Tin Man DVD review

John Moore returns to Oz with The Sci-fi Channel's re-spin of the children's classic, and Kansas is nowhere in sight...

Tin Man

The postmodern fairytale: a timely re-telling and re-appropriation of a classic folk story for the modern age, or cynical easy option for cashing in on nostalgia? A little bit of both, usually… The old ones are the best ones, as someone once said, and the trick that archetypal stories have for recycling themselves in newer, clever (and less-clever) disguised forms is never going to go away, it’s part of how we learn, grow, and teach our children about the world.

Just as The Odyssey gave way to a million other tales, eventually – in a mutated form – providing a template for Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz (think about it: person gets swept away by storm, embarks on a perilous journey home) we have, and we will continue to take the mythology that Baum created and push it further in hope of saying something about the world we live in.

Many will tell you that there are only seven stories in the world, and that everything can be traced back to them… This may or may not be true, look it up. What I am sure of is that University libraries across the globe are packed with theses and academic articles citing all sorts of theories about how our adaptations of folk stories and fairytales reflect society’s feelings on women (straight, gay or neither), men (gay, straight or neither), God (whichever one happens to be yours, or why you don’t have one) the colour of our skin, the colour of other people’s skin, the environment, our bodies, sex, drugs, hummus or the price of light sweet crude. Probably. There are hundreds of them, take my word for it. And if you don’t trust me, ask Sarah D. Somewhere, there’s probably a whole library wing somewhere dedicated to the issues raised by the Pygmalion/My Fair Lady/Pretty Woman triptych alone.

American critics love to cite Oz as an American fairytale (unlucky, it’s Greek, whatever you say…), and they love writing about it. I’ll put money on there being an academic article out there about how 1978’s The Wiz – the Diana Ross and Michael Jackson-starring version of Dorothy’s tale – reflected the growing power of black entertainers within the mainstream US entertainment system, or how it reflected a growing dissatisfaction with how the US films and TV failed to reflect positive role models for black characters – and their attempts to find an alternative cinema (even though it was directed by Sidney Lumet). Answers on a postcard if you’ve read it. If there had been anything interesting to say about 1985’s Return To Oz, then someone would’ve picked that apart too… Luckily there wasn’t, really, so…

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Still, once a film student, always a sad, unappreciative filmgoer: and usually a fool for a re-telling, too. Hence my immediate interest in Tin Man. Well, there was another thing that drew me to it: and we better get this out of the way now… I have a ‘thing’ about Zooey Deschanel; sorry to bring the whole thing down to crotch level, but I can’t stop watching Hitch-hikers. I can categorically tell you that my obsession is not centred around that film’s wonderful re-telling of my favourite books – because it made a little bit of a pig’s ear of it, really. It’s not even for the sublime Vogons, or Sam Rockwell, or Mos Def (who are both great), it’s not even about the Dolphin song at the start. I’m afraid that for as much as I deny it, it’s for her performance.

She’s just lovely: funny, smart, cute and with great comic timing – the section with the Point-Of-View Gun being my favourite… And there was something about the idea of seeing her in Dorothy’s dress and ruby slippers tha… Well, I’d better stop now.Suffice to say, I like Miss Deschanel so much, that I was willing to ignore the fact that Alan Cummins co-stars with her in this adult re-telling of my second-favourite childhood film. Believe me, that’s means I like her a lot. I’m sure she speaks very highly of me too, why wouldn’t she..? It was only a few letters, and those long-lens photos, and the stalking…

When Frank L. Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, around the turn of the century – and later when it was adapted by a team of writers for Victor Fleming’s ’39 classic musical movie, what was expected from a fairy story was very different from what’s delivered in Tin Man. The central difference between the adventures of Dorothy, and the adventures of Deschanel’s DG here, is the central idea of home and what that represents; ‘There’s no place like home’ is the key phrase everyone remembers, implying that no fantastical adventure, no place you can travel, can match the simplicities of a Kansas farm. Tin Man is diametrically opposed to that view, the whole idea of finding your place in the world, the anchor to which the original tale attached is removed very quickly. Tin Man tells you not to be rooted where you are, it tells you there’s a bigger, better world out there and if you want to find it, go find it. The homely ethos of Baum’s tale is completely up-ended. Quickly, we realise that Kansas is not home to DG, Kansas is where she has been hidden, she is out of place there; thus the environment where we begin the tale –the familiar farmhouse, the rolling wheat fields (with a vintage motorcycle replacing Garland’s push-bike) are delivered in the fantastical colours anyone familiar with the film would associate with Oz – the corn glows yellow, reds are exaggerated, when DG puts on her waitress uniform in a clear visual skit on Dorothy’s dress from 1939, she’s bathed in a golden glow. We all smile.

