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The Long Yellow Brick Road to Theatres

Producer Bonne Radford explains the genesis behind Dorothy’s Return to Oz.

Dorothy and friends return to the screen in ‘Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return.' All images courtesy of Summertime Entertainment.

This Friday, the wonderful world of Oz makes its way back to the big screen in the form of a family-friendly, CG animated musical.  Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return has been a journey of discovery for animation veteran Bonne Radford, whose credits include The Road to El Dorado, Curious George and Balto.  Producing along with brothers Roland and Ryan Carroll, Radford helped coordinate the various parties in this international production directed by Daniel St. Pierre and Will Finn.  And she’ll be the first to admit that getting it all done hasn’t been as easy as clicking her heels together three times.

“We started in 2007 with nothing,” she recalls.  “It was the outline/screenwriting stage.  There were two years spent on visual development, which is pretty par for the course, and we expected a two-to-three year production process.  It went a little beyond that, but not too much. We were working continuously.”

Radford first joined the project after learning the Carroll brothers of Summertime Entertainment were looking to dip their toe into the world of animation.  “They’re from Chicago and that’s where L. Frank Baum was from, so they used to walk through Oz Park and see the statues of his characters.  They acquired the rights to his great grandson’s series of books, so there is a legitimate kind of connection to the source material.”

Dorothy’s Return, based on the Roger S. Baum book Dorothy of Oz, sees the young Ms. Gale (Lea Michele) reunite with her friends the Scarecrow (Dan Aykroyd), Tin Man (Kelsey Grammer) and Lion (Jim Belushi) in an effort to save Oz from a jester with delusions of grandeur (Martin Short).  Similarly, the film brought together a variety of artists from across the animation industry.  “We had a lot of former Disney people that were on our crew, and also people who had worked for DreamWorks or Amblimation, which is my original source,” Radford says.  “Thanks to technology, people can work from a distance, so we had visual development done in Canada and England and then moved into the pre-production phase at Ken Duncan’s Studio.  He took over character design at that point.”

The Tin Man, from concept art to final render.

The task of animating the feature was ultimately assigned to Prana Studios in Mumbai, whose previous credits included the Tinker Bell series of direct-to-DVD projects.  “I know how difficult it is to have a robust feature production pipeline, so my criteria was that whichever studio we were going to work with had to have done longform.  Prana had a very good reputation for their feature work on the Disney fairy movies, so we knew they had that pipeline already in place.  The fact that they had an LA office also afforded us the ability to have the kind of technological connection that was going to make it easier too,” she points out.  “They had a timeline for their growth that coincided with our needing someone to do longform at the theatrical level.  Their animators in particular were getting to be quite good and they continued to grow and get better and better through doing this.”

The creative team took regular trips to ensure lines of communication stayed open during the development of the picture.  “It’s a beautiful studio they have there in Mumbai - nine thousand square feet, really beautifully designed and very conducive for high productivity and creativity,” she continues.  “We had an American animation director who was a Disney/Pixar guy, Dougg Williams.  He probably spent a total of five months there going back and forth and doing swing shifts.  He was awake in the middle of the night so he could have direct conference calls with them.  Fortunately in India they speak English, which makes it much, much easier, but if you're just giving a note that’s then being translated or delivered to the artist the following day or in the next twelve hours, they can take it quite literally because you're not there to have a dialogue with them.”

The Jester (Martin Short) does his best to intimidate Glinda (Bernadette Peters).

The fact that the film is also a musical created additional challenges for the team, though they were the kind Radford likes best.  “It’s something that I’m really drawn to,” she admits with a laugh.  “I mean, El Dorado, which I produced, was a musical with music by Elton John and Tim Rice.  Coming from that kind of illustrious company for me was wonderful.  Then, we did Curious George with Jack Johnson doing the songs and music.  He is in his own right just really wonderful and innovative.  Toby Chu is our composer on Legends of Oz and he is about to break out in my opinion.  He came up through the ranks with Harry Gregson-Williams [Shrek Forever After] and Hans Zimmer [Monsters vs. Aliens] and did a lot of work with DreamWorks Animation, so he was very familiar with the process.  It does require a lot more music, though,” Radford notes.  “It’s fairly wall-to-wall versus a live action movie.  This is his first big orchestral score for an animation and it’s wonderful, and our songs are great,” she says, hinting at the tunes penned by Bryan Adams, Tift Merritt, Jim Vallance and Jim Dooley.  “It actually sets us apart from other animations, because there aren’t that many animated musicals anymore.  Now there are other successful live action musicals, but animated ones aren’t being done as often.”

Audiences have probably noticed a lack of songs in the trailers for Dorothy’s Return.  Radford confirms that was a deliberate decision on the part of the marketing team to keep from alienating the younger male demographic.  “My understanding of it is that they’re looking at the Frozen model, which is to wait until the movie comes out and then start to really play on those other elements of the film that they haven’t put in the advertizing so far.”

Trailers have also stirred up some concern over the film’s aesthetics.  In a marketplace full of DreamWorks and Pixar-level CG animation, can Prana’s work really hope to compete?  Radford seems to think so.  “I think China County’s really spectacular and we don’t really show that in the trailers at all.  The textures and the actual elements within the County along with the porcelain characters and the Winkies are really spectacular.  There’s a great introduction song with the China Princess [Megan Hilty] and a suitor procession that’s really fun, and then there’s the disaster that the Jester creates – you’ll have to wait and see it, though!”

Wiser the Owl (Oliver Platt) frolics with Dorothy and Toto.

Other locations featured include the Wicked Witch of the West’s now vacated castle and Candy County, a land of sugary delights.  “The challenge was to create a place with an almost impossibly high degree of originality but still have the audience feel like it’s a place they’ve been to in other stories.  It still needed to feel right.”

It was that determination to deliver a balanced final product that saw the film delayed. “The Carroll brothers were supportive of increasing the production value if it meant achieving excellence with the movie’s content.  We would come and say ‘well you could do this if we…’ and they would go back to their investors and say, ‘here’s what we want to do’.  We just kept raising the bar on it because we wanted it to be outstanding.”  Finally settling on a release boiled down to a matter of securing proper distribution for the picture, she explains.  “There was also a crowded market-place.  We looked for the ideal time to release it and that pushed it out a bit further.  We wanted it to get the attention that it deserves.”

The film itself was completed a year ago, in time to have its debut at the 2013 Annecy International Animated Film Festival, where it was nominated for Best Animated Feature.  Since concluding her work on the soundtrack in December, Radford has begun planning the next chapter in the Legends of Oz franchise.  “We hope the audience feels like they want to see more!  We’re well into the development process on the second feature”, she states.  “We have a jump on it should we get the go-ahead to make it at whatever level the box office will dictate.”

Toto encounters a magical fire hydrant in Candy County.

All of which begs the question: are audiences ready for another trip to the Emerald City so soon after Oz: The Great and Powerful took such a critical drubbing in 2013?  Bonne isn’t worried there either, saying the film’s considerable box office take “showed that people are still interested in Oz and want to see something good.”  Hollywood, she notes, has also never lost its love for the characters once made famous by Judy Garland and Margaret Hamilton.  “The 1939 movie had a powerful impact on the film industry and some of the famous lines from it are continually spoken.  It was in Philomena…it’s just around.  People refer to it constantly.  So, I think audiences really want for an Oz project to be good because Oz is a wonderful magical place.  And our film is good.  It’s really solid and I’m very proud of it.”

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Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return opens this Friday May 9th in the US and Canada, and on May 23rd in the UK.

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.