Sunday, September 03, 2023

The Little Wizards of Oz - Review

 In November last year, I spotted a Blu-Ray titled Blood on Melies' Moon in my RSS feed reader for's feed. I was about to scroll past when I looked at the image of the cover and noticed it mentioned a movie titled The Little Wizards of Oz. The Blu-Ray set actually contained three films by Italian director Luigi Cozzi, who's nicknamed "Italy's Ed Wood." (The famous director who would make films on a shoestring budget but clearly really had a passion for doing it.) I didn't pick it up, hoping to hear some feedback about the movie first.

Well, yesterday I saw the movie was on the free streamer Tubi and decided to check it out.

This is not a straightforward adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. We open with a quick rundown of the origin of the book, and a reveal of its sequels and many of its adaptations and a note that children in Italy also enjoy the book while at school.

Moving onto children rapping, we see some what appears to be behind the scenes shots of the crew working with the children who play the students in a classroom that a substitute teacher is taking over the Italian lesson. The children did reports on the first chapter of the book, which get presented with some charming cheap animations depicting how the children are reimagining the story.

The substitute is taken with the children interacting with the story and wants to complete the story with them, despite higher ups at the school wanting her to stick to a lesson plan. This includes scenes from the story, often with twists from the original text, played with the children as Dorothy and her friends and people who work at the school filling in for other Oz characters. The CGI shots are clearly CGI, but given that this is how a class is imagining the world of Oz, we can accept it.

There's a few fun touches, like the Wicked Witch of the West using an Etch-A-Sketch to spy on Dorothy, with the screen claiming it's "TV-OZ STATION 666."

While anyone wanting a great Oz adaptation or a new Oz story in film might be disappointed, I thought The Little Wizards of Oz was fairly charming in how it celebrates Oz stimulating the imagination. I was also reminded of the documentary film Yellow Brick Road about a special needs school putting on a performance of The Wizard of Oz, except that followed a real production at a real school, while the story of Little Wizards is fiction. But both are about people connecting with the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

If it wasn't clear above, The Little Wizards of Oz is actually in Italian. On Tubi, the version offered includes "hard subs" (they're actually part of the image and can't be turned off) in addition to a subtitle track. I found it easier to turn off Tubi's subtitles and just go with the subtitles in the image.

As I've picked up DVDs and Blu-Rays with less Oz content before, I might very well get a copy of Blood on Melies' Moon to own a copy of The Little Wizards of Oz in my collection.

Wednesday, August 02, 2023

Diverse Dancers of Oz - A ChatGPT generated Oz story

We've heard a lot about AI lately and there's definitely concern about it as people believe language models like ChatGPT could ultimately replace writers.

There's certainly some concern as you could certainly use ChatGPT to quickly write copy you might need for a website or a press release. When it comes to writing research pieces and creative fiction, it's limited. It's hard to put all the needed information to give a piece context without essentially writing it yourself.

When it comes to creative works, it lacks the human element to help the writer connect to the reader. Still, it can be fun to give it a general goal. It's essentially like having it ghostwrite for you. There's other uses, like using it to brainstorm story ideas. While its output can be serviceable, a good writer's take on the same concept is much better when it comes to a finished pieces.

With that in mind, I decided to ask it to write some pieces of an Oz story about two characters I haven't seen interact much. What I'm presenting are my prompts and what I got from ChatGPT. (My prompts are in italics.)
Write a story in which Polychrome, the graceful dancing daughter of the Rainbow, visits the Emerald City of Oz. She dances to music being played by the royal coronet band. She's joined by the fun-loving Scraps, the Patchwork Girl, who does her own dance along with her, but definitely isn't trying to copy. Dorothy Gale, Princess Ozma and other Oz citizens watch enraptured and amused by the two very different but very dedicated dancers.

In the vibrant and enchanting land of Oz, a special event was taking place in the majestic Emerald City. Polychrome, the graceful dancing daughter of the Rainbow, decided to pay a visit to her dear friend Dorothy Gale and the beloved ruler of Oz, Princess Ozma.

As she arrived at the Emerald City, Polychrome's radiant presence filled the air with an array of sparkling colors. The royal coronet band, playing cheerful melodies, welcomed her with joyous tunes. With a twirl of her ethereal gown, Polychrome gracefully began to dance, her movements perfectly synchronized with the music.

Meanwhile, the fun-loving and whimsical Scraps, the Patchwork Girl, couldn't resist joining in the celebration. She had her own unique style of dancing, filled with quirky moves and spontaneous jumps. As she danced alongside Polychrome, she made sure to add her own flair to the performance, never trying to imitate the Rainbow's daughter but reveling in her own exuberant dance.

