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The Wizard of Oz

by Mike Crandol, Jun 17th 2003
Imagine a land of Oz where the Scarecrow does battle with a giant transforming raven, the Tin Man takes his axe to an army of vicious wolves, and the Cowardly Lion goes claw-to-claw with a monstrous black panther. No, it's not Todd MacFarlane's latest action-figure line; it's the anime version of The Wizard of Oz.

Yes, it exists.

Is it good? No. Is it good campy fun? Yes! Though some may debate whether this 1982 movie is true “anime”, the TOHO studios production cannot be mistaken for anything except Japanese animation. Not to be confused with the 1984 “Oz” anime television series, this quirky feature-length film was directed by Gundam 0080 & Patlabor III's Fumihiko Takayama, but was produced by U.S. distributor Fred Ladd, and the vocals were originally recorded in English for an American audience. It premiered here in the states but was eventually rerecorded in Japanese and released in its country of origin in 1986. If you can bear the few insufferable songs Dorothy belts out at inopportune moments you'll be amazed, delighted, and utterly stupefied by this distinctly anime-ted take on one of America's most beloved stories.

In many ways it is actually more faithful to L. Frank Baum's original book, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” than the 1939 Hollywood classic. Dorothy is back to being Baum's blonde little-girl-lost instead of a buxom brunette Judy Garland. There are four witches instead of three, and as in the book Glinda is the Witch of the South, not the North. The Wizard himself takes on a variety of guises and appears not only as the familiar green disembodied head but a beautiful angel, a fierce beast, and a ball of flame. The Witch of the West's squadron of flying monkeys is assisted by a menagerie other unusual creatures. The Land of Oz appears much more like the fictional country Baum imagined than an MGM backlot.

But what a goofy little movie this is. Despite her blonde locks Dorothy bears a suspicious resemblance to Speed Racer's Trixie and has almost as much personality. She desperately wants to get back home to Kansas, but apparently just so she can finish the pie that got left behind in the storm. This film seems to imply there is some cosmic significance to eating pie, as Dorothy continues to make several references to the damn pie long after being dumped in Oz. Apparently the Witch of the North is quite the party animal and wears a lampshade on her head, which makes her envy of all the munchkins in Munchkinland. The term “munchkins” must be used loosely, 'cause these big, burly, bearded dwarves look like they could eat the Lollipop Guild for breakfast. The Scarecrow resembles some kind of giant cartoon insect, and the Tin Man looks a little like Gigantor. The Cowardly Lion is not a simpering, anthropomorphic Bert Lahr but an actual lion, and a pretty fierce one at that. He seems to refer to himself as a coward only to fit in with the rest of the handicapped traveling group.

The movie is also full of choice dialogue that is unintentionally hilarious. Top honors go to the Tin Man, who in the space of five minutes utters such immortal lines as “Could you oil me all over Miss?” and “I don't have a heart, so how can I feel love?” - to which Dorothy and the Scarecrow reply with a knowing “Hmmm…”. But the best quote may well belong to the Great Oz: “WHAT IS THIS ‘KANSAS’?!?”

Yet it's the appearance of the Wicked Witch of the West in the third act that really pushes the film into a new realm of camp. Perhaps feeling the traditional pointy-hat and warts aren't enough to frighten today's children, the creators saw fit to give their Witch purple skin and an eye patch. Surely the only thing more terrifying than a Wicked Witch is a Wicked Witch-Pirate who bears a striking resemblance to Grimace. Captain Witch shivers Dorothy's timbers with her army of robot guardsmen, wolves, and of course flying monkeys. She also has enslaved roughly have the peasant residents of Oz...which serves no function other than to show how wicked she really is...but it's a nice touch. This is where the anime influence is most strongly felt as Dorothy's companions launch into battle against the Witch' s minions. Though the movie stops short of showing blood the sight of the Tin Man hacking away at a pack of magical wolves and the Cowardly Lion ripping through his adversaries would be horribly out of place in a more conventional Oz story. And is true anime fashion the climatic battle is full of explosions. Dorothy melts the Witch with water but not before the fireball-hurling Witch blows up half her castle in wild pursuit of our heroine.

The story ends much as the live-action version does, with the revelation that the Wizard is an old Kansas man himself, his abrupt departure in a hot air balloon, and Dorothy using the magic slippers to get back home. Dorothy and Toto return to Kansas where they are reunited with Auntie Em, Uncle Henry, and their pie.

Not too surprisingly this unusual take on the classic story was quickly forgotten by the public at large. It showed up infrequently on the Disney Channel in the late 1980s, which is where readers are most likely to remember it from, before being confined to the $5.99 video bargain shelf at K-mart and the kiddy section at the corner Blockbuster Video. Unopened VHS copies can be purchased at half.com for less than a dollar, which is honestly all the money it's worth. I honestly can't recommend purchasing this one, but if you're ever in a position to see it and appreciate Mystery Science Theater 3000, definitely check it out. Mmmm, pie...

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