steamboat chugging mice, and merry mouskateers. I, on the other hand, was neither delighted nor infuriated, but plain out surprised. Many questions raced into my head as to why one of my favorite franchises of all time was sold to the company started by the legendary Walter Elias Disney and his brother Roy in the late 1920s. Now, after several weeks of pondering on the matter, and pondering on the fact that Yoda and Mickey Mouse are now pretty much one, I can come to the conclusion that the great Walt Disney and the great George Lucas are similar in many ways, for they both started out very small in a big world and worked their way up, becoming creators of worlds in their own right.

The World of Disney is Walt Disney's creation (duh) and Star Wars is George Lucas' creation, and even if these two geniuses had their share of problems and doubts, they chucked them out the door and succeeded in crossing the finish line, incepting what are inarguably some of the most iconic images in all of pop media. This can be seen throughout their films, from the overpowering magnitude of Fantasia and it's prudent musical scores, to the exciting, head bending nature of the Star Wars saga and the Indiana Jones series. And yes, even in the latest Star Wars trilogy, it clearly shows Lucas' creative vision and passion for the arts, something that is often overlooked and unfairly compared. So lets have a look at the similarities between these two very famous men and see how they got started and eventually became what we know them as today.

Well for one thing, both Lucas and Disney started never wanting to go into the field of storytelling and creating worlds. Disney wanted to go into the army, and at 16, he dropped out of high school to do just that. George Lucas was a high school outcast who was more fascinated by race cars than with video cameras. After a brutal car accident that nearly claimed his life, Lucas decided to go into another field, the field of independent filmmaking, and I use "independent" very highly, for Lucas was a person who hated the systems and rules of the studios and wanted to do his own thing. As for Disney, he was not accepted into the army because he was underage, and he and his friend decided to join Red Cross where Disney drove an ambulance for a few months. After he was done driving an ambulance, it was then that Disney decided to go in the art direction, drawing comics and doodles for a newspaper. Along the way of his long and tedious career, Disney also established many short lived companies before The Walt Disney Company was finally formed, such as Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists, which he formed with Ub Iwerks, who helped him created Mickey Mouse in 1928. He also formed Newman Laugh-O Gram and hired many animators to help him in making short animated cartoons, but the company eventually shut down because of studio profits and bankruptcy. Even Disney's first character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was taken out of his hands, and little did Walt know that it would take his company more than 8 decades to get the character back into Disney's grasp.

As for Lucas, he didn't have very much luck in the beginning either. In the early 1970s, he and Francis Ford Coppola founded the studio American Zoetrope and released THX 1138 in 1971 to little success. After the failure of this film, it was then that Lucas decided to form his own company, Lucasfilm Ltd. and release the smash hit American Graffiti in 1973. But even then, no one believed in Lucas and his filmmaking talent, for he had a very difficult time finding a distributor for Graffiti, eventually having it distributed by Universal. This very same thing carried on into Star Wars, as very few people had fate in Lucas' vision and many thought the film Lucas was creating was a complete mess. You know what, the making of Star Wars WAS a mess. Similar to what Steven Spielberg experienced while filming JAWS, many of the elements on the set of Star Wars were not working or nonexistent. Lucas constantly fell behind schedule, it rained a lot in the Tunisian desert where the Tatooine scenes were filmed, many of the film's props malfunctioned, and there were several electrical breakdowns. And several people who worked with Lucas on the film became angered, either quitting or having somebody else take their place. Even Lucas himself became angered and at times, felt like flushing the film down the toilet and forgetting about the thing all together. Lucas became so upset and stressed over the film that he was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with high blood pressure and exhaustion. Yes, Lucas had a truck full of miseries while filming Star Wars, and he himself, just like a good majority of people around that time, felt like the film was going to blow the big one and become a dismal disappointment. Of course we all know what came of Star Wars in the end, but the film was no easy task to complete.