Dorothy Gale, Princess Ozma, and the other citizens of Oz gathered around, completely enraptured and amused by the spectacle before them. The contrasting styles of the two dancers created a captivating display, showcasing the beauty of individuality and the power of celebrating uniqueness.

With every twirl and leap, Polychrome displayed the fluidity of the rainbows, while Scraps showcased the vivid patchwork of her personality. Their joyful energy seemed to fill the Emerald City with even more magic and wonder.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, casting a golden glow over the city, the dancers' enthusiasm showed no sign of waning. The crowd joined in, clapping to the beat and encouraging the duo with cheers and laughter.

In that moment, as the two very different but equally dedicated dancers wove their artistry together, it became evident that friendship and acceptance knew no boundaries in the Land of Oz. Their dance represented the harmony that existed between them and the celebration of their diverse talents.

As the night wore on, the Emerald City became alive with merriment and camaraderie. Polychrome and Scraps continued to dance, feeding off each other's energy, and inspiring everyone around them to embrace their own uniqueness.

From that day on, whenever festivities graced the Emerald City, Polychrome and Scraps were inseparable on the dance floor, their enchanting performances leaving a lasting imprint on the hearts of all who witnessed them. And so, the friendship between the graceful dancing daughter of the Rainbow and the fun-loving Patchwork Girl grew even stronger, a testament to the beauty of embracing one's true self and celebrating the differences that made them who they were.

Polychrome appreciates that she inspired Scraps to let loose and be herself.

Polychrome couldn't help but feel a warm sense of joy and fulfillment as she noticed how her dance had inspired Scraps to be her true self. Seeing her fun-loving friend embrace her uniqueness and let loose on the dance floor brought a smile to Polychrome's radiant face.

After the festivities had ended, Polychrome and Scraps found a quiet spot in the lush gardens of the Emerald City to catch their breath and share a moment of reflection. Scraps looked at Polychrome with a grateful expression, her mismatched button eyes gleaming with happiness.

"You know, Polychrome, your dance was simply amazing! I couldn't help but feel like dancing along with you, but I didn't want to copy your moves," Scraps said, her voice filled with genuine appreciation.

Polychrome chuckled softly, her melodious laughter echoing through the garden. "Oh, Scraps, you were wonderful! Your dance was filled with so much energy and spontaneity. I loved every moment of it. You didn't need to copy me because you have your own unique style that is simply delightful."

Scraps beamed at the praise, her colorful patchwork glowing with pride. "Thanks, Polychrome! I've always felt a bit different from everyone else, but today, dancing with you, I realized that being different is what makes me special. Your grace and beauty inspired me to embrace who I truly am."

"That's the spirit, my dear friend!" Polychrome exclaimed, placing a reassuring hand on Scraps' patchwork shoulder. "In Oz, we celebrate uniqueness and individuality. It's what makes our land so magical. Embracing who you are is a beautiful thing, and your dance was a true reflection of your vibrant spirit."

As the two friends sat together in the moonlit garden, they shared stories and laughter, deepening their bond even further. Polychrome felt a sense of fulfillment knowing that her presence had encouraged Scraps to be herself fully and unapologetically.

From that day forward, Polychrome and Scraps continued to dance together whenever they had the chance. Each time they took the stage, their performances were filled with even more passion and joy, inspiring others to embrace their own uniqueness and follow their hearts.

In the land of Oz, their dances became legendary, a symbol of friendship, self-expression, and the beauty of being true to oneself. And as they twirled and leaped through the colorful tapestry of their lives, Polychrome and Scraps knew that their bond was a testament to the magic of acceptance and the power of inspiring others to let loose and be themselves.

Scraps listens to Polychrome talk about living on the rainbow and wishes she could go.

As the moon continued to cast its gentle glow over the garden, Polychrome and Scraps found themselves lost in conversation. Polychrome spoke animatedly about her life on the rainbow, describing the breathtaking vistas and the wondrous experiences she had enjoyed.

"Scraps, you won't believe the beauty of living on the rainbow," Polychrome said, her voice filled with nostalgia. "It's like dancing on the very colors of the sky. Each day brings a new adventure as I travel from one end of the rainbow to the other. The hues blend and flow, creating a breathtaking display of light and magic."

Scraps listened intently, her button eyes reflecting both admiration and a hint of longing. "Oh, Polychrome, that sounds so amazing! I can only imagine how wonderful it must be to live on a rainbow. The thought of dancing among the colors of the sky sounds like a dream come true."

