There are a great deal of colorful characters and flights of fantasy in the story. However, profound themes of appreciating home and gaining self-confidence abound in this narrative, which makes it both sobering and fun for the entire family.
We'll compare two film versions of this tale: The Wizard of Oz (1939) starring Judy Garland and The Wiz (1978) starring Diana Ross. Why these two? Because they are the only two I've seen (if you don't count the Muppet's TV version).
At first glance it may seem cruel to pit any other against MGM's classic, groundbreaking, Oscar-winning interpretation of the Baum books. [Now that I put it that way, it is kind of mean.] It may seem especially brutal to compare Wizard with The Wiz , a film which is based on the 1975 Broadway hit, yet was universally panned by critics.
Still, sometimes there are flaws in the best films and gems in the worst. Let's explore.
HOME vs. THE LAND OF OZ
A dull world vs. a vibrant fantasy land
In Wizard, young Dorothy , who lives on a dusty, sepia tone farm in Kansas and whose neighbor threatens to impound her pet dog, becomes discontent and dreams of another life. She eventually makes it to a city in her fantasy world of Oz, a bright and colorful place with creatures that defy logic and a town made of emeralds. The wide differences between Oz and Kansas accentuate the fish-out-of-water story for our heroine.
The Wiz is a fully urban tale. Dorothy in this film is an adult who lives in a New York City Brownstone with her aunt and uncle, who are concerned that their introverted and phobic niece has never traveled beyond 125th street. The fictional world of Oz doesn’t come from Dorothy’s fantasies; it just shows up out of nowhere when chasing her dog down the street.
An outer burrough of NYC vs. Manhattan, sort of.
Oz in Wiz is a stylized version of the Big Apple (mostly set among a forest of claustrophobic, monolithic Führerbunkers from late 20th century architecture), making the contrast between home and Oz much more subtle than in Wizard.
But, for better or worse, both Dorothys end up in a strange place.
In Wizard, a Kansas tornado plops Dorothy into the fabled Munchkin Land, which seems to be an exurban spot just outside of the Emerald City. The young girl is filled with wonder at the rich colors and the kindness of the people there. You could see how Dorothy’s wish to go away from her dull home life to a vibrant place over the rainbow is incorporated into the fantasy world. Because she’s imagined a good deal of this location, she’s not initially as frightened as one might be in an alien place; it’s her dream come true.
In the Wiz, a blizzard transports the protagonist to Oz. Dorothy is dropped into what seems to be an abstract inner city. People made of glow-in-the-dark graffiti on the walls magically come to life and begin to sing and dance. Dorothy is naturally frightened; Oz is her nightmare - she has gone beyond 125th street.
For these movies to work well, the audience must empathize with the main character’s goals.
Judy Garland’s Dorothy initially desires to be somewhere other than the farm, but ultimately desires home; Diana Ross’s Dorothy desires to be rid of irrational fears and her shyness; going home seems secondary. Each character has her wish fulfilled, but Wiz’s Dorothy gets some of hers fairly early on in the film.
Within 15 minutes, adult Dorothy is full of self-confidence. When you can talk to, sing and dance and become buddies with a sentient scarecrow, you’ve gotten over your shyness. Indeed, adult Dorothy seems more organic to the glamorous places in Oz than she does living with her relatives in a brownstone. I wouldn’t have been surprised if this Dorothy remained in the fantasy world after the villains have died.
Garland, an all-around entertainer, convincingly plays pre-teen Dorothy's innocence even when she doesn’t have the help of a beautiful ballad to progress the story. She’s a determined and courageous little girl, but has a whimper in her speaking voice that breaks your heart. She’s a child lost in her own imagination; her emotions are appropriate to the character’s age.
Ross, primarily a singer, struggles with the acting parts. Critics inaccurately dubbed her “too old” to play Dorothy. The maturity level between the 34 year old actress and her 24 year old character should be minimal. [Certainly more insignificant than the difference between that of the well-developed, seventeen-year old Garland and her character, who hasn‘t yet experienced hormonal changes.] Ross’ Dorothy fits well within the urban setting and with the sophisticated music catalog that envelops the film.
The problem with adult Dorothy is that Ross sometimes behaves like an eight year old - crying, grabbing her dog to her chest, more crying, screaming her aunt’s name when she’s lost or afraid. Did I mention the crying?
Still, both actresses can tug at your heartstrings in a song. Ms. Garland’s tune about wanting to be in a land over the rainbow establishes the little girl’s motivations very well. Ms. Ross cries real tears in her final song, “Home,” and your heart bleeds for the character.
SCARECROW, TIN MAN & LION
What’s a fun adventure film without sidekicks for comic relief? Dorothy has three such companions who will help her get her wish and who want their own goals satisfied.
Her first buddy is Scarecrow, the stuffed costume who wants a brain. I'm not a fan of any incarnation of this character. He's one of the most annoying sidekicks ever, especially when he giggles over nothing at all or after he‘s said something “intelligent.” Gag me.
Both Ray Bolger's and Michael Jackson's Scarecrow are appropriately loose-limbed figures. However, they seem to have a bit of a crush on Dorothy which always creeps me out, for some reason.
The rusty, neglected tin man wants a heart in his hollow shell.
Tin Man is supposedly a loving person underneath, but I have to be honest: Jack Haley does not convince me that Tin Man is nice. Behind that soft tone of voice and forced smile he seems as though he wants to smack someone…hard. I keep expecting him to reveal that he’s on the villain’s payroll, working as a spy to infiltrate Dorothy’s group.
Nipsey Russell's version of the Tin Man is closer to normal, but not especially tender.
Maybe Haley and Russell should have played the cerebral Scarecrow and given their heartfelt character to Bolger and Jackson, respectively.
The Cowardly Lion is my favorite among the three sidekicks. Bert Lahr and Ted Ross are larger than life performers who do not allow the woolly costume to consume their personality, it seems.
I've never seen Ross in his other films, but as a kid I remember watching Lahr in some other movie and thinking "Oh no! The cowardly lion has shed his skin!" Instantly recognizable, he is.
I love Lahr's signature snarl. And one of the most engaging songs in Wiz is "(I'm a) Mean Ole Lion," which Ross belts out as he struts around in platform shoes! So '70s. :)