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Because the magical stories that unfold in the 14 Oz books written by L. Frank Baum are in the public domain, Disney had no obligation to secure approval of its new film, Oz the Great and Powerful, from the family of the legendary author. For the record, though, his great-grandson, Roger S. Baum, is cautiously looking forward to the big 3D epic.
“I must admit that when Disney does something, they try to do it right. It looks like — and I’m only talking about glimpses now — but it looks like an exciting movie,” the Las Vegas resident tells The Hollywood Reporter. He adds, with a bit of a laugh, “I always thought you’re clashing with the classic if you have live action, whereas with animation, people are not going to say, ‘That’s not Judy Garland, no one can take her place.'”
That particular stumbling block, though, is not as much of an obstacle for Disney, as its massive $200 million film is a prequel set long before Dorothy rode a tornado and a head injury to the yellow brick road. This film, directed by Sam Raimi, stars James Franco as a young and charming version of the old wizard seen in MGM’s 1939 original. The female leads — Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz — are all witches; Williams plays the iconic Glinda, who was first portrayed by an angelic Billie Burke.
Baum has more than just family pride and nostalgia riding on Disney’s weekend release; he’s also an Oz author himself, and has his own star-studded movie adaptation that will soon wrap up production, with Lea Michele providing the voice of Dorothy.
Dorothy of Oz is a $60 million 3D animated feature from Summertime Entertainment that is based on Roger’s first Wizard-related book. Baum never knew his prolific great-grandfather — L. Frank died in 1919, Roger was born in 1938 — but has become the inheritor of his literary legacy. Since 1989, Roger Baum has published 16 new books in the Oz canon, which actually surpasses the 14 originals that were pumped out as a haphazard franchise near the turn of the 20th century. Dorothy of Oz was published by HarperCollins.
While, again, he has no official legal rights to many of the characters, Baum has a generous spirit about sharing the legacy — as long as his great-grandfather’s intent remains intact.
“I’d always love to see Oz continue in different ways,” he says. “I think [the Broadway show] Wicked is a great example of something that is so successful. Every once in a while, I might as well be really honest, once in a while somebody will put in a little bit of politics in Oz, and there’s none whatsoever.
“Great-granddad used to tell these stories to the kids, in Chicago particularly, and the word ‘Oz’ came from the bottom file cabinet, ‘O-Z’ in his den,” Baum continues. “One of the kids, when he was telling the story, asked ‘What is the name of this different land?’ He told it in different ways, and before he finally wrote it down, he said, ‘Its name is Oz.’ So little things like that dispel the notion. The ruby shoes [colored red, they were alleged allegories for socialism] were changed in the script because they showed up better against the yellow brick road on the washed out Technicolor screens of those days. Great-granddad had them silver.”
At the same time, he does point to some potential political influences on the original books: His great-great-grandmother, Matilda Joslyn Gage, was a leading activist in the women’s suffrage movement, and he can see some of the principles she fought for reflected in Dorothy.
“You always wonder if Great-granddad wasn’t somewhat influenced with Dorothy — instead of a male lead, here you have Dorothy,” Baum muses. “When you stop to think about it, Dorothy’s a woman leader. She’s a leader of her own little crew there. So maybe it rubbed off way back then with that connection in the family. When I used to go to the Smithsonian, on the same floor, you have not only the ruby slippers, but you go across the way and there’s Great-great-grandmother and Susan B. Anthony.”
If that was the case, it came despite Stanton’s less-than-enthusiastic reaction to her daughter’s relationship with the original Oz author, who spent his early years drifting from job to job. L. Frank’s mother-in-law “was all over him, and all over her daughter about marrying that no good bum,” Roger laughs.
He spent hours on the couch as a child listening to that great-grandmother — “a lovely, lovely lady” but “the picture of 19th century sternness” — tell him stories, and strives to retain that innocence in his stories. As such, Baum’s books leave ideology out of the mix, and blend the original cast of characters with new entrants into the wild and ever-expanding fantasy universe.
Some of his stories admittedly bump up against the mythology created in the first 14, but then again, so did his great-grandfather’s original tomes. Thanks to those books’ public domain status, anyone can write an Oz story, and there have been a string of follow up books written by a handful of writers, including Ruth Plumly Thomson, who penned 19 of them between 1921 and 1939; each author’s entrants vary in their fidelity to the original canon.
“I’m always using the first book as my launching point,” he explains, laughing again. “Some of the contradictions — Great-granddad never meant for his books to be a series, so he would write one and then another, and there would be a contradiction from the first one to the fourth one. So I just use the first book.”
Several of his books have been optioned by Summertime and Alpine, which first picked up Dorothy of Oz in 2007 — before Disney began work on the blockbuster that it will release this weekend. The film, producer Bonne Radford says, is about 90 percent finished and will be submitted for the Cannes film festival. They are targeting a 2014 release.
While independent animation is still less than a guaranteed success, Dorothy of Oz does boast a big-name cast. Along with Michele, Bernadette Peters voices Glinda the Good Witch, while Kelsey Grammer, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi voice the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion, respectively. There have been new characters added, too; Patrick Stewart lends his vocals to a character named Tugg, Martin Short is The Jester, Oliver Platt Wiser the Owl and Hugh Dancy is Marshal Mallow. Smash‘s Megan Hilty voices China Doll.
In Roger Baum’s latest book, The Oz Enigma, which is being published by Tate, the characters visit space, gently taking the old favorites into the 21st century. Whether that ever becomes a movie depends on a lot of factors, but there’s no doubt that the legacy of Oz will live on.
Below, an exclusive first look still of the entire Dorothy of Oz cast:
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