With a gentle smile, Polychrome replied, "It truly is a magical existence. But you know, my dear friend, you don't need to live on a rainbow to experience magic. The Land of Oz is filled with wonders and enchantment. You bring your own special magic to our world with your vibrant personality and unique dance."

Scraps nodded, absorbing Polychrome's words. "You're right, Polychrome. I may not be able to live on a rainbow, but I can find magic and joy right here in Oz. I have incredible friends like you and Dorothy, and the adventures we have together make every day extraordinary."

Polychrome placed a hand on Scraps' shoulder and said warmly, "Absolutely! The magic of Oz comes from the friendships we forge and the moments we share. Your presence brings so much happiness and laughter to all of us. You're an essential part of the tapestry that makes our land so special."

Feeling reassured, Scraps smiled brightly. "Thank you, Polychrome. I'm grateful for your friendship and for showing me that being myself is a wonderful thing. I'll cherish the memories of our dance together, and I promise to keep embracing my uniqueness."

Polychrome hugged her dear friend, a shimmering display of colors enveloping them both. "And I'll cherish the memories of our dance too, Scraps. Our friendship is a treasure, and I'll always be here to share in your adventures and celebrate your joyful spirit."

As the night continued, Polychrome and Scraps sat side by side, basking in the beauty of their friendship and the magic of the Land of Oz. While Scraps may have wished to live on the rainbow, she knew that her true home was among the friends who accepted and celebrated her for who she was—a vibrant and cherished member of the wonderful world they called home.

The Rainbow returns to the Emerald City to pick up Polychrome. Scraps says a loving goodbye to one of her best friends and makes up a little song about Polychrome to sing in tribute.

Polychrome hugged her friend Scraps tightly, tears of both joy and sadness sparkling in her eyes. "Oh, Scraps, my dear friend, thank you for the wonderful time we had together. Your dance and your friendship mean the world to me."

Scraps wiped away a tear with her patchwork sleeve, trying to maintain her cheerful spirit. "Oh, Polychrome, you're one of my best friends! I'm going to miss you so much, but I know you'll have an amazing time on the rainbow. Just remember, I'll be dancing and thinking of you here in Oz!"

With a playful grin, Scraps suddenly burst into a lively tune, singing a tribute to her graceful and radiant friend:

🎶 Oh, Polychrome, a rainbow bright,
 Your dance brings colors, what a sight!
With grace, you twirl upon the sky, 
In Oz, your spirit soars up high. 🎶

🎶 From hues of red to violet blue, 
You paint the sky with every hue, 
A dancer of the rainbow's crest, 
Your magic shines, you're truly blessed. 🎶

🎶 We danced together, side by side, 
Our friendship's woven, far and wide, 
Though now apart, our bond won't fade, 
In heart and soul, our memories stay. 🎶

🎶 So, as you fly on rainbow's art, 
Remember this, we'll never part, 
With every dance, your colors gleam, 
In Oz, you'll dance in every dream. 🎶

Tears welled up in Polychrome's eyes, touched by Scraps' heartfelt tribute. "Oh, Scraps, that's the sweetest song anyone has ever sung for me. I'll carry it in my heart wherever I go, and I promise to visit you and our friends in Oz whenever I can."

As the Rainbow gently descended, Polychrome climbed aboard with a final wave to her dear friends in the Emerald City. Scraps stood below, singing her song with love and pride, watching her friend ascend into the sky until she disappeared within the colorful arc of the rainbow.

And so, Polychrome returned to her home in the sky, carrying with her the cherished memories of her time in Oz and the love of her friends. Scraps continued to dance and sing, celebrating the magic of their friendship and looking forward to the day when the radiant dancer of the rainbow would grace the land of Oz with her presence once again.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Ozma of Oz by the Toronto Civic Light Opera Company

 The Civic Light Opera is back with one more Oz story, the third Oz book, Ozma of Oz, which they have decided will be their final entry. They've released (and I've reviewed) The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Marvelous Land of Oz, so to avoid being an Oz company for a long time, they're concluding with Ozma and going on to other stories.

The CLO is sticking with MP3CD to distribute their audiobooks. These are CDs that have MP3 files on them as a data track, allowing for a lot more audio than you'd get from a standard audio track on a CD. Modern CD players can play these, and you can also play them back in a computer with a disc drive or use it to copy the files to a portable device. Or you can do what I did and put it in a home theater DVD or Blu-Ray player, pull up the folder of MP3 files and just start playing.

