A Look Back: The Wizard of Oz

Most movie aficionados have a special place in their heart for one or two films that they can see over and over, and never get tired of. Most, too, have managed to reach adulthood having seen a few movies that are supposed to be intended for kids, but were just a traumatic experience, at least in parts. Such was 1985’s “Return to Oz,” which, if shown in tandem with “The Neverending Story,” on a rainy afternoon, is a great way to ensure your children will need therapy later in life. It has about as much in common with “The Wizard of Oz,” as a rainbow in the sky does with a rainbow in a puddle. One is the natural aftermath of a storm; the other is from pollution. But I can’t quite separate it from “Return to Oz,” because I disliked both of them so much, albeit in different ways.

In the Narnia books, one of the many odd things that the four main characters encounter is that the old guy, in whose house they are staying during the Blitz, finds it perfectly plausible that they managed to find a fantasy land by hiding in a wardrobe. If you continue the series, you learn it’s because he, himself, went there as a youngster and was present at its inception. But poor Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) in “Return to Oz,” has no such luck – back from her first visit to Oz, kindly Uncle Henry and Aunt Em decide that she needs a nice course of electroshock therapy at the nearest mental hospital. (What a great message to send to kids! Don’t go around telling anyone about your fantasies unless you want to end up in a straitjacket.) Anyway, she escapes when the power goes out in a storm and manages to get – not to Oz itself, but a land separated from Oz by a deadly desert, though eventually she makes it to the Emerald City. Like Alice in Wonderland, she meets, among many odd characters, a royal with an obsession with chopped off heads, as well as a talking robot and a disembodied animal head come to life. If you read the actual Oz series, you will find what the screenwriters did was put Oz books 2 and 3 in a blender and pressed Puree.  It is nothing like the whimsical “Wizard of Oz,” and should come with a warning label: May Cause Nightmares. But then when I saw the “Wizard of Oz,” I found it rather hokey and saccharine. Which sounds like heresy because I know plenty of people who love the movie.

The first film, the one that started it all, “The Wizard of Oz,” stars Judy Garland, who gets whisked from her drab Kansas farm all the way to Oz via a cyclone. Like “Pleasantville,” the land of her imagination is in color; Technicolor, in fact. Unlike “Pleasantville,” there is no sex, but there is a death because Judy’s first official act upon arriving to Oz is to murder a witch when her house lands in Munchkin County, crushing her. But it’s okay, because the witch is, you know, bad, and before you know it, the “good” witch Glinda (Billie Burke) has roped Judy into going on a quest to kill the other bad witch (Margaret Hamilton). Later we learn that Judy could just have gone home without doing this, and you’d think one murder would be plenty given that it’s involuntary manslaughter, but Billie doesn’t tell her this, probably because she’s a tad sadistic. Billie also doesn’t give her any hints that might prove helpful, such as that witches can be vanquished by dumping a pail of water on them. Apparently, the magic of a “good witch” is kind of limited.

I probably don’t have to recount much else of the plot, but after leaving the Munchkins (charming singing little people), Judy finds a posse of helpers, including the Tin Man (Ray Bulger), the Scarecrow (Jack Haley) and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), and along with her dog Toto, they travel to see the great Wizard (Frank Morgan) who turns out to be less than wizardly, in fact a humbug, but Judy triumphs in the end, and all is well. I think my problem with the movie is that I made the mistake of reading the Oz books first, and so much gets changed, and not necessarily for the better. In the books, Dorothy is just a little girl of around six or seven, who gets a bit older but not too much because she winds up going to live in Oz (with her uncle and aunt) permanently, and no one in Oz ever ages. So I pictured her as drastically different from Judy Garland, who is lovely, but obviously an adolescent, despite the studio’s attempts to conceal this. I also loathed the singing – Oz, in my opinion, was magical enough without it, it was like putting whipped cream on an already frosted cake. Perhaps the “Wizard of Oz,” should come with a label: Best Seen Before Reading Books. Maybe.

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