Pay no attention to the Judge Erich Asperschlager behind the curtain.
"Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife."
We live in a world of mega-blockbuster franchises. Books, sequels, movies, merchandise—if it's popular with kids, it's big business. J.K. Rowling did it with Harry Potter. Stephenie Meyer is still doing it with Twilight. Even Star Wars, arguably the first multimedia juggernaut of the modern age, is back in full force (ahem) with the first of who knows how many new movies hitting theaters in a couple of years. More than a hundred years ago, however, author L. Frank Baum created a series of children's books that trumped them all. Starting with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz at the dawn of the 20th Century, Baum took the world by storm with a story about a girl, her dog, a twister, and a mysterious faraway land.
The Smithsonian Channel documentary The Origins of Oz examines the life and legacy of Baum and his most famous creation. The 46-minute special is a journey through Baum's life—growing up in a wealthy household in Chittenango, NY, and showing an early interest in journalism before marrying the daughter of a prominent women's rights leader and moving to the midwest to make his fortune. Origins explores the things in Baum's life that inspired the people and places of Oz, including the economically troubled Dakota territory that mirrors his book's drab Kansas landscape, the true story of a tornado that picked up a nearby house, and the White City of Chicago's World's Fair, which became Emerald in his book.
After writing several popular books of children's poems, Baum set to page the stories he had made up for his own kids, with illustrations by W. W. Denslow. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz became a phenomenon. For the rest of his life, Baum lived in the world he'd created, turning out a series of hugely successful sequels, and adapting his stories for the stage and later for screen, forming the Oz Film Company in early Hollywood. As big as Oz was before Baum's death in 1919, its popularity skyrocketed twenty years later with MGM's The Wizard of Oz.
The Origins of Oz is a whirlwind—er, twister—tour of Baum's life and work, with focus on the story that made him famous. The Smithsonian connection means there are multiple mentions of the ruby slippers and other movie artifacts on display at the American History Museum in Washington D.C., whose curator, Dwight Bowers, is featured prominently in interviews, along with Baum's great-grandson and great-granddaughter, Bert Lahr's son John, other authors, and singer Natalie Merchant, who also provides the special's sleepy narration.
Baum's biography, which makes up the first two-third of the special, is interesting, although the 10-minute overview of the MGM movie's production is frustratingly brief. If you want a thorough dissection, track down author Aljean Harmetz's The Making of The Wizard of Oz. It's a fascinating read.
The Origins of Oz is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen. The talking head interviews aren't much to look at, but the archival photos, movie footage, and close-ups of Denslow's color book illustrations are bright and colorful. Audio is presented in 5.1 surround, even though it doesn't go much beyond the front speakers. There are no bonus features.
It's nice that Oz fans have the option to buy this standalone version of a well-made TV documentary about L. Frank Baum and his creation. It's too bad there aren't any bonus features to extend the experience beyond the 46-minute running time. If you want more, you'll just have to use your imagination.
Somewhere over the rainbow, there's a not guilty verdict.
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Studio: Smithsonian Channel
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