The same can be said for Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and pretty much all of the Golden Age Disney animated flicks in general. As any long time animator will tell you, producing animation is no walk to the ice cream parlor. Just a few seconds of an animated film can take over 100 drawings to produce, and the fact that Disney and his crew were able to produce Snow White at such a planned rate is just remarkable. The fact that they were able to produce an hour and a half long animated film with all of it's colorful, rotoscoped, flawless glory is fantastic to think about, but the film, like Star Wars, was no easy peanut to turn into butter. In fact, at one point during the film's production, the film went over budget, and in order to get the rest of the money to complete the film, Disney had to show a rough cut of the film to bankers at the Bank of America. And even then, most people didn't have fate in Disney's vision as many of the film's producers, particularly the animators, became frustrated and felt like they were being overworked. Animator Ward Kimbell, one of Disney's "Nine Old Men", animated an extravagant soup eating scene involving the seven dwarves and Snow White only to have it cut from the final product. Kimbell became so angry that he was about to leave Disney's company, that is until Disney rewarded him by assigning him to work on Jiminy Cricket for Disney's next film, Pinocchio. And even if Disney's films like Snow White and Pinocchio became superb hits at the box office, the company was several million dollars in debt. Many of Disney's animators felt like they were being worked hard and paid little, and in 1941, many of Disney's animators went on strike, several of them departing the company all together. Most notable animators who left the company were Bill Melendez and Frank Tashlin, who went to work on Looney Tunes at Leon Schlesinger Productions.

Yes, it seemed that, despite there successes and triumphs, Lucas and Disney had their share of troubles and treacheries. Both of them became insanely rich, yet they owed a lot of money for the highly expensive movies they were making. Eventually, everything worked out for them in the end, but it would leave some scars that would never fully heal. Disney had several family issues while he was making his movies and Lucas got a divorce from his wife Marcia in the mid 1980s. Both of them would suffer from depressive states where they felt like throwing in the towel and giving up on everything they worked so hard to accomplish, but one thing is set in the stone as clear as day. Both Disney and Lucas were "wizard" at entrepreneurship. You can't deny that both Disney and Lucas pioneered new filmmaking techniques and brought forward new innovations and customs to the filmmaking industry. Lucas' special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic, has given us both practical and computer animated special effects, blending them into films very well and giving a sense of realism to the whole "magical fantasy" element. Disney's "imagineers" helped bring animatronics and unique mechanisms to the movie dinner table and also helped bring a sense of magical quality to Walt Disney World when it opened in 1971. Disney's Multiplane camera also brought great special effects to many of Disney's animated films, giving a sense of 3-D nature and depth to many of the animated films' environments. And I'd be foolish not to mention that Pixar was developed at Lucasfilm and spun a web of it's own, eventually being bought out by The Walt Disney Company in 2004. Of course I don't need to go into much detail with that, for Pixar has produced some of Disney's most successful classics like Toy Story and Up.

But I remember growing up watching Disney films on VHS cassette tapes back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Right before the films started, there would be this weird sound and a logo that said THX. It spooked me for many years until the Internet boomed and I finally researched on what this whole THX thing was all out. THX, standing for Tomlinson Holman eXperiment (as well as a homage to THX 1138), is a sound technology that was developed at Lucasfilm in 1983 to help enhance the sound  and picture quality of Lucas' Star Wars Original Trilogy capper, Return of the Jedi. Since then, the technology has been used to restore a lot of older films, such as the first two Star Wars films, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind, and of course, a majority of Disney's animated classics. Even Mickey's A Christmas Carol has been restored through the THX process. And it's also interesting to point out that THX is also used in video game consoles, car radios, home theaters, and even computer speakers. Yes, it all goes back to Lucasfilm and Disney some way or another, and when it comes to Jim Henson and his Muppets, they are also connected in one form or another. Of course Jim Henson oversaw the creation of Stewart Freeborn's Yoda for 1980's The Empire Strikes Back and he and Lucas teamed up for 1986's Labyrinth, but you may recall that Disney in fact owns the mainstream Muppet characters (not including the Sesame Street Muppets) and have distributed many of the Muppets' movies throughout the years, such as The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, and last November's blockbuster, simply titled The Muppets. The point is that Jim Henson has worked with both Lucas and Disney at some point, and some of his legacy is clearly shown throughout some of Disney and Lucas' motion pictures.

