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Origins of Oz, The (DVD Review)

12 Feb, 2013 By: John Latchem

Street 2/12/13
$14.98 DVD
Not rated.

With Disney set to release Oz the Great and Powerful March 8, the Origins of Oz documentary is well timed to give viewers a glimpse into what led L. Frank Baum to create the original “Oz” books more than a century ago.

Along the way in this journey through Baum’s life and legacy, we are treated to numerous clips from “Oz” films, including the 1939 version, and several interviews from historians and Baum relatives that provide clarity and perspective as to what led to his creation of this magical realm and the creatures that inhabit it. The documentary makes a point in referring to the Oz stories as an American fairy tale.

Oz fan Natalie Merchant narrates the biography and also appears on camera as an interview subject about the impact the stories have had on her and her family.

Almost everyone is familiar with 1939’s The Wizard of Oz movie, which is based on Baum’s 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. However, Baum actually wrote 14 books about the land of Oz, a series described by one talking head as comparable in popularity in its day to what the “Harry Potter” books are now.

The driving force of the “Oz” books, according to the documentary, was the influence of women in Baum’s life, which led to his creating a strong female hero in Dorothy, whom the program describes as an early literary feminist icon.

Baum spent a lot of time with his mother and two sisters while his father often was away, usually on business. His dad did buy him a small printing press, which fueled the young Baum’s creative spirit during a period when amateur journalism was all the rage (kind of an age of bloggers 120 years before the Internet).

Later, Baum married the daughter of a noted feminist and moved to the Midwest, where he ran a newspaper. Occasionally he would become obsessed with a story, such as one that involved a tornado picking up a house and moving it two miles away. (Sound familiar?)

On another sojourn to the World’s Fair in Chicago, he was fascinated with the beauty of the White City at the heart of the exhibition, but also with how fake it was. (And it all starts to add up.)

The second half of the program details attempts to film the “Oz” books, including several by Baum himself. A few films were made during the silent era, but were not successful. These attempts paled in comparison to MGM’s lavish Technicolor extravaganza in 1939, which became such an enduring classic that its props, especially the ruby slippers, are among the most popular icons of American pop culture on display at the Smithsonian Museum. (Though it should be noted that the slippers are silver in the book, but bright red looks better on film.)

As much as the show focuses on the 1939 movie, for which Oz the Great and Powerful is designed to work as a prequel, it stops short of detailing any subsequent Oz projects in the 70 years since, such as Disney’s 1985 flop Return to Oz. That’s probably for the best.

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