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

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist March 5, 2013 at 2:22PM

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.
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The Great Movie Ride
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.

Muppet Wizard of Oz

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").

Oz The Great And Powerful James Franco
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.

This article is related to: Oz The Great And Powerful, Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney, Sam Raimi, Features, Feature


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