Lea Michele as the new Judy Garland, and other surreal dispatches from the modern 'Oz' renaissance
If you're feeling optimistic, you might say that it's a testament to the cultural power of "The Wizard of Oz" more than to the power of easy branding that the L. Frank Baum creation continues to be endlessly reinvented, as we've been documenting in this space over the last several months.Friday brought yet another piece of news. As Disney forges ahead on the Wizard-centric movie "The Great and Powerful Oz" and Warner Bros. juggles two separate "Oz" projects, an independent animation company called Summertime Entertainment (independent in this case being a euphemism for small and unknown) has just gone into production on an animated musical titled "Dorothy of Oz."
The production announced Friday that it has brought on "Glee" star Lea Michele to voice the character of Dorothy. Michele, with a background in musical theater as well as television, will also sing a number of songs. Oh, and the movie is being shot in 3-D (of course).
We talked Friday afternoon to producer Bonne Radford, who said that the animation was the right medium for the story that she and the other filmmakers want to tell. "It will take the 'Wizard of Oz' to places it has never been able to go before," she said.
This project, it should be said, seems several degrees removed from the original tales of munchkins, wizards and wicked witches. "Dorothy of Oz" is based on a children's chapter book written by L. Frank Baum's great-grandson, Roger, not the sprawling world created by his great-grandfather. There are many characters who didn't appear in the original series and who strike us, from a certain distance, as tangential and dilutive, characters such as someone named Marshall Mallow, or the Jester. (We will admit to digging the fact that Bryan Adams will write songs for the movie; "Heaven" was kind of like "Over the Rainbow," come to think of it.)
Radford called Michele a perfect choice for the role. "She's our Judy Garland," she said, in what might generously be termed a moment of grandiosity.
Asked about the impetus for the film, the producer said that part of her motivation was the childhood memory of seeing the film on the big screen at a repertory house, a viewing that moved her to join the film business. You'd be right to cringe a little at that: Deciding to make a movie primarily or even partly because it gave you the warm-and-fuzzies as a 10-year-old is exactly where so much of the film business goes wrong. Sentimentality makes us human, but it doesn't make for great filmmaking choices.But Radford's comments also reveal an interesting truth of the "Oz" phenomenon, and one that helps explain why companies small and large are rushing to make new "Oz" movies.
Because it's something that is cherished both deeply and widely, "The Wizard of Oz" is not only a cultural phenomenon but a psychological one. "Oz" is everyone's story, a piece of our individual cultural memories that the rest of the world happens to share. That doesn't mean the entire world wants to see countless new spins on "Oz." But it does mean that those with moviemaking clout have reason to make a new version of the film, and also explains why they're able to persuade others to go along. As Dorothy discovered a century ago, the Emerald City is difficult to resist, even if it can be disappointing to visit.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: A scene from '"Dorothy of Oz." Credit: Summertime Entertainment
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