Ozma of Oz goes back to the Outside World (our world), where we find Dorothy and Uncle Henry on a trip to Australia on a stormy night. While looking around for Uncle Henry, Dorothy goes on deck, only to be washed overboard, finding refuge in a chicken coop. She awakens outside of the Land of Ev with Billina, a talking chicken. On their way to find out the best course of action, they meet the mechanical man Tik-Tok, and Princess Langwidere who has thirty interchangeable heads in her boudoir. But soon Dorothy and her companions fall in with the visiting princess Ozma of Oz, who's heading to the nearby Nome Kingdom to rescue the Royal Family of Ev from the Nome King.

If you're familiar with my previous reviews, you'll know what to expect. While the text is unabridged, the introductions and chapter titles are not read. Joe Cascone narrates with a full cast performing the dialogue, the cast returning from their roles in the previous two audiobooks.

To make it further stand out, classical music and sound effects are added. This is where I have to mention one thing. During the story, both Langwidere and the Nome King use bells to call for their subordinates or to be alerted. The same sound effect is used for all times, which is fine, it's just that this sound effect is very familiar if you've ever seen a commercial for Taco Bell.

Audio quality is good. I was playing it back with the audio going through the soundbar and found it sounded best if I used the music setting.

Overall, it's a great presentation of the story.

Again, we get a matching presentation in a jewel case, decorated with artwork by John R. Neill, photos of the cast, an introductory note from Joe, a cast list and a list of music used in the production. If you miss physical media, these are worth looking over.

To get a copy, Joe has it for sale on his website, along with the first two Oz books as well as music CDs and notices of his upcoming audio versions of A Christmas Carol and Animal Farm.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

The Royal Podcast of Oz: Wicked Movie Hype!

Jay, returning guest Angelo Thomas and new guest Tyler Varney discuss the upcoming two-part film adaptation of the musical Wicked. They discuss the director, the cast, the decision to make two movies, the current state of Hollywood, the sneak peeks, the leaks, and where could we expect to see some original Broadway cast cameos?

Listen to the episode on Spotify.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

The Royal Podcast of Oz: The Movies of Oz - The Witches of Oz

 Jay and Sam are joined by Angelo Thomas in breaking down the miniseries The Witches of Oz and its movie counterpart Dorothy and the Witches of Oz.

Angelo reveals behind the scenes details and gives us the scoop on the unrealized sequel.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

The Royal Podcast of Oz: The Movies of Oz - The Wonderful Wizard of Ha's.

Jay and Sam waltz up and down the produce aisle as they look at Veggie Tales' The Whimsical Wizard of Ha's as the parable of The Prodigal Son is mixed with a Wizard of Oz parody.

No, the Wizard of Oz isn't a political allegory

 This comes up over and over online. Even in comments on this blog, I've seen it come up.

The Wizard of Oz is a parable or allegory on Populism! Everything matches up! The Silver Shoes are the Silver Standard, the yellow brick road is the Gold Standard, the wicked witches are the east and west coast bankers, Dorothy is the common man, the Scarecrow is the farmers, the Tin Woodman is the industrial workers, and the Lion is William Jennings Bryan, who didn't win the presidency, while the Wizard is the president.

It's an interesting way to read it.

The political allegory of Oz took off after Gore Vidal referred to an article by Henry Littlefield in which he describes a view using the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to explain the 1896 presidential election. He first came up with this to explain it to his class while teaching about the economic theory of Populism.

After it hit mainstream, it's been repeated over and over and gotten changed up (the Wicked Witch of the West's hostility is described by Littlefield as "she is Baum's version of sentient and malign nature," not being a banker).

Does this work? To a point, yes.

The problem is when the claim is made that this is what L. Frank Baum intended.

Why do we see fantasy as allegory?

Fantasy opened the door wide for allegory. With fantasy, writers could use utterly impossible scenarios to describe concepts they wanted to communicate.

The most famous allegory is John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. It uses a journey with fantastic monsters and strange locations to describe the life of a believer in Christianity, staying true to their teachings, sometimes getting sidetracked, but eventually making it to Heaven. It's the go-to example of an allegory because there's no mystery as to what the characters and places represent: the main protagonist is named Christian, he is told of the journey he needs to take by a man called Evangelist, he has companions named Pliable who turns back at the first danger he encounters, as well as his successful friends Faithful and Hopeful. While it's clear what it means, it's also a fantasy as Christian faces a monster he must battle and is later captured by a giant.

