November 30, 2007

Sci Fi’s `Tin Man’ is a Darker Take on `Oz’

And her little dog Toto, too.

"Tin Man" doesn't miss a familiar trick from "The Wizard of Oz" as Americans have come to know and love it _ which means the 1939 movie musical starring Judy Garland as the prairie farm girl who yearns to go "over the rainbow."

There are no songs, though, in Sci Fi Channel's dark new "re-imagining" of their shared source material _ L. Frank Baum's classic 1900 children's fantasy novel "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."

This six-hour film (Sunday-Tuesday, 9-11 p.m. EST) from the studio of miniseries maven Robert Halmi Sr. ("Gulliver's Travels") does indeed revolve around a Midwest farm girl (who's not a sweet teen but a rebellious motorcycle-riding young adult). And she gets magically transported to a fantastical world populated by weird characters. There are "little people" to greet her (not Munchkins, but weird-colored creepy forest creatures dangling from ropes), and a yellow brick road to follow (not glistening toward the horizon, but almost invisible into the woods in serious disrepair).

Of course, she gradually collects three loyal companions who lack heart, and brains, and courage. And angers a vicious villainess who tries to grab the girl's goodies by unleashing a crew of scary flying "monkeys" (actually creepy bat-like creatures). There's even a good "witch," of sorts, someone the girl once knew, and lost, and who reconnects to help her realize how the goal she pursues lies within her already.

But "Tin Man" also serves up pieces of "Star Wars,""Harry Potter,""Metropolis,""Dune" and other fantasy worlds that have found their way into pop culture through the past century. It's a distillation of far-flung imagery already inhabiting our collective subconscious.

We're definitely not in Kansas anymore. But we're not in Oz, either. This adult story takes place in the bleak O.Z. _ The Outer Zone _ a two-sun land of sci-fi banishment that a sorceress queen hopes to plunge into eternal darkness during a double eclipse, a fate that can be averted only by our heroine, D.G. (the initials of original Oz girl Dorothy Gale).

And these two combatants have a backstory. Dry wit D.G. and sinister dominatrix Azkadellia share a distant history, a profound tragedy and an eternal link, in the best "Star Wars" style. Each must in some way redeem herself, and so must the various characters D.G. encounters along that disused forest path where yellow bricks peek through the dirt. Everyone in this world is connected, through family ties or social experience, and pre-destined to match wits as overlords or in the resistance.

That resonant texture is the key to the iffy proposition of asking a new generation to embrace the Oz template as their own, says "Tin Man" co-writer and producer Craig Van Sickle. Yes, this production reflects modern language, mature attitudes, and all the spiffy computer-generated imagery a cable TV budget allows.

But some earlier attempts at rethinking Baum's universe have foundered, Van Sickle thinks, because they "haven't reinvented the world to the point where it can stand on its own. (The Sci Fi team) all agreed that we really wanted to just cut loose and reinvent a world that we'd never seen before."

"Since the book itself is such a classic," explains his writing-producing partner, Steven Long Mitchell, "it allows itself to be reinterpreted or reinvented. The iconic nature of all those characters is so strong."

"We just felt it had to be a big reinvention," emphasizes Van Sickle, "with the touchstones that we know so well from the books inside, embedded. So as you're watching, you can recognize those, but you're in a whole different story, a whole different world."

Zooey Deschanel, who stars as D.G. _ a rural diner waitress yearning for a wider world _ wouldn't go there at all when she was asked during TV critics' summer press tour about "Tin Man" vs. "Oz"-movie parallels.

"I wouldn't even compare it," said the 27-year-old from "Elf" and "Almost Famous.""It's like completely going back to the original material (Baum's book), and taking cues from a very different genre of film," Deschanel says. "I tried to approach it like it was an entirely new story."

Which in gut-level ways it is. The Oz tales we're familiar with have largely been children's or at least family stories. "Tin Man" is much more grown-up, not only in terms of imagery and vehemence, but in the relationships and motivations of the characters. The title traveler, for instance, is not literally made of metal; he's a human found in the forest by D.G. locked inside an iron suit, a torture device employed by the evil queen's storm troopers.

Played by Neal McDonough ("Boomtown"), this prisoner was once himself a law enforcer called "tin man" because of his badge, and he's haunted by having failed to prevent the troopers' brutal attack on his wife and son. The scarecrow here, embodied by lively stage/screen personality Alan Cumming ("Cabaret,""X2"), is a former top-level technical adviser of the realm, who has literally lost (much of) his brain after the queen excised it to operate the apparatus he'd designed.

Even that evil Azkadellia, played sleek and sexy by Kathleen Robertson ("Hollywoodland"), isn't bad just because. "Why would someone be this way, be this evil, why would someone have these sort of heightened, extreme emotions? We really kind of approached it from the inside out," Robertson says. "It was about understanding why these characters did what they did, and what they wanted, and what their dreams were."

Sci Fi's title is thus more accurate, too. The Wizard here, played by Richard Dreyfuss, is a comparatively minor character. And the Tin Man doesn't merely get more screen time. He is plainly the heart of the tale.

"As we delved into these characters," says writer Mitchell, "what we realized was that character's heart was really what the entire story was about. And in this movie, everyone's heart is really what it's about. We felt it would be symbolic to the iconic nature of what we wanted to do. It is about heart, and love, and commitment, and family."


Some various incarnations of the Wizard of Oz:


_"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" (1900). L. Frank Baum's children's novel introduces the Kansas farm girl named Dorothy and her fantastical journeys with her humanlike fellow travelers the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion. Baum would write 13 sequels to this family favorite, and the original would be translated into dozens of languages.


_"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" (1910). This surviving silent short, aired occasionally by Turner Classic Movies, was filmed after the book had already been adapted in live theater presentations.

_"The Wizard of Oz" (1925). A broadly played feature-length version, made just before "talkies" hit the industry, adapted Baum's story very loosely and bombed at the box office. Directed by slapstick comic Larry Semon, he played the Scarecrow, with Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man. TCM also airs this version.


_"The Wizard of Oz" (1939). Judy Garland stars as Dorothy in a lavish early-Technicolor movie from MGM, with original songs including "Over the Rainbow" by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. The film's original release was not considered successful, and its now-classic reputation grew only in the 1960s, when watching its annual TV airing became a family tradition. (Upcoming airings are on TNT: Dec. 22 at 7 and 9:15 p.m.; Dec. 23 at 5:45 p.m.)


_"The Wiz" (1975). Stephanie Mills starred as Dorothy in this hit black-cast Broadway musical including such original songs as "Ease on Down the Road." Diana Ross played the role as an adult schoolteacher in a disappointing 1978 movie version directed by Sidney Lumet and also featuring Michael Jackson and Lena Horne. (Next airings are on digital channel WMax on Saturday, Dec. 1 at 4:30 p.m.; Tuesday, Dec. 4 at noon; Tuesday, Dec. 18 at 5:30 a.m.; Thursday, Dec. 20, 4:15 p.m.; Christmas Day, 1:45 p.m.)


_"Wicked" (2003). Songwriter Stephen Schwartz's current Broadway musical adaptation, based on Gregory Maguire's adult novel "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West," reconfigures Baum's story from the "villain's" perspective. Its structure traces the conflicting destinies of the "good" and "bad" witches, originally played by Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel.