ReelReviews #1: The Russian Wizard of Oz

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Welcome to Reel Reviews Chicago! This entry marks my very first film review blog (ohhhh, so exciting… at least from someone who has never blogged before!)

 

Although I cover mainstream big budget movies, this blog often focuses on cult films, and especially genres like sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. In short, I’ll probably spend a lot of time talking about films you either overlooked or don’t realize exist. To kick things off, I’m looking at obscure adaptations of three twisted childhood favorites: The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan.

 

 

 

 

JAN. 1 2014 SCREENING: THE RUSSIAN WIZARD OF OZ

 

 

 

This year marks the 75th Anniversary of the 1939 MGM Wizard of Oz, and Hollywood has been milking it accordingly. But Americans aren’t the only ones that responded to this classic American story. Many classic American stories get re-adapted for the foreign market, and some of them have become rather memorable movies in their own right once they are rediscovered on the internet – Google “Turkish Superman” or “God Tussi Great Ho” (which is an Indian remake of Bruce Almighty). In this case, however, the foreign adaptation existed in book form long before the movie did.

 

 

 

In 1939, Russian writer Alexander Melentyevich Volkov released the novel “Волшебник Изумрудного Города” (in English, roughly translated: “The Wizard of the Emerald City”) This was not merely an attempt to translate the original 1900 L. Frank Baum novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” into Russian, but to rewrite the story so a Russian audience could relate to it more. The end result is basically an “alternate universe” Oz story… think of something along the lines of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked novel – except intended for Russians. Volkov wrote several sequels, all of which were original stories and not based on any American “Oz” books that had been published by Baum and others)

 

 

 

The Wizard of the Emerald City was eventually translated to English (as “Tales of Magic Land 1”), decades after its original Russian publication. The book is difficult to come by in the United States. However, a 1994 movie adaptation of the book can be found for free on YouTube, so I decided to screen it for myself.

 

 

 

(As a disclaimer, I should note that I watched the film entirely in Russian with no English subtitles, and I can’t speak a word of Russian. Like everyone else, I’m well versed in the story from the classic 1939 Judy Garland version of Wizard of Oz, so it was easy to follow what was going on and note where it paralleled and deviated from Hollywood’s take on the story.)

 

 

 

This film clocks in at just under 65 minutes, and left me wanting more. There’s some camp value to the cheap production values (it also looked more like a movie shot in 1974 instead of 1994), but overall its a very interesting interpretation of the Wizard of Oz. In the Russian version, the Wicked Witch is much more of an evil sorceress along the lines of something you’d see in The Neverending Story, and she is directly responsible for conjuring up the tornado that whisks “Ellie” (the Russian version of Dorothy) away to “Magic Land”. Events also unfold differently once she gets there as well: “Ellie” meets the Cowardly Lion before she meets the Tin Man, and melts the sorceress long before she meets the Wizard. The Good Witch that helps her get home appears for the first time towards the end of the movie – but that is in sync with the events of the original Baum novel anyway.

 

 

 

However, the really interpreting part is the different look and tone of the story. Some examples: Ellie’s life on the farm is bright and colorful, her dog “Totoshka” (a sheepdog in this version) is able to speak once she enters Magic Land, and retains that ability until they leave, and Ellie’s adventures include getting kidnapped by a Ogre and chased by a group of marching saber-tooth tigers sent by the evil sorceress. The “giant head” form of the Wizard looked (perhaps intentionally?) ridiculous in this version (the Wizard himself, in human form, looked like Ron Jeremy). I didn’t think the Lion came off as “cowardly” at all, he was pretty tough, and the Scarecrow came off as a fat obnoxious buddy character. Ironically, the little girl playing “Ellie” was probably the best and most faithful version of Dorothy I’ve seen on film. She fit the character even better than Fairuza Balk’s cute but overly precocious version in 1985’s Return to Oz, and certainly better than Judy Garland’s iconic but nothing-like-the-source-material Dorothy in the 1939 version. The film also has a hauntingly beautiful music score, but it is not a musical.

 

 

 

If nothing else, the Russian version of the Wizard of Oz gives you a fresh look at this familiar story. Parts of the movie were cringe-worthy and stupid, but I’d much rather watch this again than 1977’s “The Wiz”, for example (which tried to reinterpret the story as a modern “hip and cool” musical with an all black cast). The Wizard of the Emerald City at least deserves to be remastered and released on DVD with English subtitles. Still, that’s unlikely to happen, and in the meantime I recommend everyone check out the Russian free version available on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TLvaHRBnvkA)

 

 

 

All adaptations, sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and “re-imaginings” of the Wizard of Oz have the problem of standing in the shadow of the universally known and beloved 1939 film. But while movies like last year’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” are fun, its more interesting to check out the Russian interpretation of the story.

 

 

 

*** out of ****

 

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