Monday, June 29, 2015

Big announcement! Urgent!

The International Wizard of Oz Club announced today that July 3, 2015, it would be closing its online store (as far as merchandise would be concerned, presumably, you will still be able to register and renew membership online).

Over the years, the Oz Club has released a good many items: reprints of rare works by L. Frank Baum and Ruth Plumly Thompson, reprints of some of the (at the time) harder to find books in the Famous Forty, new Oz books by Thompson, Eloise Jarvis McGraw and Lauren Lynn McGraw, Rachel Cosgrove Payes, Dick Martin and Gina Wickwar, and a beautiful set of maps. In addition, it has carried stocks of Oz books from other publishers and valuable resources for Oz research and collectors.

Unfortunately, things have gotten difficult for the Oz Club. It wasn't clear until some recent years ago that the stock of materials held by the Club was quite extensive. For a time, the store was closed until the stock was hired to a third party fulfillment company. Unfortunately, stock was moving too slowly for the company to not charge the Club extra. With this problem, the Club has now made the decision to close the store and investigate other options for selling off the stock.

So, if there was anything you wanted from the Oz Club's store, go ahead and get it! They will be selling some stock at Winkie Con/Oz Con International next month in San Diego, but there's no guarantee that the item you want will be there.

So please, go ahead and help the Club have less stock to move as they move forward with this issue.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Amazon's Lost in Oz pilot

Well, I just watched Amazon's new Lost in Oz pilot. (Not to be confused with any other project with that name ever.)

For those unfamiliar, each year Amazon releases several pilots for new shows they are considering. Taking viewer response into consideration, some of those shows could be picked up for a full season. Through Amazon Prime membership, the shows can be streamed to computers, tablets, and Amazon-equipped TVs, set top boxes, consoles and other devices.

First things first: this is a highly stylized CG animated series that is made to resemble Claymation. The look is very nice and I had no complaints about the animation.

Now the big question: does this show offer a faithful representation of L. Frank Baum's world? The answer: no.

Well then, is it a good show? Yes.

The show follows young Dorothy Gale (and her dog Toto) as she finds a mysterious notebook that accidentally whips up a magic tornado that drops her house off in Oz, where she lands in the Emerald City. She meets a young witch named West, a big for his age Munchkin named Ojo and a talking rag doll who try to help her find the Yellow Brick Line to get home. Unfortunately, things don't quite work out so easily, and Dorothy's return home isn't so quick.

Oz in this version is a modern metropolis, and a few zany designs aside, is a pretty standard looking city. There's some amusing touches, such as a security guard who is a brick wall and a giant for the Lookout, the City's guardian.

The pilot definitely takes some elements from The Patchwork Girl of Oz, as well as the standard travel to Oz trope we know from Wonderful Wizard. It's a reimagining worth watching, but from the pilot, definitely one to take on its own instead of trying to match it up with the books or any previous adaptation. I'd be interested in seeing more!

Check it out on Amazon while you can, and be sure to fill out the survey with your feedback!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A brief tribute to Return to Oz

30 years ago today, Walt Disney Pictures released an ambitious film titled Return To Oz.

A thrilling fantasy film with a capable lead in child actress Fairuza Balk, creature effects by the Jim Henson Company, Claymation by Will Vinton, and a beautiful musical score by David Shire all under the directorial debut of Walter Murch, the film did not sell well at theaters. Audiences were unfamiliar with a dark take on Oz that actually tried to bring L. Frank Baum's world into the 1980s fantasy film spectrum.

Critics called it scary and dull, but the audiences who gave it a chance on release or on television and home video would have their imaginations stimulated, even with the terrors Dorothy faces in the film.

And in 30 years, Hollywood has not tried such a bold take on Oz again.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

They need your help, fast!

Illogical Associates (the team behind the comic book Dorothy and last year's Shadow of Oz Tarot card deck) is at it again with American Bibliodeck, a series of decks of playing cards based on American literature, the first being The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, of course. And again, they turn to Kickstarter for crowdfunding.

The problem is that they're still short of half their goal and there's only eight days left! So check it out and if you like, donate! And if not, share it around.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Oh my goodness, my oh my! Monkeys that can fly!

Well, the second unique creatures in Oz we ran into were the famous Winged Monkeys. Or Flying Monkeys. Whichever you want to call them. They wound up with alternate names over the years. Some credit MGM's The Wizard of Oz with the latter, except that the monkeys are never referred to in dialogue as "winged" or "flying." (It was visual. You saw the wings, you got the point.) And then they got parodied in all sorts of media throughout the years.

One such parody provided the title of this entry: an episode of Eek! The Cat had a strange musical fantasy episode that featured a flying dog character that was referred to as a monkey. At one point, Eek! sings "Oh my goodness, my oh my! Monkeys that can fly!" Or something like that. I saw it once years ago.

