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Not In Kansas Anymore: The Long History Of Disney And ‘The Wizard Of Oz’

Not In Kansas Anymore: The Long History Of Disney And 'The Wizard Of Oz'

This weekend’s opulent 3D fantasia “Oz, The Great And Powerful,” directed by former “Spider-Man” director Sam Raimi, is one of Disney‘s biggest movies of the year – a dreamy, technologically advanced marvel that cost $200 million to produce and god knows how much to market. And while this is the latest film from the Mouse House to flirt with the “Wizard of Oz” mythos (originally developed in a series of best-selling fantasy novels by American author L. Frank Baum), it is far from the first. In fact, Disney has been doggedly pursuing the world of Oz, to varying degrees of success, since the late ’30s. The odyssey that Disney took to get to “Oz, the Great and Powerful” is more fraught with danger, pain, and dead-ends than anything involving a yellow brick road. Thankfully, nowhere in this story does a flying monkey with the voice of Zach Braff appear.

(Before we click our ruby slippers together, I would just like to state that the story of Walt Disney and “The Wizard of Oz” is an incredibly difficult one to untangle, and I would have been lost in my quest without this fully illustrated 2006 piece by noted Disney historian Jim Hill.)  

Walt Disney
As work on his first feature-length animated film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” chugged steadily along, Walt Disney was looking for a follow-up. He found it in the Baum’s ‘Oz’ books, which, to Walt at least, captured the same spirit as ‘Snow White,’ and could serve as a similar crossover success – it was enriched with childlike fantasy but still appealed to adults. Unfortunately, Walt was told that the rights had been sold – first to Samuel Goldwyn (for a cool $60,000) and then, as heat started to increase around the ‘Oz’ property following the commercial success of Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” to Louis B. Mayer (in 1938). The debt to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” can’t be overstated – the original designs for the Wicked Witch of the West even shared an eerie similarity to the film’s villainous queen.

In 1954, 11 of the ‘Oz’ novels (among them “The Emerald City of Oz,” in which Dorothy’s relatives from Kansas come to live in Oz, and “The Road to Oz,” a story that featured a character named Polychrome The Rainbow’s Daughter) were up for sale, and Walt snapped them up. The thinking was that the subsequent novels would be adapted for his “Disneyland” television series, and not the big screen. But the script for what would eventually be known as “The Rainbow Road to Oz” was soon transferred to the live-action feature development team, who assigned a pair of “Mickey Mouse Club” principles to produce and direct, with a number of the Mouseketeers scheduled to perform in the film. (The fourth season opener of the “Disneyland” show featured the “Mickey Mouse Club” performers trying to convince Walt to make the movie – if you watch the footage you can see possible costumes and even musical numbers that were said to be part of the movie – it’s available on one of those limited edition Walt Disney Archives DVDs from a few years ago).

By 1958, though, Walt had both bought the rights to the 12th book (at an exorbitant fee) and completely abandoned “The Rainbow Road to Oz,” instead focusing his attention on a similarly candy-colored adaptation of “Babes in Toyland” (this movie also featured Annette Funicello, who was slated to appear in “The Rainbow Road to Oz” as Oz queen Ozma) and on utilizing the ‘Oz’ property to augment a lame duck Disneyland attraction. While “Babes in Toyland” did end up happening, the ‘Oz’ ride expansion (which was a new finale for the sleepy Storybook Land Canal Boats attraction) never materialized.

Oz After Disney
The Disneyland ride never happened (it would eventually become part of Disneyland Paris decades later, this time featuring characters from “Return to Oz” – more on that in a minute) but in 1965 Disney started releasing a series of records that combined story and song to tell the story of Oz. A year after the first record debuted, Walt Disney had died, but the company, still maintaining a semblance of creative togetherness, kept releasing new records (one of them, “The Cowardly Lion of Oz,” supposedly features a number of songs meant for “The Rainbow Road to Oz”). This was a period when every executive or creative type would simply ask themselves “What would Walt do?” and wish for the best.

