Tag Archives: Musicals

Don’t Miss…Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return (2014)

16 May

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I saw Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return in a multiplex on Sunday of its opening weekend–Mother’s Day afternoon. I didn’t expect to see many kids in the audience on this particular holiday, but the ones who were there sounded delighted with it, and so was I! This 3D animated musical sequel to The Wizard of Oz was visually inventive, with a charming story, attractive new characters, and some beautiful songs. It pulled in only 3.7 million in box office receipts, coming in 8th for the weekend. I hope those who passed it up on its first weekend will give it another look. It includes plenty of Oziana references, enough to entice committed Ozophiles (Ozmaniacs?), but anyone who has enjoyed the classic 1939 film or read any of L. Frank Baum’s books will get the jokes and feel a tug of nostalgia too.

Legends of Oz loosely follows the plot of Dorothy of Oz (1989), written by Roger S. Baum, L. Frank Baum’s great-grandson (in fact, the original working title of the film was Dorothy of Oz). Just as the MGM musical made some creative changes when they adapted L. Frank Baum’s original story for the screen, Legends of Oz has made some significant changes when adapting his great-grandson’s tale.

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Let me set the scene as the movie does: Dorothy wakes up in her room in Kansas, and she is joyfully reunited with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. But their house and surrounding farm buildings are badly damaged by the tornado. The first problem they face will be a visit from a shady appraisal agent, voiced by Martin Short, who wants to condemn their house and force them (and their neighbors) off their property. This Appraiser is the “Miss Gulch” of the film; in Oz, he will appear again, but in the form of a villainous Jester (also brilliantly voiced by Short). Time has passed much faster in Oz. The Jester now wields the wand of his sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, and has used its power to wreck the Emerald City and oppress its citizens. Therefore, while Dorothy is wondering how she might help her Aunt and Uncle and save their farm, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion are trying to call Dorothy back to Oz to save them from the Jester.

In any Oz sequel where Dorothy will play a role, some method has to be found to get her back to Oz! For example, in Out of Oz (2011), the last book in his “Wicked Years” series, Gregory Maguire made use of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to open a portal from California to Oz–echoing L. Frank Baum’s own sequel Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz (1908). In the Legends of Oz film (as in Roger S. Baum’s Dorothy of Oz), Dorothy knows that things are getting unusual again when she sees a giant rainbow racing towards her. One end snakes across the prairie and finally lifts her and Toto up, sliding them along on a fast trip to Oz. The rainbow was sent by the brainy Scarecrow who has rigged the machine in the Wizard’s chamber for this purpose, but the Jester and his flying monkey henchmen arrive and interrupt Dorothy’s flight; suddenly she is deposited not in the Emerald City but in the Gillikin Country. In her adventure-filled passage from there to the Emerald City she will encounter the important new characters of this story, including: Marshal Mallow, an officer in Candy County; the China Princess, ruling over her lands protected by the Great Wall of China (!); Wiser, an enormous, loquacious Owl; and Tugg, a boat built with the help of the Talking Trees. Together they will battle the Jester and try to restore beauty, peace, and equilibrium to Oz (until the next sequel!).

The beauty of the art direction (especially all the porcelain people in the Dainty China Country) and the creativity in the animation made it a delight to watch throughout. In one early scene, the Jester demonstrates that he can’t ever remove his parti-colored harlequin costume because of his wicked sister’s curse: every time he tries to pull it off, it just changes to new colors, switching faster and faster without ever releasing him. Marshal Mallow is an adorable creation, genuinely sweet, although he looks like a very stately, uniformed Muppet: the two marshmallows forming his head are hinged to let his jaw work. His character is voiced by Hugh Dancy, whose rich singing voice makes the song “Even Then” perhaps the most memorable of this lovely and lively score. Megan Hilty (from Smash) plays the haughty China Princess perfectly and sings with Dancy. But the story is really all about Dorothy–from the moment she put on her spunky cowboy boots and started to sing, I felt confident of this Dorothy. Lea Michele gave her a bright, youthful voice and a convincing range of emotions; her effective acting carried through her solo song, “One Day,” and all the songs, and this film is fortunate indeed to have the benefit of her vocal power and expressiveness.