And of course, Walt Disney World has Star Wars Weekends each year, displaying Star Wars fandom mixed in with that charming "Disneyness". I find it odd, yet awesome at the same time, that there are action figures combining both the Disney icons with the Star Wars icons (Big Bad Pete as Boba Fett) and that there is a ride at Disney World called Star Tours, featuring Paul "Pee-Wee Herman" Reubens as the voice of the captain robot Rex. In my book, it just goes to show how much Star Wars is for the kiddies as it is for the adults. That parallels Disney perfectly, for even if most Disney films are for children, the adults can chime in and enjoy the wonder and the excitement as well. I like to think that  George Lucas is a child at heart just like Walt Disney was a child at heart, doing it all for the children of the world so they can be captivated and blown into another dimension. That is something I wish to bring forward in my career as a storyteller, as I am at the moment coming up with a unique, diverse universe that is suitable for both youngsters and grown ups. Just think about it, Disney has Jaq and Gus, Lucas has R2 and 3P0. Disney has the Reluctant Dragon, Lucas has Jar Jar Binks (a character that has been ridiculed to no end). Disney has the Wicked Crone from Snow White, Lucas has the Emperor. Just by saying their names, I'm thinking up similarities between all of these characters. And Winifred the Witch from Hocus Pocus can shoot lightning from her hands just like the Emperor. I'd surely like to see Bette Midler go up against Ian McDiarmid any day.

Both Lucas and Disney have had many victories throughout their interesting, yet inspiring careers, but they have also had their share of criticisms. Most pop media websites nowadays have talked terrible things about Lucas' latest Star Wars trilogy, complaining about Jar Jar, Hayden Christensen, microscopic organisms in the blood, too much CGI, and Yoda fighting with a lightsaber. Yes, the "prequels" have been torn apart several times throughout the web, most notable in RedLetterMedia's documentaries, but it may shock some of you to know that several of Disney's films weren't well received upon their release. Bambi was loathed by many critics who claimed it to be too realistic and grim for a kid's film and even the great Fantasia with it's epic, classical glory, received mixed reception, some critics believing it to be a huge departure from Disney's signature style, a huge departure for the worse. Today, these films hold classic status. I have no doubt that somewhere down the line, maybe after the newer trilogy is released that expands the Star Wars universe even further, that the Star Wars prequels will be hailed as the classic epic stories they really are. Often, I have run into people who are unfairly comparing them to the original films and making them seem like they were just made to make money and sell action figures. That's not true in the slightest. It is true that movies promote merchandise and merchandise promotes the movies, but no big budget movie in Hollywood is made with the clear intent to sell toys. The toys come later, after the movie is completed and ready for release. Kids will see the toys on the shelf of a store and it will motivate them to see the movie or vice versa (kids might see the movie and want an action figure or stuffed animal of their favorite character). Neither Lucas nor Disney made their movies with the intention of making a wazoo of play things. Do you know what Lucas had to promote Star Wars at San Diego Comic-Con a year before Star Wars' release? A bunch of t-shirts and hats! The figurines didn't come until much later.

This also goes for Disney. All Disney had to promote his material was some magazines, wind up toys made of metal and paper dolls. It's much different nowadays. You can go into a store and find just about anything with Mickey Mouse on it, just like you can find just about anything with a Star Wars character on it. See the similarities between Disney and Lucas. They had very little to promote their movies in the beginning, now they have everything under the sun to help in making their movies hits. It's all smooth once you think about it, and whether or not it's a ball cap or a soap dish, it will surely get anybody into the Star Wars or Disney spirit.

When Disney was designing Epcot, the Experimental Prototype City Of Tomorrow, he said that it will never be finished, for it will always be expanding, progressing, and getting much bigger than when it originally started. Doesn't that sound familiar. Lucas once said that films were never completed, only abandoned, and it can clearly be seen in his Special Editions of the original Star Wars films. Lucas made the Special Editions with the clear intent to expand upon his already established universe, making it bigger and in many ways more vivid and exhilarating. In it's own obvious way, Star Wars is a lot like Epcot, always getting bigger and progressing, and this couldn't be made more evident than with Disney's latest purchase of Lucasfilm and their intention of making more films to further the galactic adventures after Return of the Jedi. With Walt Disney tempering with his well rounded universe and coming up with new ideas to make it bolder and wider, isn't that what Lucas was doing with Star Wars, or what Disney will do with Star Wars in the future. There is not doubt that Disney will make Star Wars much more rich and bold and make the story we all know and love better than it ever was before.

