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

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by Drew Taylor
March 5, 2013 2:22 PM
5 Comments
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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.

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5 Comments

  • Skippy | March 6, 2013 3:34 PMReply

    Hi Drew--I've seen pictures of an adult Shirley Temple dressed as Ozma that I think were from a very loose adaptation of "The Marvelous Land of Oz" that was done on a TV show she might have done in the late '50s. Did you run across anything about that and how it fits into the Disney picture?

  • Drew | March 7, 2013 9:04 AM

    Hey Skippy -- No I haven't ever seen those photos but I'm not sure what project that could have been from, considering the time period would have been when Disney still, very much controlled the rights to the bulk of the "Oz"-related materials. Will have to look into this.

  • The Meet Cute | March 6, 2013 7:35 AMReply

    Does anyone know what film/book/artwork the image of the clown with balloons is from? (Bottom right corner of main image).

  • Skippy | March 6, 2013 3:31 PM

    I have a book about the history of the Oz books/films and there's a section on the illustrations and the foreign editions. That picture looks like it might have characters from "The Patchwork Girl of Oz," but it's not the original John R. Neill illustrations. Maybe it's from a foreign edition of that book? It's not a great answer for you, but maybe it can give you a search start...

  • Matt N. | March 5, 2013 3:34 PMReply

    Drew--Excellent history lesson. Thanks! I saw "Oz the Great and Powerful" last night and thought it was pretty terrible, but I didn't have high hopes going in. This article was very fascniating, though.

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