In 1950, another fantasy was published with clear Christian themes: C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Likely, most of the people reading have read it themselves or have enjoyed some adaptation of it. Like the Oz stories, children go to a land where magic clearly exists, which Lewis clearly says is another world. During the events, one of the children, Edmund, is convinced to betray his siblings by telling the villainous White Witch about them and going to her after all of them enter the land of Narnia, putting them all in danger as the rest go to see the heroic Aslan who is trying to free Narnia from the Witch's reign. Aslan allows himself to be killed in place of Edmund, but as he is innocent, he resurrects and is able to finally defeat the Witch during battle.

 Lewis would claim that the story and its sequels—forming the series The Chronicles of Narnia—were not allegories. In the third book, Aslan reveals to Edmund and his sister Lucy that he also exists in their world, but has another name. Aslan is no longer is a fantasy stand-in for Jesus, he's supposed to be Jesus in a fantasy world. (YouTube literary reviewer Dominic Noble has come up with the phrase "Aslan was Jesus' fursona.") The stories did contain strong Christian themes, but they weren't properly allegorical.

One of Lewis' colleagues and friends, J.R.R. Tolkien, also wrote fantasy stories in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which some began to interpret as an allegory of World War II. It's not hard to see as the story sees an entire world at war. Even places that aren't going to war are still affected by it. However, Tolkien refuted these claims saying his story was "neither allegorical nor topical." He would also say a key line that I think of when addressing allegory: "I think people confuse allegory with applicability."

So, back to Oz.

In allegory, when something is made to represent a concept, it needs to represent that concept consistently. For me, a big point of the story of The Wizard of Oz that just doesn't get addressed is if the Wizard is a stand-in for a president, he abdicates his throne to help Dorothy. Where does this tie into a president leaving office? Furthermore, the Wizard names the Scarecrow his successor, but given the line of succession, the Vice President steps in as president, an incoming person wouldn't be made the president instead. Littlefield doesn't address this, and I haven't heard much about other interpretations addressing it either. A change in a country's leadership is a huge thing to discuss, but it's not addressed.

This doesn't mean there's no merit to using Oz to talk about Populism or even teaching the 1896 election. But the problem is attributing this—to take the term from Tolkien—applicability to Baum as his intent.

Could Baum have intended an allegory?

Baum was not a Populist. He did not support William Jennings Bryan as might be assumed from the interpretation Littlefield proposed. Baum also wrote many other works both under his name and under pseudonyms and anonymously, some even set in his modern world and in places that actually exist. The most political Baum got was in Aunt Jane's Nieces in the Red Cross, which was actually revised given the United States' position in World War I changing between the first and second versions.

But when it comes to claiming Baum had allegorical intention in his work, generally only The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is brought up. It was Baum's first novel, his previous fiction books being short story collections and poetry. Given his later work, he did much better in stories like Queen Zixi of Ix and Sky Island at creating strong, linear stories, while Wonderful Wizard is a series of story time episodes that link together into a clear narrative. Baum could produce some great work, but some of his other books fall quite short, and it'd be strange that early on in his literary career, he'd masterfully weave in a neat allegory that no one noticed for over fifty years.

I have seen claims that the Wooden Gargoyles in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz represent native Americans and the Awgwas in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus represent Jewish people, but the reasoning behind these was either not presented or very sketchy. Still, it's worth remembering that Baum was a white man from a well-off family in the late 19th century and while eventually becoming poor while caring for his own children (he wasn't good with money) and embracing his mother in law's views on feminism, he fell short in embracing other progressive ideals, his editorials on the Sioux being a dark stain on his legacy.

People have also read the Army of Revolt in The Marvelous Land of Oz as a comment on the suffragette movement of the time, but Baum was a supporter of the suffragist movement, and in that book, Oz is under a woman's rule at the end and going forward, and the Army of Revolt meets another all-female army in Glinda's far more skilled and disciplined forces.

Baum also makes Oz into a communist society without money by his sixth Oz book, The Emerald City of Oz in which everyone is able to get what they need thanks to a benevolent ruler operating a government that doesn't forget that it's supposed to care for the people. People provide for themselves and their fellow citizens and when they need more, they simply are given more by their local leaders. This isn't a reading of the subtext, it's actually spelled out in passages from Emerald City and The Road to Oz. Yet, we didn't see him advocating for a similar system in the United States.

Littlefield later clarified that he didn't mean to claim that his Populism interpretation was Baum's intent. However, his original article could easily confuse readers into suggesting it was intentional:

Yet once discovered, the author's allegorical intent seems clear, and it gives depth and lasting interest even to children who only sense something else beneath the surface of the story. Consider the fun in picturing turn-of-the-century America, a difficult era at best, using these ready-made symbols provided by Baum. The relationship and analogies outlined above are admittedly theoretical, but they are far too consistent to be coincidental, and they furnish a teaching mechanism which is guaranteed to reach any level of student. 