After Disney’s death, there really wasn’t an ‘Oz’ cheerleader at the company, and in the subsequent decades, the value of the property started to depreciate, even while the original was being vaulted to the status of one of the greatest movies of all time. Time passed, and for a very long while it looked like the story of ‘Oz’ and Disney was over for good. Until, of course, in 1980, an exciting new project rumbled to life. ‘Oz’ was ready to return.

“Return to Oz”
In 1980, a new project was greenlit at the studio. Simply dubbed “Oz,” it was to be written and directed by Walter Murch, a highly regarded editor who had worked with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola (he had just won an Oscar for “Apocalypse Now“). Supposedly the idea came out of a conversation with Walt Disney Pictures production chief Tom Wilhite and Murch, who were just gabbing about potential projects and ideas. When Murch suggested another ‘Oz’ entry, it was music to Wilhite’s ears, since Disney’s ownership of the ‘Oz’ titles expired in five short years and if they didn’t put anything into production, they would lose their exclusivity to the rights.

The production was okayed in 1982 (after initial conversations suggested a story could be fashioned without the Dorothy character, Murch’s eventual screenplay did include her) and extensive pre-production work was done, largely under the supervision of Norman Reynolds, who had handled similar duties on comparably massive “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Empire Strikes Back” (he was an art director on the first “Star Wars“). New characters were introduced alongside old favorites, like a more robotic (he would probably be described as “steampunk” today) tin man character in the form of Tik-Tok and a very scarecrow-ish Pumpkin Head character, who would be a wholly created using advanced puppet technology. The Scarecrow, redesigned, would also return.

A year later, however, the project ground to a halt and the studio briefly canceled the production altogether, thanks largely to the underperformance of recent costly Disney movies and the fact that the executives who had originally greenlit the project (including Wilhite) had all been replaced with new guys in suits. ‘Oz’ was eventually reassembled but the massive production schedule, which called for photography to take place in far-flung locations around the world (including Spain and Kansas), had been pared down to a few large British soundstages. Elaborate plans for some of the characters were also slimmed down to the barest of elements, which explains why some of the creatures are fully formed dazzlers and others look like the rubbery haunted masks from “Halloween III: Season of the Witch.”

At one point during the shoot — as executives started realizing the darkly hued nature of the screenplay which, while more faithful to the original source material (in particular two novels: “The Marvelous Land of Oz” and “Ozma of Oz“) was less accessible from a commercial standpoint — they tried to oust Murch. Coppola and Lucas assembled to speak on Murch’s behalf and keep him in the director’s chair. When the film was finally released in the summer of 1985, it drew a number of supporters but the critical community at large was turned off by its darkness (both Dave Kehr and Janet Maslin used the word “bleak” in their respective reviews) and audiences were similarly unresponsive. It earned less than half of its nearly $30 million budget, was nominated only for a single Oscar, for Best Visual Effects, but lost to “Cocoon.” By the time the movie came out, Disney management had changed for a third time and the new bosses (led by some guy named Michael Eisner) wanted nothing more than to sweep “Return to Oz” under the yellow brick rug.

After the ‘Return’
The years after “Return to Oz” were not kind. The movie was emblematic of the kind of indulgently wasteful, wrongheaded over-the-top spending of the Disney corporation in the ’80s, when the company was being run by a bunch of guys who were holding on to Walt’s ideology instead of forging new ground. (EPCOT Center, which to Walt was a visionary communal crossroads, turned out to be a costly, confusing science exhibit/world’s fair that lost money in the first decade of its operation and still struggles with identity issues.) Instead of using the silver slippers, the accessories of choice of the original novels, Disney chose instead to license the ruby slippers, an invention of the 1939 film, for “Return to Oz.” The price was exorbitant.

