When the old studio system worked at its best, as it did with “The Wizard of Oz” in 1939, it created American myths. This particular classic combined four directors; 10 screenwriters; an army of composers, choreographers, and costumers; 124 Munchkins; Judy Garland; and a special effects team that conjured up cinema’s most terrifying tornado with the aid of a 35-foot windsock. Not to mention the contributions of L. Frank Baum, who wrote the series of books.
But in a way the real author was the American collective unconscious, mystically tapped by MGM and shaped into a cultural icon. Can such a work be remade or recycled into sequel? You might as well try to remake Notre Dame Cathedral or reboot the Odyssey.
Nonetheless, some have tried, with mixed success. Walter Murch’s “Return to Oz” (1985) was a box office bust, but has since gained cult status. Sam Raimi’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” (2013) got panned by critics, but grossed nearly $500 million. And on Friday, the animated “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return,” based not on Baum’s books but on one written by his great grandson, Roger, will try to bring the magic back.
I haven’t seen the new film yet, but judging from the description — Dorothy is whisked back to Oz to save it from the evil of the “Jester” — it shares, along with the other two spinoffs, an essential element of the original movie. All four films confront a woman’s role in society.
Sure, you’re thinking, that’s why “The Wizard of Oz” is so beloved — its feminist subtext. But the gender politics are undeniable. Beginning with the 1939 original, each visit to Oz has featured powerful women and an ineffectual patriarchy.
In the 1939 film, Dorothy leaves a Depression-era Kansas farm run by her Auntie Em, who oversees doddering Uncle Henry and a trio of lunk-headed hired hands. Awakening in Oz, she finds another nominal patriarchy ruled by a humbug wizard and threatened by an evil, powerful female whom she must defeat to restore the status quo.
“Return to Oz” was the first and only feature directed by Murch, an Oscar-winning editor. It was doomed not just because it suffered from comparison to the original but because it drew on the darker elements of the Baum books.
Tough to win over Oz fans when you start out with Dorothy about to get shock treatments. She escapes to Oz only to find it in ruins, ruled by a “Nome King” who looks like the shrink about to fry her brain. The film came out the same year the Equal Rights Amendment was reintroduced to Congress by Senator Edward Kennedy. It never passed.
Raimi’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” shifts the gender roles. A prequel to the 1939 events, it tells how the title charlatan arrived in the Emerald City and through smoke and mirrors (a nod to the illusory power of film!) must defeat evil and treacherous witches.
So much for feminism. Perhaps the new film might restore the status of the female hero established by the original. And even demonstrate how a genuine dream factory can create an American myth. Someday that will happen, somewhere over the rainbow.