On his website, Roger S. Baum wrote:

We have only to look at the fact that Oz has just passed its 100th Anniversary and is just as popular as ever. America’s greatest fairy tale continues to send us on a wonderful journey, from which we never tire.

Perhaps, the secret, why it remains a modern fairy tale after all these years, is hidden within the story. Herein lies the truths of courage, wisdom and heart and to these three we can easily mix a foundation of good faith, love and understanding.

Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return respects this tradition and adds to it with distinction. And I’m so glad it was a musical!

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Dorothy Gale ranks 83rd on The Fictional 100.

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Les Miserables (2012) film review: Reboot

9 Sep

I watched Les Miserables–Tom Hooper’s ambitious film of the famous musical–on TV this afternoon, and, as is so often the case, a second look gave me quite a different experience. The first time I saw it in a theater for its Christmas release,  and I  reported (in my first review) being disturbed by the pacing of the film which felt too compressed to me, but this second viewing seemed to repair whatever I had felt was amiss. Or rather, I as a viewer had changed and caught up with it.  To  borrow a line from Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (describing to Wickham her changed feelings for Darcy): “When I said that he improved on acquaintance, I did not mean that his mind or his manners were in a state of improvement, but that, from knowing him better, his disposition was better understood.”  Knowing this film better now, I understand better how much it accomplished, transferring a stage musical to real settings and yet not straying from the musical’s design or the story’s emotional heart.

Eddie Redmayne, as Marius, stood out immediately as a welcome surprise, and my second viewing only confirmed and increased my estimation of what he brought to the role. His singing was strong and well unified with his acting, which was fresh, flexible, and sincere.

Samantha Barks as Eponine impressed me much more upon second viewing.   Both in voice and demeanor, she conveyed her anguish over every word from Marius about Cosette. She seemed to shrink in size as her hopes were more surely disappointed. Her death scene, being comforted by Marius, was tender and dignified, as she sang the one song that could turn maudlin if not handled well. Here’s a nice still photo from the film showing Redmayne and Barks together.

Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Jean Valjean improves markedly over the course of the film, reaching its peak as the elder, dying father. The first time I was focused on moments that seemed rushed or jarring but a second screening left me noticing more scenes I found satisfying, such as his mercy and release of Javert at the barricades and his confession to Marius.   Russell Crowe’s Javert still strikes me as grave and deliberate, and perfectly grounded in his character. His singing is solid and at times poignant; because it was never showy, I don’t think he got the credit he deserved.

With a work of art such as Les Miserables, it takes more than one viewing to leave behind other instantiations of the story that one holds dear. Only then can we truly see what is right in front of us.

“Les Misérables” (2012), or, the Problem of Putting an Epic (Musical) on Film: A Review

30 Dec

This season offered moviegoers adaptations of two sprawling, classic novels, Les Misérables and Anna Karenina. They represent two rather different solutions to the inevitable problems of selection and compression when one is dealing with such huge stories. Both novels unfold over some time in their fictional worlds and, likewise, take the attentive reader days, months, or even years to absorb fully. But movies have only two or three hours to lay out the essentials and take the reader from emotional point A to point B, or to points X, Y, and Z.

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In Les Misérables, the selection and compression of incident was given in advance by the adaptation for the stage, Boublil, Schönberg, and Kretzmer’s hugely successful musical. The undulating succession of emotional lows and peaks which Victor Hugo wrote are all here with a song to embody each. But is this a help to the film or too big a constraint on the pace of storytelling in a medium so different from the stage?  The stage is a place where scenes can be rotated into view or merely suggested with a backdrop or a few props, where action is limited by space, and where audience and actors agree that a character may stop, lift us up (with the strength of a Jean Valjean!), and symbolically carry us through the emotional journey of a song.  In a film, especially one that is avowedly “realistic” in its aim, the agreement is a bit different. The story is told scene by scene at more or less the pace of life; gaps in time–sometimes huge ones–serve the purpose of compression. The screenwriter’s and film director’s arts involve first selecting the scenes that will piece together the narrative and then setting them up (requiring again a whole universe of choices) for the camera to capture.