When we first meet the Winged Monkeys in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, they appear to be another one of the malicious forces of the Wicked Witch of the West. But were they? She uses them as her final hand in trying to stop Dorothy and her friends from reaching her. So, were the wolves, crows and bees who met their fates at the hands of Dorothy's friends possibly also not evil? Uh-oh...

The Wicked Witch has to use the Golden Cap to summon the Winged Monkeys, but its origins are not explained until later. We are only told that she's used it twice already and she's only used it now because it's the final card in her hand. Furthermore, she must use a charm and strange gestures while using the cap.

The Winged Monkeys who attend to the business they're summoned to appear to be adult, and we are not told that they are male and female, so perhaps when the Winged Monkeys are summoned, it only summons adult males to do the possibly dangerous work.

We are told that the Wicked Witch of the West used the Cap to command the Winged Monkeys three times: once to enslave the people of Winkie Country, and again to drive the Wizard out of the western country. The final time was to kill Dorothy and her friends, except the Lion, who the Witch wanted brought to her. The monkeys tore apart the Scarecrow and battered the Tin Woodman on sharp rocks. They could not harm Dorothy thanks to the Good Witch of the North's kiss, so they brought her and Toto to the Witch.

Perhaps the Winged Monkeys thought they could enjoy some semblance of freedom as they likely thought the Wicked Witch would never give the Golden Cap away, and they likely weren't expecting Dorothy to actually kill her. So with the Wicked Witch's command over them exhausted, they'd never have to answer to anyone else again!

Well, that actually wasn't the case. Dorothy did kill the Witch and happened to take the Golden Cap with her. Somehow, the Queen of the Field Mice was familiar with the Golden Cap and advised Dorothy to use it to get to the Emerald City quickly. The Monkeys willingly answered Dorothy's command and on the way, the king told Dorothy of the history of the Golden Cap: in his grandfather's time, the Winged Monkeys threw the fiance of the sorceress Gayelette into a river on his wedding day, ruining his clothes. Gayelette was so enraged that she almost had the Winged Monkeys killed, but when the King pleaded with her, she agreed to make them have to answer the summons of the owner of a Golden Cap three times per owner.

What the King didn't say is how the Wicked Witch of the West got the Golden Cap. Pretty much all fan theories say that she stole it.

Dorothy would summon the Winged Monkeys twice more: once when she asked them to carry her to Kansas (which they could not do), and again to get them over the hill of the Hammerheads as she and her friends journeyed to Glinda. (Some adaptations have the monkeys carry them the rest of the way, others mix Dorothy's last two commands and have them carry her to Glinda from the Emerald City.) Glinda had Dorothy give her the Golden Cap in return for information on how to get home, promising to have them send her friends to their new homes and then give the Golden Cap to the Monkeys to assure their freedom.

In The Marvelous Land of Oz, the Scarecrow says that Glinda commands the services of the Winged Monkeys, so either Glinda had a trick up her sleeve or they pledged their services to her in return for giving them their freedom. Most fans would like to think the latter.

The Winged Monkeys don't turn up again the Famous Forty Oz books, but they have in some fan works. The Marvelous Monkeys of Oz and their sequels have the Winged Monkeys with an actual kingdom, while Dennis Anfuso's The Winged Monkeys of Oz just has them live in the northern forests.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Revisiting The Muppets' Wizard of Oz

Before The Muppets' Wizard of Oz, I remember actually writing out ideas for an Oz movie starring the Muppets. I was seven years old when The Muppets' Wizard of Oz aired in 2005, and I was eager to see my favorite story and some of my favorite characters come together for a new movie. At the time (and for many subsequent viewings on home video), I loved it. But as I've got older, my love for the film has definitely waned...

The Muppets taking on The Wizard of Oz probably looked great on paper. This would be the first Muppets film since Disney acquired the franchise in 2004, and since Disney had enjoyed success with similar adaptations The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island in the 1990s, it just sort of made sense. But unlike its predecessors, The Muppets' Wizard of Oz is filled with so much adult humor and pop culture references that it, bizzarely, feels disrespectful to both the source material and the Muppets franchise (and maybe even the Disney brand itself). There is literally a reference to Girls Gone Wild in this thing, and a really out-of-place cameo by Quentin Tarantino (which oddly earned him top billing on the poster and DVD cover).

The movie does have some positive qualities, however. It's sort of a musical, and the few songs that are here are pretty fun ("Kansas" and "I'm With You" being the most memorable). The sets and visual effects are surprisingly well-realized (especially for its time and likely lower budget). Jeffrey Tambor as the Wizard, Queen Latifah as Aunt Em, and David Alan Grier as Uncle Henry are all well-cast and are clearly having fun in their supporting roles. Ashanti, though not exactly a "natural" actress, seems to give the role her all and is ultimately likeable as Dorothy. But those are just about the only good things I can say about The Muppets' Wizard of Oz, as most of the comedy (something that the Muppets are obviously known for) is either jarringly inappropriate or just falls flat, and moments of magic or wonder (which would be expected to be present in an adaptation of The Wizard of Oz) are largely absent.

