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the road to oz

10 july 2007

This has been a summer of movie sequels, some of them mildly entertaining and some of them dreadful. The entertaining / dreadful dichotomy is perhaps best exemplified by the contrast between Ocean's Thirteen and Shrek the Third. The reason why the George Clooney heist-fest is good and the Mike Myers ogre vehicle is awful can perhaps be expressed as a Malthusian law of sequels. Overpopulation of recurring characters tends to strangle the entire ecosystem of the sequel; ruthless draining of the character pool is necessary to keep the fun alive. This dire law has its implications for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but since that über-sequel is still a couple of weeks off, I thought I would illustrate the principle by taking a look at L. Frank Baum's 98-year-old less-than-classic The Road to Oz.

I am reading my way through the Oz books at an unblistering pace (thanks in part to another principle of popular culture: you go more slowly through series you like and are saving as treats than through those that you must consume in the course of duty). The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) is a remarkably inventive book, its originality now somewhat obscured by its familiarity. The Dorothyless Marvelous Land of Oz (1904) is perhaps even better in a lot of ways, with its ditzy hero Jack Pumpkinhead, whose wits are dependent on the quality of vegetable that comprises his current head. Ozma of Oz (1907) has its title princess join forces with the indomitable Dorothy to outwit the callously evil Nome King, and Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (1908) has the little girl and her humbug friend undertake a hallucinatory quest across several magic lands to get back to Oz once more.

The first four Oz novels introduce a teeming cast of characters: not just the Wizard, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, and Toto we remember from the M-G-M treatment, but Jack Pumpkinhead, the Saw-Horse, Jinjur, Tip/Ozma, Mombi, the Woggle-Bug, Billina the Yellow Hen, Tik-Tok, the Nome King, the royal family of Ev, the Hungry Tiger, Jim the Cart-Horse, the Braided Man, and others too numerous to relate, down to the nine miniature disappearing piglets that the Wizard keeps up his sleeve in case he is called upon to dispense sham wizardry.

But you see the problem, which begins to surface in the final episode of Dorothy and the Wizard, where the travellers return to Oz and have to spend the ensuing chapters meeting all their old friends again, ticking off their endearing idiosyncrasies. Some series fans live for such re-encounters. But those of us who want more exciting stories can get somewhat bored by the reunion aspect of sequels.

To return to the summer movies of '07 for a moment, that's the basic problem with Shrek the Third. A somewhat lame Sword-in-the-Stony plot is swallowed up by the need to have some bit for every continuing character that we accumulated in the first two installments: pigs and mice and donkeys and dragons and gingerbread men and Pinocchio and Puss in Boots. They were funny when they piled into Shrek 2 on the heels of the sassy heroes of Shrek. They are not funny when all of them have to crowd around getting one obligatory laugh line apiece.

Hence the shrewdness of Ocean's Thirteen, even if it is a shrewdness partly inspired by the need to keep the salary budget somewhere below nine figures. No Julia, no Zeta, and only a cameo for Vincent Cassel's master-thief character from Ocean's Twelve. One new antagonist (Al Pacino), given plenty of time to develop on screen, and one new dame (Ellen Barkin) in a kind of throwaway part that doesn't require deep investment in any relationship. A fast, funny two hours that seems to pass much quicker than the third Shrek's hour-and-a-half.

In The Road to Oz (1909), Baum pretty much runs out of fast, funny ideas. Two of Dorothy's companions in a new impromptu quest are fairly enervated (Button-Bright and Polychrome), and the third, the promising Shaggy Man who carries a Love Magnet, isn't given much to do. They overcome some rather tepid challenges on their way from Kansas and soon enough find themselves in the Land of Oz. Fully half of The Road to Oz then becomes a round of introductions to all of folks we remember from the first four books, most of whom we've recently re-met at the retrospective conclusion of Dorothy and the Wizard. It's pretty much a "Shake hands with your Uncle Mike, me boy" for the Emerald City, instead of the Emerald Isle.

Which leaves me dreading that most of J.K. Rowling's Deathly Hallows, despite foreboding prognostications, could be taken up with saying hello and saying so long to a wide swath of characters who checked in in one of the six previous Harry Potter novels. Even popping in on all the emeritus Defence against the Dark Arts instructors could take about a hundred pages. It's a fear that hadn't hit me till I read The Road to Oz: that a sequel could fall of its own weight not from triteness or excess whimsy, but from sheer accumulation of reintroductions.

Baum, L. Frank. The Road to Oz. Illustrated by John R. Neill. 1909. New York: Dover, 1986.