Thursday, October 18, 2012

How Oz was saved from Tim Burton

Wait, you thought I knew how?

Actually, I have no idea.

It is beyond my imagining that Tim Burton is not the director of Oz: The Great and Powerful. How were we spared this awful fate?

Again, I have no idea.

The fact that there is a sequel -- or prequel, or whatever -- to The Wizard of Oz is an awful enough fate for some people. But let's not forget that this isn't the first time there's been such an attempt to capitalize on the Oz brand. Return to Oz already curdled that particular innocence way back in 1985, taking today's opportunistic remake trend off the hook for the crassness of which it is so regularly and so justly accused.

When it was clear that even sacred cows like The Wizard of Oz would not make it through untarnished, it seemed almost certain that Tim Burton would be the one to tarnish it. Didn't it? I mean, has there been a director in the last two decades more suited to this material, and more specifically, more suited to ruining it?

In fact, as I see on wikipedia, Burton actually was in talks to make this film at one point, and in that iteration of Oz: The Great and Powerful, Johnny Depp was indeed set to star. In that perfectly deadpan and non-gossipy way that it has, wikipedia gives no explanation for the following sequence of events, only listing them as facts:

"Robert Downey Jr. was Raimi's first choice for the part of Oz. When Downey declined, Johnny Depp was linked to the role of Oz with Tim Burton attached to direct. By the end of February 2011, James Franco was in final negotiations to star in this film."

Which is, of course, what ended up happening.

I love the implication in these three sentences that Depp and Burton were a package deal. If you wanted Depp to play Oz, you had to get Burton to direct. Apparently, Raimi could not direct Depp, and Burton could not direct Franco. Thankfully, one of the two of them -- Depp or Burton -- caused the idea to collapse before it could gain any traction. Either that, or someone at Disney looked past the bundles of cash Burton made them with Alice in Wonderland and decided that they just couldn't bear to see the soul sucked out of Frank L. Baum's marvelous world by the erstwhile Mr. Helena Bonham Carter.

Having Raimi as director gives me significantly more hope. He's one of a number of directors -- among them Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro -- who should really be given the opportunity to save some of Burton's many mistakes before he makes them.

Why am I talking about this now, when Burton has a movie in theaters (Frankenweenie) that may actually be both original and good?

Well, I saw the Oz trailer a couple weeks ago and have been thinking about it since then. Also, Dark Shadows wiped out most of my merciful impulses toward the man, such that even any good will generated by Frankenweenie is too little, too late.

The trailer certainly looks good in some ways. But the truth is, whoever's directing it, Oz: The Great and Powerful will probably be a lot closer in quality to Return to Oz than to The Wizard thereof.


Travis McClain said...

There's one very important piece you've omitted in your case against Oz films: There were 14 books and several short pieces in the Oz series, all written by Baum.

To be honest, I've always wanted more Oz films. It's baffled me since my childhood that the 1939 film was so beloved and there was so much source material, but that no studios had done anything with them. There were several silent short films in the early 1900s, most of them made with the involvement of Baum himself, but very little since the 1939 film except The Wiz and Return to Oz.

I know I'm in the minority, but I actually *like* Return to Oz. I admit, it's pretty jacked up, particularly that queen with an entire array of alternate heads is creepy as could be. That may have made an even stronger impression on me as a young boy than Mola Ram ripping out that dude's still-beating heart in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

As far as this prequel goes, I'm looking forward to it. I hope it plays out a lot like JJ Abrams's Star Trek reboot: faithful in spirit to what audiences are familiar with, but having its own identity and possibly setting up future stories.

Keep in mind, the 1939 film is #2 on my Flickchart and has been #1 at times. I love that film. But there's plenty of room for other Oz stories to be told on screen just as there were in print. Baum's original stories were surprisingly dark at times, in addition to the flights of fancy. There's lots to explore. I'm hopeful.

As for Tim Burton, I've kinda fallen behind on his filmography. I like the Frankenweenie short, but it's not an enthusiastic liking and I have no real compulsion to see the feature. I still haven't seen Sweeney Todd, and I missed Dark Shadows. I still have an overall favorable opinion of his work, but I readily admit I haven't really enjoyed anything since Corpse Bride.

I'd still be interested in a Tim Burton Oz film, though, if it should come along. Like I said, Baum's stories were surprisingly dark at times, and Burton would be a better fit for the source material than I think fans who are only familiar with the 1939 film would suspect.

Vancetastic said...

Confession: I wrote this post without seeing Return to Oz. However, I felt I could make certain assumptions about it considering that it never comes up in discussions of classic films for children.

Instead of debating the merits of Tim Burton here, I will simply direct you to my tag for him, which includes a whopping six mentions. I don't seem to be able to have a thought about Burton without recording it on my blog. Very little of it is complimentary, but each is a reflection of my unsatisfied expectations based on what he once was and possibly could be again.

I am open to the idea of more Oz adventures after this one, since as you suggest, it seems like a pretty fruitful world. However, only if this one is actually good.