(Emphasis mine.)

It's worth noting that Oz has been interpreted by a number of other philosophies and has even been seen as a reflection on contemporary relations between China and Japan. I even saw someone claim it was supposed to be a Christian story with Dorothy's friends representing God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. (No other explanation was given, simply that three characters must represent the Holy Trinity.)

It's worth pointing out that stories mean a lot to many different people. Once they leave the creator and go out to the public, they're there for audiences to enjoy and part of that is finding meaning in them. It's impossible for everyone to exactly match up with the author's intent while creating the work, and Baum specifically wrote that he intended The Wonderful Wizard of Oz "solely to please the children of today" in the introduction to the book.

Why shouldn't we say it's Baum's intent?

While everyone is welcome to read Baum's works and come away with their own interpretation, claiming their take on it is Baum's intent is to claim you know something you have no proof of. You don't even know what a close friend or family member might be thinking at this moment. Can you really claim you can tell what someone was thinking over 100 years ago?

We do have context for Baum's life in all of his works together and the biographical information researchers have turned up. Yet it doesn't really support the Populist interpretation as mentioned above.

Claiming without evidence colors views of a person unrealistically. These unfounded ideas can get sensationalized and spread far more quickly than their rebuttal. This goes on to this day where if someone makes a strong accusation on Twitter to someone, the accusation can get retweeted and shared, but a fair rebuttal and apology likely won't make the same waves.

Thus, when you're presenting information, it's important to make the distinction between something backed up by facts and evidence and what might be a fair assumption, and what is entirely conjecture. This is why in journalism, someone charged with a completely likely crime they may have committed is only said to have done it "allegedly."

It's why many fans bristle at simply labeling Baum "racist" even though we clearly have evidence to back it up from his articles on the Sioux to his use of stereotypes in his literature to even a few uses of the "n-word." While we can't deny Baum had racist views or views inspired by racism, coloring him as simply a racist ignores what else he was or can stop you from thinking about his work outside of that scope. It's important to understand all of who Baum was when reading his works critically.

I need to link to Eric Gjovaag's take on addressing this on his website's FAQ. An earlier version of his answer was my first exposure to the idea and I did touch on some of the same points he did.

Wednesday, January 04, 2023

Why Warner Brothers' New Wizard of Oz and The Wicked Movies Shouldn't Connect

 Screenrant posted a piece by Kayla Laguerre-Lewis arguing that the two-part film adaptation of Wicked and Warner Brothers' Kenya Barris Wizard of Oz should connect. I saw a link to the piece on Facebook, and of course, fans were disagreeing with the point or even the headline.

It's entirely possible for studios to collaborate. Right now, we have Sony's Columbia Pictures and Disney's Marvel Studios giving us Tom Holland's Spider-Man movies set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

However, with Oz, it's completely possible for studios to make projects independently as long as they don't cross trademarks and copyrights and licenses. Warner Brothers owns the MGM film The Wizard of Oz through their absorption of Turner Entertainment, who had bought MGM's catalog in the 1980s.

Universal was always going to be the one to make the Wicked film adaptation happen as they'd backed the musical. And the primary source material of both, L. Frank Baum's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the sequels he wrote to it are public domain, allowing for them to be freely exploited by anyone who can. Wicked is, of course, based on Gregory Maguire's novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, a derivative work of the Baum story.

Oz has been adapted many times over the years, allowing for different artists to bring their own spins to the material, from the original musical adaptation that hit Broadway in 1903 to the 1925 silent film, to 2007's Tin Man and 2017's Emerald City. Some fare better than others with fans, others have fans split.

Gregory Maguire's Wicked was a difficult piece to adapt into a Broadway musical, with a huge overhaul of the story dropping a lot of elements. Yet the musical took off and has a life of its own, still aware of its roots in Maguire's text, Baum's creation and the MGM landmark adaptation.

The novel questions the nature of Good and Evil and where our perceptions lie, using a famous character whose name was more a description as a protagonist. It's also worth noting that the word "wicked" doesn't necessarily mean evil, but twisted. It has the same root word as "wreath," "wicker" and "wraith." It's something that has been changed from its original purpose.