There seem to be a lot of references and nods to the film adaptation of The Wiz, but I'm not sure how intentional that connection was. I haven't been able to come across any sort of article or interview with the creative team that discusses that, so it's possible that some of the similarities between the two could just be coincidental. The most obvious similarity is the choice to make Dorothy an African-American adult, but there are several other parallels in terms of adaptation as well, such as the ways the Poppies and Flying Monkeys are portrayed.

Because Disney and ABC gave the film a good push in terms of marketing, it earned solid ratings in its initial airing and likely sold pretty well on home video. It was never directly advertised as a "comeback" for the Muppets, but I think that general feeling was there, and it had the potential to be something special.

Thankfully, Disney managed to get the Muppets franchise back on track in 2011 with The Muppets, which was a finanical and critical success and even won an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Its follow-up Muppets Most Wanted didn't enjoy the same level of success, but still stayed true to the identity of the franchise.

Though I wouldn't recommend this to families (or anyone, really...), I think it's worth at least one viewing for dedicated fans of Oz and/or the Muppets, as long as they go in with appropriate expectations. I personally didn't love the direct-to-video film Tom and Jerry & The Wizard of Oz, but that is a safer (and much more respectful) alternative for younger viewers.

You can buy The Muppets' Wizard of Oz on DVD and digitally here.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Return to Oz complete score CD review

Several years ago, I had a dream that the soundtrack for Return to Oz was reissued. I'd like to think that I dreamed of a 2-disc set, but the main thing I remember is that it featured a photo of Ozma in her royal dress from the end of the movie, holding her OZ scepter... under a lunch pail tree.

While I don't believe any photo like that exists (though if any artists who read this blog want to take a shot, be my guest!), my dreams surprisingly came true with Intrada's new release of the complete score of Disney's Return to Oz, which I finally got my copy of today.

Spread across two discs, the entire score of the film is represented. Often soundtrack albums only include major moments of the score and sometimes, they don't feature the music as heard in the film at all, but new arrangements by the composer, who redesigned the score for an album issue. (And sometimes, their involvement isn't there.) In this case, you hear every bit of music you heard in the film and then some as some music bits were cut, but have now been restored. (So if you were wanting to match this up to the film to create an isolated score version—Sam—it might not work.)

The original CD release cover art
Return to Oz did get a soundtrack album in 1985, which I own on vinyl. It was reissued four years later on CD by Bay Cities, but it quickly went out of print. This led to it becoming a popular bootlegged item online. However, Intrada has you covered now. To fill up otherwise empty space on Disc 2, after a handful of tracks featuring alternate cues, the original soundtrack album's tracks are presented.*

One may well argue that Return to Oz features one of the best scores an Oz film has enjoyed. The truth is that Oz in film has enjoyed a rich musical history from Nathaniel P. Mann's scores for The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays to Louis P. Gottschalk's score for The Patchwork Girl of Oz to MGM's The Wizard of Oz to Journey Back to Oz to The Wiz and even up to Danny Elfman's score for Oz the Great and Powerful. But one must admit that David Shire's score for Return to Oz is certainly a milestone. (Unless you have no ear for great film music.)

Shire's music is certainly magical. Instead of going for a sound you'd hear in music from the beginning of the 20th century—when the story takes place—or music to draw in contemporary audiences, he instead created a score that feels timeless. This is because he based it on the characters instead of periods. Creating themes for each character and the situations in the film, Shire composed an excellent, multi-layered score to go along with the film's visuals, sound effects and dialogue. This makes the music quite inseparable from the film, from the stirring opening, to the escape in the storm, to Tik-Tok's heavy marching theme, to Jack Pumpkinhead's hollow-sounding music, to the Nome King's growing anger theme, to the lively Rag March and of course, the beautiful closing credits.

Some might argue that the film score should be enjoyed with the film, and that's certainly a good point, but there is no reason why a soundtrack album cannot present the music to be enjoyed separately and Intrada definitely produced a perfect presentation right here.

In addition to the great music you'll hear on the CDs, there's a nice 28-page booklet that features Drew Struzan's classic "Escape From The Emerald City" poster art and on the other side, his pretty scary "Mombi" poster. (One can switch the booklet around to show either one.) Inside the booklet is a nice rundown of the production and release of the movie, illustrated with movie stills, set photos, behind the scenes photos, and two pieces of concept art by Mike Ploog. Also there is a cue assembly list for the tracks and a little afterword about the creation of this album.

This isn't just a great release of the score of the movie, this is a definite Return to Oz collector's item!

The CD can be ordered directly from Intrada and Amazon. Creature Features was offering a limited number of copies autographed by David Shire, but they have already sold out. However, check out their podcast section as their fourth episode interviews Walter Murch, and they discuss—you guessed it—Return to Oz.

* Just about the only thing not carried over from the original soundtrack CD is the original liner notes. While some may pass and others seek it out for completion, there is a complete set of scans for viewing and downloading here.