Friday, 23 January 2015

Scribble Creatures Spotlight: Return to Oz

It's the new year (well, it's January anyway) so there's no better time to start a new regular feature for this blog! From now on, once a month I will put a spotlight on something - be it book, film, television series, fictional character or otherwise - that goes under-appreciated in the big wide world but I think deserves your attention. This month, we kick off this new feature with a trip to a magical world. And you and you and you'll be there...


I've always been fond of the Oz books. If memory serves, I believe they were the first of the classic children's fairy tale fantasies - the Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan - that I read. Equally, everyone's favourite 1939's The Wizard of Oz was watched over and over again. But my favourite story set in the marvellous land of Oz was definitely Wizard's often misunderstood younger sibling, Return to Oz. While its predecessor is forever lauded, Return is often consigned to 'Weirdest Movie Sequel' Lists. Weird it may be but, rather than being a failing, that is really one of its charms.

Six months after her first journey to Oz (but actually made 46 years after Wizard), Dorothy has been having trouble sleeping so she is taken to Dr Worley's asylum to be cured by electrotherapy. But a storm one night saves her from the horrible place and puts her back in Oz which once again desperately needs Dorothy's help...

For starters, Return makes a cleverer move than most film sequels by actively aiming for something new. Unlike the passable Oz: The Great and Powerful, Return to Oz does not just leech off the original, instead translating elements of the classic film to suit its own purpose. One of the most striking ways in which it does this - at least for a child - is by literally bulldozing through the unhampered gaiety and joy of Wizard's Oz. The shining Emerald City is reduced to ruins and all your favourite characters - the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion - have been petrified into stone. From the off, the film makes sure we know we are in a different kind of Oz.

Possibly the film's most famous attribute is its scares, with many claiming it to be too scary for children. Personally, I wouldn't agree with that as I think its scares are one of the great delights of watching this as a child as well as underlying an important message. There is something sinister at every turn in this film - Nurse Wilson and the screams in the asylum, Princess Mombi's severed heads and, of course, the cackling, creaking Wheelers - yet like all the best fairy tales, this is offset by the knowledge that it will get better. Through the course of the story, Dorothy bands together with some new allies (who could be boring analogues of her more famous friends - Tik Tok = Tin Man, Pumpkinhead = Scarecrow - but they have enough of their own personality to set them apart) and is sure that she will be able to restore everything to the way it should be.

The reason Return to Oz is, I think, unfairly compared to Wizard is because people expect it to be full of songs and cheer. Instead it is a completely different beast, an alternate take on the same ideas. A wonderful, dreamlike film, it emphasises the questionable nature of Oz as a real place or a hallucination by the use of its surrealistic, offbeat stylings. The Wizard of Oz may be a delightful daydream but this is the scary yet meaningful nightmare that never leaves you.


More Like This: 

Tin Man

Return to Oz is by far from the only subversion of the popular Oz image. A few years ago there was this SyFy mini-series remixing of the Wizard of Oz story which employed more overtly fantasy genre elements. Starring Zooey Deschanel, it saw Kansas girl DG sent by a storm to the other world of The Outer Zone to stop the evil witch-queen Askedelia. It's a strange idea, to take one of the very first fantasy novels and redo it with modern fantasy clich├ęs but if you can accept the premise it is a likeable runaround with comic relief coming from Alan Cumming's Glitch, a man missing part of his brain (you don't have to go see the Wizard to have the brains to guess who he's based off).

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

It would be easy to assume that Return to Oz was inspired by Tim Burton's own gothic fairy tale films, if it wasn't for the fact it came out before he was around. While many of his works have a similar tone to Return, the closest film to it in his oeuvre would be Alice, another creepier retelling-cum-sequel to a classic children's fantasy story. It is certainly inferior to Return but it is far from as bad as the critics say, featuring a likeably spirited Alice in Mia Wasikowska and, as ever from Burton, an eye-catching visual style.