The musical found a different way to handle it. Early in the musical, Glinda asks, "Are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?" If we take the "twisted" definition, Glinda in the musical is also "wicked," not that she's evil, but that she found herself taking a different path than she anticipated. (In the novel, Glinda is far less of an active character after her school years.)

The thing is, Wicked is not the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Oz is the story of Dorothy Gale, a young girl thrust into a strange and unfamiliar world, looking for a way to get home, empowering other people to improve their lives. Wicked is adjacent to Dorothy's story, looking at the character held to be the villain of Dorothy's story in an alternate universe to the original Baum or MGM incarnations.

Oz fans are split on Wicked to this day. I wouldn't be surprised if there are fans of Maguire's novel who dislike the musical and vice versa. However, the property is in itself an example of what can be done with Oz when one is not constrained by another version.

Maguire's book decided to pull away from Baum's Oz (but brought over the green skinned witch from MGM) and create its own version with a more civilized ugly side. The musical adaptation used it as inspiration for a very different adaptation, not feeling constrained by its source material.

And the movie version of the musical is going to be in two films, likely involving new characters, plotlines and songs, again not constrained by its source.

So why should Kenya Barris make his new interpretation of The Wizard of Oz connect to another version? It's likely not going to be the MGM film again, and it won't be exactly like Baum's book (though I hope we'll see the basis).

I don't want to see an artist make their version of Oz be forced to fit some inter-corporate synergy. I want them to offer their own version, unique and able to be what it wants. Not the other side of Wicked. And as The Chronicles of Oz proved, you can nod your cap to other versions lovingly while not constraining yourself to them.

Now what do I have to do to get an Oz movie featuring Ozma, Scraps and Polychrome?

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Mr. Hoffmann and Mr. Baum

 When people discuss the classic young female heroines of fantasy literature, they usually get down to three: Alice from Lewis Carroll's Alice stories, Dorothy Gale from the Oz books, and Wendy Darling from J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. There's others who could make the cut (Betsy, Trot and Ozma could back up Dorothy), and some get ignored, whether for near obscurity (Anthea and Jane from E. Nesbitt's Five Children and It), and others are left out due to copyright concerns (Jane and Barbara Banks from the Mary Poppins stories, Susan and Lucy Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia), but there's one before Alice who routinely gets ignored: Marie Stahlbaum.

Marie is from E.T.A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, originally published in 1816. Maybe Marie doesn't usually get lumped in because the story was originally written in German and all the others are written in English. Or perhaps as the story opens at Christmas, it gets considered a Christmas story while the others aren't necessarily tied to a holiday. And there's also the fact that the public at large is less familiar with the original text than they are a highly streamlined version of the story that gets adapted into countless ballet variations every year.

Wait, the original text gets ignored for a popular streamlined adaptation? Oz fans, we know the feeling.

Interestingly, there's several parallels with Oz. Alexander Volkov rewrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in Russian as The Wizard of the Emerald City, naming characters Baum hadn't and changing names. Similarly, Alexandre Dumas (yes, the Three Musketeers guy) rewrote Hoffmann's story in French as The History of a Nutcracker. The Nutcracker prince got the name Nathaniel (yes, Hoffmann didn't name the title characters, Baum also didn't name the Wizard until Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz), and Marie's family name was changed to Silberhaus. Dumas' version helped launch the story into wider consciousness and is the version the ballet was based on.

In the original production of the ballet, Marie's name was changed to Clara for the first time, carrying over into later adaptations of the story. I suspect it was to prevent any connection drawn to the daughter of librettist and choreographer Marius Petipa, the famous ballerina Marie Petipa. In Hoffmann's original story, Clara is the name of a doll Marie gets for Christmas. Some claim the name gets swapped between them, but I've only seen one adaptation of the Nutcracker have the doll named Marie when our heroine is named Clara. (Disney's recent takes on the story find ways to use both names.)

Regardless of the name, Marie (as I'll call her) is explicitly said in the original text to be only seven years old when the main action of the story takes place. This makes her the same age as Alice, and around the same age a lot of readers assume Dorothy is on her first adventure in Oz.

It is well known that Alice was named for Alice Liddell, a girl that Lewis Carroll was friendly with. It's also believed that Baum named Dorothy for his late niece, Dorothy Gage. Just like them, Marie and her brother Fritz were named for Marie and Fritz Hitzig, children of a dear friend of Hoffmann's, Julius Eduard Hitzig. It's believed that he expressed himself through the mysterious Godfather Drosselmeyer, who presents the the Stahlbaum children with an elaborate clockwork castle. In real life, Hoffmann created a cardboard castle for the Hitzigs while spending the holiday with them. Then the next year, he delighted them with his new story inspired by the festivities.