In Tom Hooper’s film of Les Misérables, the succession of songs seems to force a certain staccato pace on the events, as if they must be reeled out quickly before the song is over. Because this cuts against the grain of realism in what the eye sees, the film seems oddly rushed and busy, and star Hugh Jackman, as Jean Valjean, mirrors this pace in his valiant, breathy singing.  Fantine’s fall from seamstress to prostitute, after selling her locket, hair, and teeth, apparently occurs all in the same day, in the space of a few desperate hours, while the song that brackets it takes mere minutes.  The cuts and scene changes that permit the illusion of the passage of time, in a fine version such as the 1998 nonmusical film (starring Liam Neeson and Uma Thurman), are not available here.

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Perhaps the frenetic pace of Fantine’s degradation conveys its tragedy, but as a viewer I was ironically grateful when the motion ceased while she sang “I dreamed a dream”–this song, both in the musical and in the film, bestowed the gift of time, room to contemplate all her character had undergone and would yet suffer.

Does this mean that a sung-through musical is not possible on film? Not at all. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), directed by Jacques Demy, is successful precisely because it never feels rushed or constrained by the songs; its dreamy quality matches song to action in a way that is awe-inspiring, justifying the admiration this film has received. For Les Mis, Hooper faced the doubly difficult task of adapting an adaptation, and he likely felt an obligation to include all the songs from the musical out of respect for its fans;  but this ready-made “screenplay,” in song form, short-circuited the possibility of making a musical better adapted to screen storytelling.

In Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, the artistic tables are turned. Other films to this point have used conventional realism and judicious scene selection to solve the problem of compressing Tolstoy’s massive masterpiece. Wright, however, used the freedoms and conventions of the stage to make a brilliantly unconventional adaptation.

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Placing his actors on and off a theater stage allowed abrupt scene changes and mere suggestions of incidents that were not out of place but rather served the emotional impact of the story. When Vronsky’s horse suddenly and fatally tumbled off the stage, the viewer was jarred into real shock comparable to Anna’s, and “realism” of a very different sort was managed creatively (such a fall might indeed break a horse’s back or crush its rider). Yet it is not real–it’s a film, and we knew that “no animals were harmed in the making.” It’s an illusion achieved with cuts, special effects, and clever choices, part of the overarching illusion that the whole story can be recounted before the viewers’ eyes. Wright straddled film and theater, moving between them in a way that was surprising and constantly fresh, and a sophisticated commentary on both.

But Les Mis made a different set of choices: film realism and live singing. It has many strengths within those confines, not least of which is a complete realization of the stage musical. It fleshes out the action in epic proportions, to the point of floating a full-size galley (so it seems) for prisoner Jean Valjean to sweat and pull and sing into harbor. On this grand epic canvas, several other performances stood out and deserve mention. Anne Hathaway (Fantine) and Russell Crowe (Javert) found each of their character’s genuine center, and both sang very effectively. Anne will likely bring home many well-merited awards, probably an Oscar. Amanda Seyfried sang the aerial notes of Cosette with natural beauty and sincerity, and I would have wished more screen time for her.  Eddie Redmayne (Marius), hitherto best known for playing Jack in The Pillars of the Earth, was a bracing surprise, for his screen charisma and excellent singing. But the biggest and most welcome surprise was the cameo of Colm Wilkinson as M. Myriel, the saintly bishop whose gifts of candlesticks and forgiveness purchased Jean Valjean’s soul for God, launching the miracle of his new life and pilgrimage of faith. Wilkinson reminds us of the possible heights an actor can reach in portraying the soul of a great man. Hugh Jackman embraces this challenge wholeheartedly and seems to understand the moral choices that beset Jean Valjean as well as the prayerfulness with which he approached those choices. As it did for Wilkinson in the stage musical, Jackman’s best moment arrived in the pivotal song, “Bring Him Home.” And so Jackman fulfilled the role, especially its greater physical demands in the film. Was he a “revelation” in the role? Perhaps not. But like Jean Valjean, he proved himself utterly faithful to it.

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