Tin Man is the tale of DG finding her way back to Oz, where she really belongs. DG is not the Dorothy we know and love, Tin Man isn’t the tale Baum wrote, it is a springboard – oh, and Oz isn’t Oz, it’s the O.Z. The Outer Zone. How very T4.

It’s still an odyssey, one that cleverly pays homage to its source material, but it is very much a tale for today, than a re-telling from a bygone age. Visually, the Tin Man is striking, walking a line between the modernity from which it comes, and the Flash Gordon-esque future-deco styling of Fleming’s version. In much the same way that Star Wars took sci-fi and added a layer of dust and some rust, here we’re presented with an image of a once grand world fallen on hard times, of a faded glory now lost. What’s more, in the same way as the look is recycled, and the story recycled, the characters we know and love are recycled too – appearing to DG in familiar, but re-invented form.

Alan Cummins is Glitch (The Scarecrow), Raul Trujillio is Raw (The Lion) and the eponymous Tin Man is played by Neil McDonough – previously seen in American Gothic, The Hitcher and Flags Of Our Fathers, amongst other things. His character – rather than seeing him look like some sort of walking incinerator – is derived from his job, ostensibly a sheriff, a holder of a tin star whose family have been taken by the Nazi-esque O.Z. police force, known as the Long Coats. He was the former guardian of the Mystic Man – played by Richard Dreyfus with wonderfully unsubtle references to Frank Morgan’s performance as Prof. Marvel/The Wizard from the ’39 film, one of many great little telling touches that show due respect – one of the many characters that helps the gang along their way. If you’re wondering about Toto, I leave you to find out for yourself where he fits in. I liked the way they handled it as a funny twist to the tale, but others have been less than complimentary.

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Now is not the time to outline the plot, but it’s a fun adventure romp – clever, reverential and a fitting ode to the source. It is littered with the kind of modern touches you’d expect, some decent TV standard effects, wonderful sets and costumes and generally high production values. There are some decent scares in the plot too, and a cool malevolence to the performance of Kathleen Robertson as Azkadellia, the sorceress whose plans could be scuppered by DG’s return to the O.Z., and who represents the antithesis of what DG stands for, with good reason it turns out.

The problem is that, the archetype is the archetype – and thus, when the story strays from the template, somehow its power becomes diminished. Indeed, by the end of this story, it would be easy to accused Tin Man of slipping in fantasy clichés other than those created by Baum, it’s doesn’t make it less enjoyable as a spectacle, though, and I found the end clever and a fitting climax.

Contained within this disk, are the show’s three 75-minute episodes, plus a modicum of extras – a couple of docs on the making of the series – one a Sci-Fi Special, and the other a ‘With The Director’ piece, both of these come with some interviews spliced in, with the raw footage of these added as an extra feature. It’s not groundbreaking stuff, and a little more from the scriptwriters and the designers is always wanted; I would’ve liked to have seen production sketches and heard the scriptwriters a little more, but that’s me. There’s a blooper reel too, far from hilarious, but a little bit of fun for a few minutes, once. The real gold here though is the story, the way it’s told and the way the whole show looks.

For fans of Oz, Tin Man should be a joy – provided you’re willing to make the leap with the story. I’m pretty sure a knowledge of the original is essential to enjoying it – because as the plot progresses, I felt that knowing the mythology grows in importance too. The look of the show is great, with the sets being universally brilliant – some of the CGI animation is a little weak, but I’m going to let that slide for the sake of the imagination that’s been shown. Daschanel is perfect as the update Dorothy, and dives into the role whole-heartedly, as do all of the cast; providing a solid piece of entertainment. The modern touches to the language and the slightly smug wordplay and reference-spotting that permeates the script does induce some groans, and prevents it having the kind of charm that could steal your heart away, like the innocence of the original can – and ultimately Tin Man can’t hold a torch to it. This is not a surprise, or a damning indictment, because Tin Man is still very good, looks lovely and is well-deserving of its place as Sci-Fi’s top rated show of all-time.

3 stars

Tin Man is released on Monday September 8th

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3 out of 5