Similar to Baum, who tried to improve on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (although it became his claim to fame), Hoffmann took to heart much of the criticism of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, later producing The Strange Child. Both stories appear in his collections The Serapion Brothers, in which his stories are presented with a framing device of writers who share their stories with each other and critique them. (English translations of The Serapion Brothers, save print on demand affairs, are long out of print with publishers favoring new translations of selected Hoffmann stories. Luckily for us, we have Project Gutenberg to give us Alexander Ewing's serviceable if outdated translation.) Hoffmann has the other writers call out some of the story's weaknesses.

Lothair, the fictional writer who The Nutcracker and the Mouse King gets attributed to, declares: "I think it is a great mistake to suppose that clever, imaginative children—and it is only they who are in question here—should content themselves with the empty nonsense which is so often set before them under the name of Children's Tales. They want something much better; and it is surprising how much they see and appreciate which escapes a good, honest, well-informed papa."

One could imagine Baum saying the same thing. In his introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (a simple piece that is often overlooked when evaluating his work), he writes "every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal." Two years later in the piece "What Children Want," he wrote "Positively the child cannot be satisfied with inanities in its story books. It craves marvels – fairy tales, adventures, surprising and unreal occurrences; gorgeousness, color and kaleidoscopic succession of inspiring incident."

I would hesitate to claim that Baum read Hoffmann. To be sure, it wouldn't be impossible as English translations of Hoffmann were available. However, Hoffmann is one of the earliest writers of what became modern science fiction and gothic fantasy. In many of his fantasies, such as The Golden Pot, we find a person living a normal life when they happen to witness something wonderful. A serpent under a tree becomes a lovely woman, a tiny flea helps a young man see beyond the deceptions thrown in his way, a miner sees a fantastic underground kingdom, a little girl sees a damaged nutcracker's eyes sparkle, or a bedridden invalid interprets the goings on outside his window. In a similar vein, Baum made a common but terrifying Kansas cyclone become the gateway to an incredible adventure.

Hoffmann is known to have inspired writers Baum would almost certainly have read, such as Edgar Allen Poe and also Charles Dickens, who Baum claimed was a favorite. (In fact, some wonder if Dickens' nickname Boz was actually the inspiration for Baum's most famous creation.) So even if Baum didn't know Hoffmann directly, some inspiration passed along.

There are other similarities between Baum and Hoffmann. Given their lifespans, they both settled into the life of an author late in their lives, with Baum picking up on children's writing in the last 22 years of his life. Hoffmann began publishing his stories in his last decade of life. Both were fairly progressive in their views and enjoyed music and the stage, Baum writing many pieces for the stage in his life, and Hoffmann created the opera Undine and composing music on his own. And yet as varied and fascinating careers as both men had, both are remembered chiefly for a fantasy work for children they produced: The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. And both works inspired far more popular dramatic adaptations famous for their music: The Nutcracker ballet scored by Tchaikovsky and MGM's classic film The Wizard of Oz.

In fact if we may go further, both of these famous adaptations often under serve their heroines. Judy Garland's Dorothy is less headstrong than her literary counterpart, relying on her friends to rescue her from the Wicked Witch of the West when she's captured and her defeat of the Witch being a happy accident. Baum's Dorothy also accidentally kills the Witch, but in an act of defiance. Don't get me wrong, Judy is still a powerhouse of a performer in the film, but her character could have stood up to the Witch a little more.

In The Nutcracker ballet, Marie (or Clara, depending on the production) is largely passive until she happens to throw her shoe at the Mouse King. In Hoffmann, Marie only wishes throwing her shoe was the end of the Mouse King. Instead of immediately being whisked to a fairyland, she awakens in bed with a nasty cut in her arm and her parents chiding her for being careless. While she's recovering the Mouse King comes to her at night and demands her Christmas candy and then her sugar dolls in return for not destroying the Nutcracker. (And note, with German customs, her injury means she had to sit out most of her family's Christmas celebrations, so those are all she had left of her holiday.) She finally realizes the Nutcracker needs a new sword and manages to procure one from her brother, allowing the Nutcracker to finally defeat the Mouse King. The Nutcracker hails her as the reason for his victory.

Baum and Hoffmann, despite coming from different cultures and different times, seem to have nearly been on the same wavelength when it came to their sensibilities, writing of the mundane turning into the bizarre and fantastic, and even describing wondrous fantasy worlds.

So, if one is going to have Dorothy meet up with Alice and Wendy, perhaps they should also make room for a little German girl.