We’ve all seen The Wizard Of Oz.
A lot of us have even read the books.
Most of us have even seen these two really weird, bizarre, messed up movies that are just kind of unsettling.
To be honest, I hadn’t.
So, I decided to check them out.
I might not sleep again.
THE WIZ (1978)
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by Joel Schumacher
Based on a book by L Frank Baum and a play by William F Brown
Once upon a time, Motown had a semi-successful film production company. Their first feature in 1972, Lady Sings The Blues, was huge. Oscar noms, big box office, top selling soundtrack album…the works. Mahogany and Sparkle followed and were fairly successful, too.
Ease on down to 1978, and they’re embarking on their biggest venture, yet. A big-budget adaptation of the hit stage play, The Wiz. It’s an inner city version of Wizard Of Oz starring, of course, 33 year old Diana Ross as little Dorothy.
Um. Wait. What?
Well, I guess we’ll have to change THAT character. Now she’s a 24 year old, depressed school teacher in New Jersey. She still lives with her Auntie Em (Theresa Merritt) and the whole family is over for Thanksgiving. At the worst time, Toto runs out into the blizzard, because that’s what dogs do, right? Most of us can’t get our dogs to go out to pee when it’s sprinkling. Toto runs out into the worst blizzard the Northeast has seen in 20 years.
Anyway, Dorothy gets sucked into Oz by a snow flurry. The rest of the story is pretty much the same, but with an inner city, African-American bent. The Munchkins were all turned into graffiti by the Wicked Witch of the East. The Scarecrow (Michael Jackson in his first role) is stuck on a pole and a bunch of creepy crows won’t let him down. The Tin Man (Nipsey Russell) was a mechanical huckster at Coney Island. And The Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross, who was the only actor brought in from the play) was a stone lion at the NYC Public Library.
The sets and costumes are insane. The casting is weird. The movie is so over the top as to be almost gross and disturbing. It was the most expensive movie ever made on location in New York City at the time and one of the biggest flops of the decade. It pretty much destroyed Motown’s feature film branch, making them focus on television from then on. (Including, of all things, Lonesome Dove!)
But there’s something charming about the movie. As much as it disturbed me, I also kinda liked it. Michael is maybe about the only bright spot in the casting (although, the makeup on his neck is off-putting), but the spectacle makes it nearly worth the two hours and fourteen minutes it takes to watch it.
It’s definitely better than The Apple, but that’s the movie that it makes me think of, for better or worse. Mostly worse.
RETURN TO OZ (1985)
Directed by Walter Murch
Written by Walter Murch/Gill Dennis
Based on the books by L Frank Baum
Sometimes, it takes a little while to get a sequel off the ground. Sometimes, it takes decades. Of course, Return To Oz wasn’t meant to be a direct sequel to the 1939 film we all know and love. It was meant to be a film that continued the story in a way that was more in line with the original books.
What that did, though, was make for a creepy film that only Disney in the 80s would have made.
Dorothy (Fairuza Balk in her first film) has changed since the tornado that took her to the far away land of Oz. She’s sleeping a lot and telling stories that no one can really believe. That’s why Auntie Em (Piper Laurie) wants to take her to the hospital to get some good, old-fashioned electro-shock therapy. (It was new back in 1900 when the film is set.) That oughta drive those silly thoughts RIGHT out of her head!
Before the doctor can pump four million volts through her, the hospital is struck by lightning and Dorothy escapes with the help of a mysterious little girl. The two get caught up in a raging river during the storm and Dorothy ends up in a pen with her pet chicken. How the chicken got there, I dunno.
Needless to say, she ends up in Oz again. but it’s not the Oz that we all remember. It’s dilapidated and ruined. Someone called The Nome King (Nicol Williamson) has taken all of the Emeralds out of the Emerald City and broken up the Yellow Brick Road.
Dorothy meets Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead and The Gump, and they all help her find the Scarecrow, who was crowned king not long after Dorothy left.
Oh, and all of the people of Oz have been turned to stone, including the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion.
There’s also a princess who changes out her head all the time and a punk gang called The Wheelers because they have squeaky wheels attached to their hands and feet. And that damn chicken is really annoying when she learns how to talk.
Somehow, I actually enjoyed this film less than The Wiz.
There are folks out there who love it, though. It’s a weird and creepy film that takes a world that we all love and destroys it. Sometimes, I like that. And there’s even some cool stuff going on here. But you can tell that budget constraints kept it from being everything that Walter Murch wanted it to be.
Still not a bad way to waste an hour and a half.