All you people out there that are fearful of Disney making the next Star Wars film with Donald Duck as the main character and making the Genie from Aladdin cameo as Ben Kenobi, fear not. Disney will respect George Lucas' vision and never do something like that without George Lucas' permission first. There is no doubt in my mind that they will take this new trilogy seriously and make George Lucas proud in every sense of the word. And many people like myself feel that George Lucas' retirement is well deserved. He's had quite a career if you ask me.

The whole entire point I'm trying to make with this article is that, in many countless ways, Disney and Lucas have been linked together even before Disney bought Lucasfilm. They were two men working in an area bigger than themselves and they eventually became powerful creators of the most imaginative worlds OUR world has ever seen. They had their pickles, as all people do, but they ultimately worked around them and came through in the grand scheme of things, and today we hail them as some of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century. Over the years, Disney and Lucas have become further linked as both their companies would work together on several occasions, and now, Lucas and Disney's works are now siblings, along with the works of Marvel and Jim Henson. And if there is one thing these two men have taught me, it's to go for the most impossible of impossible things, they are not so impossible after all. A green man once said, Do or do not. There is no try. Another green man said When your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme. Anything can happen, and in my eyes, Lucas and Disney have gone to the end of Earth and back again to prove it.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Baum is the Bomb: Perspectives and Insights On The Land of Oz

"Imagination has brought mankind through the dark ages to its present state of civilization. " Imagination led Columbus to discover America. Imagination led Franklin to discover electricity. 

- Lyman Frank Baum

Whenever the title "Wizard of Oz" is heard, undeniably the first thing that comes to mind is the beloved 1939 classic starring Judy Garland. The film, which has been said by the Library of Congress to be the most watched film in history, has captivated generation after generation and is the very definition of a timeless film. But the MGM Oz masterpiece is a very small piece of a large pie. The world of Oz did not start out as a film as many believe it to be and was conceived in the mind of one man, a man who will forever be known as "The Founder of Oz". His name is Lyman Frank Baum, and his 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz would become the focal point of which the 1939 film was based upon. As the 1939 film would go down as one of the best movies ever made, the original novel would go down as one of the best fairy tales ever written on paper, and the man behind it would go down as one of the greatest inspirations, not only to myself, but to many others as well. The works of L. Frank Baum have inspired such people such as Walt Disney, Gregory Maguire, Sam Raimi, and I'm willing to bet that J.K. Rowling was inspired by Baum's work, in one form or another. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has become a monumental milestone in American literature, spawning many sequels, plays, and other movies, some of which were released decades before the beloved MGM classic.

Growing up in the late 90s early 2000s timeframe, I went berserk when The Wizard of Oz was on television. Every time it was on, it was like a holiday or special event, and even if I missed it, I could still whip out the old weathered VHS tape, catching a glimpse of the land of Oz even if huge white lines soared across the television screen. As I grew older, I saw illustrations from the original Wizard of Oz novel on Christmas ornaments and I grew anxious to read the book, written nearly 4 decades before the MGM film saw the light of day. As infatuated with the MGM film as I was, I expected the novel to be almost identical to the film that was eventually made. Surely, there would be noticeable differences, but little did I know that there would be SEVERAL noticeable differences. Baum's original novel is almost completely different from the classic film, even though the classic film retains the book's overall tone and premise. For one thing, Dorothy's vacation to Oz actually happened and wasn't a dream as it was portrayed in the movie. Her iconic ruby slippers were also silver in the book and fall off and get lost as Dorothy is transported back to Kansas. Glinda, the Good Witch of the North in the movie is the Good Witch of the South in the book and rules over a place called Quadling Country. Another noticeable difference is that the Wicked Witches are not sisters and the Wicked Witch of the West looks completely different than the pointy hatted, green witch we are all familiar with. She is portrayed as an elderly woman with pig tails and an eyepatch, and William Wallace Denslow's illustrations in the original book color her yellow instead of the iconic green she would eventually be known for. Her role in the book is also significantly shorter than her role in the movie, and she summons the Flying Monkeys (known in the book as Winged Monkeys) using a "golden cap".