Coraline

It really wouldn't surprise me if Neil Gaiman was a fan of Return to Oz, as his work and the film share a similar 'scairy tale' tone. The crossover between the two is no more evident than in Gaiman's Coraline. Both feature capable young girls thrust into a nightmarish other land containing twisted versions of people they know in the real world. The finale of Coraline always reminds me of the climax of Return in that they both feature the villain letting the girl play a game to find an object which will save her loved ones.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Monthly Mini-Reviews: December - Christmas Special

Well, it's that time again. Christmas has come and gone and it's literally only just turned New Year...
Oh, I can't lie. I'm afraid there's been a technical mishap here at Scribble Creatures HQ. This post, my Monthly Mini-Reviews Christmas Special, should have gone out in the first days of January but that doesn't seem to have occurred. I do apologise - I've no idea how that happened. It seems there is a Ghost of Christmas Past in the machine...
And speaking of ghosts in machines:

Black Mirror: White Christmas

It was only natural that Charlie Brooker's techno-paranoia anthology series would get a Christmas special. After all, what says Christmas more than a reminder that the future is just around the corner? Acting as the series' usual trilogy of stories all in one, this feature-length episode serves us three interconnected tales from a chilling near-future (all based around Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall who both give terrific performances). First and foremost, Brooker's writing is once again on top form - the bleakness and the strangeness are cleverly ofset by the razor-sharp wit and satire that runs throughout. The second segment is the weakest and I have to say I saw some of the twists coming but that does not take away from the... enjoyment seems like the wrong word to attach to something so grim. So was it a white Christmas, after all? No, No, it was black. So very black.

Good Omens (radio series)

Following on from the terrific radio series of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere it was a no-brainer to adapt Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's comedy about the end of the world as a festive treat.
The story  - a distinctly British way of approaching the apocalypse - transitions well to the medium, ably helped by the drama's amazing cast. Comedians Peter Serafinowicz and Mark Heap are great choices for the roles of angel/demon partnership Aziraphale and Crowley (though I imagine many are still holding out for Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston if the story ever makes it to film) and are well supported by Merlin's Colin Morgan, Paterson Joseph and Louise Brealey amongst others. Overall, I may have preferred Neverwhere but this was still a wonderful slice of alternative Christmas entertainment. Well, you can't get more 'alternative Christmas' than the Antichrist.

The Golden Compass

I've been avoiding The Golden Compass for years now due to its lacklustre reputation for being a poor adaptation of Phillip Pullman's popular His Dark Materials books. This Christmas, however, I gave in and gave it a go. Sadly the general consensus is right. Clearly made in an attempt to create another Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter franchise, the film has neither the flair nor confidence of those films and on top of that struggles to adapt Pullman's plot to the screen. That said, there are some pluses- if the script and direction are a bit lacking the visuals are terrific as Lyra's alternate world is brought to life with a vivid psuedo-Steampunk feel. Likewise, Nicole Kidman exudes icy evil as Miss Coulter and Dakota Blue Richards makes for quite a good Lyra. Despite these successes, though, The Golden Compass is not quite pointing in the right direction.

The Sleeper and the Spindle

Leaving behind the Christmas viewing, we turn to something I was lucky enough to get for Christmas - Neil Gaiman's latest book! In it, Gaiman weaves together two traditional tales to form an original feminist fairy tale. As the book's blurb says 'no one is waiting for a prince to appear on his trusty steed here' - it is a queen who risks life and limb to save the sleeping beauty in this story. Gaiman's prose is as crisp and as evocative as ever but in truth the book belongs to both author and illustrator as Chris Riddell's illustrations, beautifully rendered in monochrome and gold, are as equally impressive as the writing. I have been a fan of Riddell since reading The Edge Chronicles when I was younger so am over the moon he is now Neil Gaiman's resident illustrator. A true piece of art, The Sleeper and the Spindle is a proper old-fashioned storybook that takes us back to once upon a time...

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Doctor Who - Review of the Year: 2014

Happy New Year, everyone! Now that 2014 has been engulfed in volcanic flames only to be reborn as the completely different 2015 (this is a ham-fisted Doctor Who reference, by the way) it's time to take a look back at the year just past. But this isn't a review of trivial things like world events, this will be a review of what's most important: the year in Who.