Four years later, when what was then known as the Disney-MGM Studios (currently Disney’s Hollywood Studios) would open as the third theme park in Orlando, Florida, an attraction called The Great Movie Ride would be one of the few rides actually available on opening day. (The other one was the Backstage Studio Tour. What a thrill!) Instead of utilizing the Disney-owned “Return to Oz” characters and property, Eisner and company chose to instead, once again, license the characters and settings from the 1939 MGM movie at great expense. Robbed of the iconic imagery and memorable characters, “Return to Oz” failed to resonate with anyone, including the studio that had made it. Disney’s questionable marketing technique of selling it as a sequel to the original film didn’t work either. More and more of the ‘Oz’ properties that Walt Disney was so protective of, began to wither and drift into the realm of public domain. Even a cult audience for “Return to Oz” failed to materialize, and elaborate show elements, floats, and characters that were designed for a “Return to Oz” parade that was trotted out in both stateside Disney parks, rotted in some warehouse. A “Muppet Wizard of Oz” television movie, which in a weird way parallels the early Disney intention of the ‘Oz’ projects as television-specific things, was produced by Disney and aired in 2005 in an unsuccessful bid to reintroduce the Muppet characters. Then things went quiet. Of course, just like a fierce Kansas tornado, ‘Oz’ would circle back to Disney…

“Oz, The Great And Powerful”
After the phenomenal, billion-dollar success of their Joe Roth-produced 3D spectacular “Alice in Wonderland” (which had the benefit of being the first major 3D release after “Avatar” – a film that, at the time, was still jockeying for the same screens), Disney began looking towards other classic, fairytale-ish properties to turn into giant tentpole releases. They fell upon ‘Oz’ and it seemed perfect. The studio, after all, had been flirting with the property since the days of the very first animated film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” There were still things that they couldn’t do, like use those ruby slippers (which at this point had become cost prohibitively expensive to include), but everything else was fair game (while the film is primarily influenced by “The Wonderful World of Oz” book, the finished movie contains a credit that says, “Suggested By the Works Of L. Frank Baum”).

Adam Shankman and Sam Mendes were both considered for the director’s chair, with Sam Raimi eventually winning the job, while Robert Downey Jr., any studio’s first choice to play a smug, womanizing dickhead, was initially approached to play the titular magician, but he soon dropped out. (In this week’s Entertainment Weekly, there’s a story about Raimi giving Downey, Jr. a bean plant and then seeing the same plant, at a later meeting, wilted and sad. Raimi took it as an omen.) After Johnny Depp flirted with the role, it was eventually handed to James Franco, a man who can turn brushing his teeth into a performance art installation and who worked with Raimi on the three “Spider-Man” movies playing the son of the villainous Green Goblin. Danny Elfman, the film’s composer, was one of the first creative principles to be hired by the studio, based largely on his work on “Alice in Wonderland” and the company’s continued appreciation of Elfman’s “Nightmare Before Christmas” score. What was interesting about Elfman’s involvement was that he had a very horrible, very public falling out with director Raimi over the music in “Spider-Man 2” (Elfman couldn’t stand Raimi’s tendency to constantly re-edit sequences and called him a “monster”). Neither Raimi nor Elfman has talked publicly about their reconciliation.

While they couldn’t directly reference anything from the original MGM “Wizard of Oz” (Disney lawyers warned the filmmakers when the production veered too near to the original – down to the hue of the Wicked Witch’s green skin), Raimi still manages to tip his hat in legally agreeable ways. Most notably, like the original film, the first thirty minutes or so are filmed in black and white (and in the original 4:3 aspect ratio). Once the wizard gets to Oz, things open up, becoming almost blindingly colorful (and properly widescreen). The wicked witch is present, as are flying monkeys, and lines of dialogue and casual nods to the original are sprinkled throughout (at least one original actor also appears). And with Raimi combining some of the darker elements of “Return to Oz” with the genuine magic of the original film, it would see that, indeed, there’s no place like Oz.

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