There are also many other contrasts to the 39 film, such as the inclusions of half tiger, half bear hybrids called kalidahs, creatures called hammerheads, a town where every inhabitant is made of porcelain (something that would be included in the most recent film, Oz The Great and Powerful), green glasses that make the Emerald City...well...emerald, and the Wizard of Oz taking on many different forms as each main character enters his chamber. The point is, the Wizard of Oz novel was far diverse from the film that was eventually made, and I was baffled by how many things I pointed out that differed from the legendary film. Not that I didn't like the book, in fact, it's one of my very favorite novels (I actually have it on my iPhone), but the things that didn't make it into the final film intrigued me, and I think they made the Oz universe much more broader and richer. Of course, there have been several sequels and spinoffs written throughout the years following WWO's original release, such as The Marvelous Land of Oz, Ozma of Oz, The Road to Oz, and....ready for this...Rinkitink of Oz, and each one of them expanded on the fantasy world Baum brought forward while also showing Baum's perspectives and beliefs. Baum believed in non violence and that religious acts should be made by mature minds and not religious authorities. He was also a huge supporter of the Women's Suffrage which is clearly shown in the characters of Dorothy, Glinda and Ozma. Instead of making the women supporting characters and adding touches of feminism, Baum made females the focal point of many of his stories, making Dorothy not an average damsel in distress, but an all out, quick thinking heroine. This is one of the many elements sorely missing in the 39 film, for Judy Garland's Dorothy, while portrayed well, comes off as a crying damsel who needs to be rescued by her friends. In the book, she was the one rescuing her friends!

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As I said before, many interpretations of Baum's stories have been done throughout the years, some combining elements from both the original book and the beloved movie. There's of course the 1995 revisionist novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West written by Gregory Maguire, which was later adapted into a famous musical with music by Stephen Schwartz (the witch's name "Elphaba" comes from the pronunciation of L. Frank Baum's initials). There's the mini-series Tin Man, which puts some sci-fi into the world of Oz and like Wicked, features a bit of adult content. There's the most recent Disney film Oz The Great and Powerful, which teaches us how the wizard, played by James Franco, got into Oz and became what we know him as. But why don't we go back even further, even before the 1939 film everyone knows and loves graced the movie screen. Our time machine takes us back to 1902 when the first ever stage musical of The Wizard of Oz was released. Like many interpretations of Baum's tales, this musical differs drastically from the original book. Elements sorely missing are the Wicked Witch of the West, Toto, and the Cowardly Lion's part is shortened. New characters included in the play are Imogene the Cow, King Pastoria II, Cynthia Cynch, and Sir Dashemoff Daily. Although many of the play's elements remain shrouded in mystery, two things are apparent. Dorothy's surname "Gale" was introduced in this play and it has become the character's last name ever since. In one of the play's scenes, Dorothy is put to sleep in the field of poppies and is revived when the Good Witch sprinkles snow on them. This is one of the things that made it's way into the 1939 film, for the Good Witch Glinda sprinkles snow on the poppies that put Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion to sleep. It is also said that some of the costumes used in the 1902 play were later used in the 1910 silent film, the oldest existing Oz film to date.

The 1910 film, which also differs greatly from the source material, is even more mysterious than the 1902 play. The director, the actors, and the overall credits are shrouded in mystery, but unlike the 1902 play, this 13 minute film features the Wicked Witch of the West (named Momba) as the primary villain. There was also said to be an Oz film before this one that featured hand colored stills (imagine how tedious that must have been!), but overtime, the film decomposed and it is no longer in existence. Another famous Oz movie that came out before the 1939 film was 1925's Wizard of Oz, directed by Larry Semon. Out of all the Oz interpretations, this one is the most different from Baum's original story. The magical elements from the book such as talking scarecrows, tin woodmen, and lions are gone, for the Kansas farmhands (played by Semon, Oliver Hardy, and Spencer Bell) disguise themselves as the characters instead of the characters actually existing. Once again, the Lion's part is limited, and like in the 1902 play, the Wicked Witch of the West and Toto are absent. The villain in this take of Oz is a miser named Prime Minister Kruel, who rules the Land of Oz with an iron fist. Dorothy, who is ironically played by a woman named Dorothy Dwan, is revealed to be the lost princess of Oz named Dorothea, a concept obviously derived from Princess Ozma in the books. The Wizard, played in this film by silent film legend Charles Murray, is more or less of a lumbering henchman who ultimately proves vital in the film's overall plot and story. I also should point out that Oliver Hardy's farmhand, who becomes the Tin Woodman, becomes a villainous trooper of Prime Minister Kruel and chases the other main characters around Kruel's palace at the film's climax. That's right, the Tin Man becomes a villain. And although this film features Oliver Hardy and not Stan Laurel, this film has been associated with Laurel and Hardy many times throughout the years and many confuse Larry Semon with Stan Laurel.