Starring: Peter Capaldi (the Doctor), Jenna Coleman (Clara), Samuel Anderson (Danny), Ellis George (Courtney) and Michelle Gomez (Missy) with Nick Frost (Santa Claus)
Written by: Steven Moffat, Phil Ford, Mark Gatiss, Stephen Thompson, Gareth Roberts, Peter Harness and Jamie Mathieson
Directed by: Ben Wheatley, Paul Murphy, Douglas Mackinnon, Paul Wilmshurst, Sheeree Folkson and Rachel Talalay

Best Episodes

Robot of Sherwood
While it won't be one of the most remembered episodes of Series 8, I have a great deal of affection for Robot, particularly the way that it completely ignores the new moodier tone of Series 8 and delivers a hilarious swashbuckling adventure that could have come from any year of 21st century Who.

Flatline
Both of newcomer Jamie Mathieson's stories this year were belters but this one just pips Mummy on the Orient Express to the post. It's a creepy, clever story with a terrific monster in the Boneless and applause must be given for the amount of comedy mileage that is made from the Doctor being stuck in the tiny TARDIS.

Death in Heaven
'Dark Water' was really just a 45 minute long teaser trailer but this second part of 2014's series finale certainly packed a punch. With emotional moments abound, it gave us two well-executed monsters in the Master and her Cybermen as well as the amount of action and surprises as is customary for these occasions. The best finale since Series 5.

To read my reviews of all of Series 8, click here.

TARDIS Team

Firstly, surely the biggest change to the Doctor's character since the show's revival was made in 2014 as Mr Capaldi took over the role. A lot has been said about him returning to the style of classic Doctors but really the Twelfth Doctor is in a league of his own. He may have the dress sense of Pertwee and the crotchetiness of Hartnell but the hatred of soldiers, forgetfulness and gloomier outlook on the universe is new. That said, he may have already developed some of his own quirks but I don't think the Twelfth Doctor is one who has arrived fully formed. Whereas Ten and Eleven began their lives like baby kangaroos and gradually got weighed down by responsibilities and losses, I imagine we will see Twelve go in the opposite direction and have his lack of faith in himself and the universe overturned.
Perhaps for the first time in the show's history, both Doctor and companion underwent a regeneration this year - in a manner of speaking. The Clara of Series 7 was a bubbly young woman still raw from her mother's death when she was younger: she was the Doctor's 'impossible girl' who was absolutely devoted to him. In Series 8, Clara was a much more mature woman, with a life away from the Doctor in her job at Coal Hill School and in her doomed relationship with Danny Pink. Importantly, cracks also began to show in her relationship with the Doctor. The change wasn't a gradual one but rather - in classic Doctor Who style - an instant reboot, done to spice things up. As much of an improvement as it was, the difference in the two personas of Clara is a little jarring. But then, if any companion was to have different personalities it would be Clara 'Scattered throughout the Doctor's timestream' Oswald. As 'Last Christmas' ended with the two still travelling with each other, maybe we will get another regeneration of each character next year.

Story Arc

Ostensibly the main story arc of Series 8 was 'the Missy mystery' which consisted of the aforementioned Mary Poppins making enigmatic appearances at the ends of certain episodes. In reality, though, this was the B Story Arc, relegated to tacked-on scenes. Due to this series' renewed emphasis on character, the real story arc of this year was the triangle of relationships between the Doctor, Clara and Danny. I can't say I was the biggest fan of this 'love' triangle as I think it tilted the emphasis of the show away from ordinary people travelling with the Doctor to a sort of quasi-superhero/secret identity story with Clara struggling to keep both sides of her life in check. However it was a brave experiment that must be commended and resulted in many fine performances from the three main cast members. Next year, however, I do hope the show will once more be about, as Rory once said, 'planets and history and stuff.'
On the other hand, when 'the Missy Mystery' reared its... umbrella in the series finale I was pleasantly surprised. I hadn't particularly been inspired by Missy's scattered cameos but I loved Michelle Gomez' madcap performance as a female Master and, in a series of brave experiments, I count her as one of the most successful. While it would perhaps be a tad predictable to have Missy at the heart of next year's story arc here's hoping she comes back as soon as possible.

The Doctor and Clara will return in 'The Magician's Apprentice'...
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