A beloved icon of pop culture will join the Saturday morning TV 'toon lineup this week: an animated series for ABC based on the MGM film "The Wizard of Oz."
How do you repackage a classic without offending fans, and at the same time attract young viewers avid for the high-tech antics of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"?
Very carefully, say its creators at DIC Enterprises Inc. "The Wizard of Oz" debuts Saturday at 7:30 a.m. on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42.
"We all felt a great sense of responsibility," said DIC president Andy Heyward. "We felt that we were dealing with something that was almost sacred--not based on toy products or something transitory, but one of the treasures of American film."
He said that there were three possible routes the company could have taken in adapting the 1939 film to a cartoon series: "We could go to the body of work written by ("Oz" creator L. Frank) Baum and not used in the movie, or go to public domain; many of Baum's works are in the public domain now. Third, the only way we felt made sense, would be to use the characters and story line from the movie as a starting point."
Each cartoon will be a variation on the movie's quest theme, beginning with the first episode, in which Dorothy is summoned back to Oz to help her friends. The Wicked Witch of the West, brought back to life by her evil monkeys, has taken over the Emerald City, put a spell on the Wizard and stolen the Tin Man's heart, the Lion's medal and the Scarecrow's diploma.
"Thirteen episodes take them all through Oz," said Mike Maliani, a DIC producer and vice president of development. "They're in Munchkin village, then Fort Nutcracker with wooden soldiers, Pop Land, full of jack-in-the-boxes; Mechanica, where everybody is mechanical--they get caught up in all kinds of adventures as they're trying to find the Wizard.
The film's memorable music will be heard, without the original voices and with some lyric changes: "We're off to see the wizard" becomes "We're off to save the wizard," for instance. The characterizations of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and the rest will be familiar, although animating a legend has been assiduously avoided--Dorothy does not resemble Judy Garland.
"I think we kept the integrity of the classic and mixed in enough new for today's audience," Maliani said. "Kids would be instantly turned off to see something old."
The "new" includes "weird designs, lots of eye candy, vivid colors and updated references," Maliani said. "We changed Dorothy's look, made her look more like (Disney's) 'Little Mermaid'--that type of design."
The idea of an "Oz" cartoon series is far from new, according to Robby London, DIC's senior vice president of creative affairs. The difference this time was that instead of going after rights to the books, DIC acquired the rights to the movie--obtaining them from MGM library owner Ted Turner, with whom the company is co-producing a new syndicated cartoon series, "Captain Planet."
" 'Oz' has been pitched and pitched to networks every year," he said. "But what kids really know about it is the movie. I read the books as a child, but what I remember is Margaret Hamilton as the witch, and those songs. Most broadcasters realized that and it's one reason 'Oz' has not been previously seen on Saturday morning.
"For instance, what's 'Oz' without the ruby slippers? You can't use them without the rights to the movie." In Baum's book, the slippers are silver.
"I don't think kids will be disappointed," said Jennie Trias, vice president of children's programming at ABC. "They'll see the Witch . . . , the Munchkins, the Wizard--everything they remember, at least characterwise."