Judge Paul Corupe reviews four animated films based on L. Frank Baum's Oz books.
We're off to see the wizard, or at least a version thereof.
L. Frank Baum's classic series of Oz books have been frequently adapted for film and television over the years; we have seen more than 35 versions of Baum's first installment in the series, The Wizard of Oz, alone. Although it may seem futile to try to top MGM's well-loved 1939 musical starring Judy Garland, Baum's rich fantasy world has now entered the public domain, guaranteeing that his books will continue to endure on screens both big and small—even if that means that his stories are available to any shyster in the market for royalty-free material.
One of the most recent public domain adaptations of the Oz books, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, is a long running Japanese-Canadian television program that originally aired during the late 1980s. To give it a secondary market, episodes of the show were later re-edited into four films and released on video and DVD. For your convenience, Lightyear's new "gift set" collects all four previous DVD releases together at last: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Marvelous Land of Oz, Ozma of Oz, and The Emerald City of Oz.
Facts of the Case
• The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
• The Marvelous Land of Oz
• Ozma of Oz
• The Emerald City of Oz
As a TV show, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has an extremely muddled history. It seems to have originated as a Japanese animated series called Ozu no mahotsukai, which was the very first production bought by Canadian animation giant-in-waiting Cinar. After re-titling the half-hour show The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Cinar apparently commissioned an English dub of all 52 episodes, and then sold the rights to RCA, pocketing a hefty fee in the process. What's strange about this story is the fact that the show is usually credited as a Canadian-Japanese co-production. Stranger still, the credits list only the names of English animators, even though the show has an obvious Japanese flavor, with subtle anime touches including expressive emotional outbursts and odd fixations on food.
The English version was directed by Tim Reid and Gerald Potterton (Heavy Metal), although it's not clear exactly what they did on the show. Perhaps they were the ones that re-edited several episodes of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into what we have on these DVDs—90-minute adventures that roughly correspond with an installment of the original Oz books. Instead of just pasting together three shows as I expected, some work seems to have gone into making the films a little more seamless. Despite this, it's still tough to disguise the fact that this adaptation was only envisioned in half-hour chapters, as they just don't have the proper dramatic arc; it just seems like a bunch of stuff is happening and you're along for the ride. With little payoff at the end of each film, except perhaps the first, trudging through these DVDs gets increasingly difficult as you get deeper into Cinar's rather boring version of Oz.
One of the nice things I found about the first film, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, is that it plays closer to the book than most versions. Several additional scenes are meant to add a sense of danger to Dorothy's travels along the yellow brick road, and they do their job admirably. However, by the time I got to The Marvelous Land of Oz, I started to notice that drastic liberties were being taken with the source material. Dorothy doesn't even appear in this particular installment of Baum's book, and yet the film needlessly has her appear anyways, grafted on with a clumsy story in which she "forgets" her ruby slippers back in Kansas and once again has to find her way back home. Things only get worse in Ozma of Oz, and by the time we get to the last film, the books seem only to be used as a rough plot guide. In The Emerald City of Oz, Dorothy and her Aunt and Uncle are supposed to move to Oz and meet all sorts of magical races and creatures before the Nome King attacks, but this plot is dropped entirely, turning the entire film into the Nome King's tiresome military campaign. One can only surmise that the later episodes of the TV show strayed from Baum's original texts even further.
Because these films were animated, I had high hopes that the production design for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Animated Collection would offer a creative, unique vision of Baum's work. Wrong again—the overall look of this series is extremely dull. I don't know how uninspired you have to be to make the Emerald City a pasty blue, but this production completely saps all of the imagination from Baum's books. As poorly imagined as the locations were, the character designs are even worse. The Tin Woodsman appears to need a thigh master more than a heart, and the winged monkeys resemble flying anemic bears. Even the supposedly unbalanced, rickety Jack Pumpkinhead, one of my favorite Oz characters, looks like the Great Pumpkin accidentally landed on Linus's head while he was busy tying his blanket into a cape.
The best thing this set has going for it is the quality of the English dub. Of course, the biggest coup was landing Canadian actress Margot Kidder, fresh off the set of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, to do the narration. Even though she manages only 20 or 25 lines per film, she's clearly the star and a welcome addition to this production. Dorothy, as voiced by Morgan Hallet, is also well played, and the other actors are able to infuse some personality into their badly envisioned creations. That said, the dialogue does has the tell-tale sign of a Japanese film dubbed in English—characters are constantly running their sentences together to match lip movements, giving conversations a stilted feel.
If only the Wizard could've worked a little magic on the quality of this release. Although colors and blacks fare well, the video presentation is occasionally shaky, and the transfer appears to have been mastered from an inferior video source. The second film, The Marvelous Land of Oz, has one extremely wobbly sequence, in which the picture has a visible, and distracting, warp. Grain and a slightly fuzzy look are also issues. As expected, sound is just as weak as the video. Volume fluctuates throughout the series, but generally, dialogue is very tinny with limited fidelity. At least there's little music in these films besides the cloying theme song by The Parachute Club (!). There are no extras on the set, but that's not really surprising considering the indefinite history of the series.
It's inevitable that any adaptation of the Oz books will be judged against MGM's classic 1939 musical of The Wizard of Oz, and this series of animated films barely cuts it. The original episodes of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz played throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s on HBO and Canadian TV, and I suspect those interested in picking up this release have nostalgic memories of watching it then. Otherwise, I can't really recommend this set.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Animated Collection may have enough courage and brains to sneak by, but is still missing the most important thing-heart. This collection is banished to the Land of Oz with the hopes that a house might fall on it.
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