Someone who always wanted to make an Oz picture was Walt Disney. In fact, his 1937 animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves inspired MGM to make The Wizard of Oz in the first place. When the rights to Baum's remaining books became available, Disney purchased them, intending to make an animated Oz film in his signature style. A common myth has it that Walt Disney also held the rights to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series, but that is not true, for Tolkien despised Disney's work. For reasons unknown, Disney never got around to making his Oz movie, and his planned live action film The Rainbow Road to Oz, which was going to star his original Mickey Mouse Club, didn't even make it past the drawing board. Disney also had Oz themed rides for Disneyland in mind, but they never got made either. After his death in 1966, Disney's company fell far from it's former glory, releasing flops such as The Black Cauldron. The same year of The Black Cauldron's release, Disney Studios finally released their take on the land of Oz in Return to Oz directed by Walter Murch. Like The Black Cauldron, this film bombed terribly at the box office and fell under the reign of many critics, some saying that it degenerated what the Wizard of Oz stood for. But since it's release, it has garnished a MASSIVE cult following. I myself have come to adore the film, even if there are some elements in it that don't really add up, in my eyes at least. It combines what we love about the original novels and what we love about the 39 film and blends in a lot of 80s special effects and brilliant stop motion sequences. It is also much darker (no, MUCH MUCH MUCH darker) than the 39 film. Sure the 39 film had Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch, creepy blue faced flying monkeys and peed off trees who don't like apples being picked off of them, but this film has some of the creepiest imagery you will ever see in a movie.

The main villain, the Nome King, who made his debut in 1927's The Gnome King of Oz, is one of the most visually striking villains I've ever seen. One minute, he's Nicol Williamson in rock like makeup, the other minute, he's a brilliant stop motion creation, reminiscent of something Ray Harryhausen would come up with. The secondary villain, Mombi, is a combination of witch Mombi from the original novels and Princess Langwidere, who has the ability to change her heads. After the Nome King turns the land of Oz to stone, she steals the heads from some of the women living in the Emerald City. When Dorothy returns to Oz, Mombi plans on taking her head and locks her away in the upstairs attic. With the help of new friends Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead and a moose head called the Gump, Dorothy is able to escape and they go looking for the Scarecrow, who ruled the Emerald City after the departure of the Wizard.  Coming across the Nome King's fortress, the group has to go through a trial where they search for the Scarecrow, who has been turned into an ornament. After her other three friends fail and get turned into ornaments, Dorothy not only has to find the Scarecrow, but her other friends as well. In the end, madness unfolds as Dorothy revives the Scarecrow and her other friends and the Nome King grows into a giant rock monster, eventually being defeated when Dorothy's hen Billina lays an egg in his mouth. With the land of Oz restored (as well as the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion) and the wicked Mombi imprisoned, Dorothy prepares to return to Kansas but before she does, she releases Princess Ozma, the once great ruler of Oz and Ozma vows to make Dorothy return to Oz whenever she desires to come back. Dorothy goes back to Kansas, reunites with her aunt and uncle, and at her newly built house, she sees Princess Ozma in her mirror, Ozma instructing Dorothy to keep the land of Oz a secret. It goes to show that Dorothy's adventures in Oz may not have been a dream after all.

There are so many more interpretations of Oz, I've barely boiled the potato. There's of course The Wiz, Journey Back To Oz, the animated Oz TV series from the 90s, the episode of The Shirley Temple Show that was based on The Marvelous Land of Oz, the Disney Oz records, the Marvel Comics version of The Wizard of Oz, and many, many, many, many more. And all of this couldn't have been if it wasn't for L. Frank Baum and his tremendous contribution to the world of storytelling. Baum is the Bomb (literally) and he surely went over the rainbow and back again, creating a universe unlike any other written or illustrated. And with each take on Oz, the universe he brought forward gets bigger and richer, bringing us entertainment and delight and some of the most iconic images that will forever stick out in our brains. He created one of the first American fairy tales and to this day, his Land of Oz has captivated millions and taken them beyond the barn, proving that dreams  that you dare to dream can come true.