Did you know that The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, the first book in L. Frank Baum’s long-lasting fantasy series, is in the public domain? As are the thirteen sequels Baum wrote before his death. 1902 saw the release of the first Broadway musical centered around Oz, which the famous movie, The Wizard Of Oz, is adapted from. Other well-known films are Return To Oz, which freaks out kids everywhere to this very day, and Disney’s last big-budget foray into the magical land, Oz, The Great And Powerful.
Beyond the scope of cinema and theater, comics have long kept the land of Oz alive in readers’ imaginations. A quite popular Korean series, Dorothy Of Oz proved to be one of the publisher’s biggest hits in 2008. The Oz-Wonderland War is about exactly what it says- characters from Wonderland and Oz come together to fight a nefarious enemy. A comprehensive list of all adaptations of the books (or at least works that use it as a creative springboard) would take another 2,000 words, so let’s get straight to it.
In 2014, Sean Patrick O’Reilly published a graphic novel set in Oz 100 years after the defeat of the Wicked Witch, with a steampunk twist and intense action. It is now a direct-to-video, CGI animated release, retaining the same title, The Steam Engines Of Oz.
Both the graphic novel and film adaptation follow the good witch Lacosta (Julianne Hough) who has a vision of a land laid to waste and hatches a plan to thwart the destruction. She reaches out to Victoria (Ashleigh Ball), a bright, spunky, strong young lady who toils away day and night to keep the massive steam engines underneath the Emerald City running smoothly. She spent most of her life working on these engines, which have helped push Emerald City into a technological enlightened age. But as the Tin Man’s (Matthew Kevin Anderson) reign grows more draconian, magic is pushed to the side. This causes a rift with the Munchkins, who base their whole way of life on the use of magic. The lions are also on the outs, as the dictatorial Tin Man sees no need for them in Oz’s future plan.
“…set in Oz 100 years after the defeat of the Wicked Witch, with a steampunk twist and intense action.”
After releasing Phadrig (Scott McNeil) and Gromit (Elijah Dhavvan) from the dungeons, they escape past the heavily guarded city walls, and seek out allies such as Magnus (Ron Perlman), Oz himself (William Shatner), and anyone who might know the location of the long-missing Scarecrow (Geoff Gustafson). Upon learning of the prisoners’ escape, Tin Man sends out his troops to find and arrest anyone who might stand in the way of his ideal vision for Oz.
Right off the bat, the thing that viewers will notice, and be distracted by, is the inconsistent animation. Background buildings and vehicles are often single colored and untextured, this is most prominent in the forest, where I am uncertain if the characters are walking over grassy knolls or moss-laden dirt patches. When a prop or vehicle is a focal point of the scene, the extra layers put into it, such as the grip of the rayguns or the gears of the planes make them look passable.
Conversely, the character animation is rather impressive, given the limited means available. A few extras in the background occasionally look stiff, but, for the most part, all the characters move well. The introductory scene to Victoria sees her shimmy, slide, and climb up a massive wall of machinery to repair a cog that has gotten stuck. She moves with ease and interacts with the backgrounds believably.
Due to the smooth movements of the animation models, the action is also rather fun. They all run, jump, claw, shoot and climb in a way that suggests they have weight and gravity affects them. During the massive battle sequence, planes airdrop robots, whose are made to intentionally look like Tik-Tok, and they land a satisfying thud. The character designs, especially of the hulking Tin Man, are quite pleasant as well.
“…low budget does hinder some of the awe the land of Oz…”
Sean Patrick O’Reilly, the creator of the graphic novel, directs The Steam Engines Of Oz from his screenplay. He has directed a few animated movies before such as Pixies and the two kid-centric Lovecraft movies Howard And The Undersea/ Frozen Kingdom. His experience allows for a quick moving film, which rarely slows down for a breath. However, it seems his closeness to the source material may have interfered with his ability to re-tool the story for the screen. It feels like certain things were left in only because they were great moments in the comic, not because they were best for the adaptation.
There’s a moment where Victoria, Phadrig, and Gromit return from their initial outing from the woods and the soldiers see them. Victoria offers herself to return peacefully, provided she gets to see Tin Man. The captain agrees but then states that her friends’ cooperation remains to be ascertained. Nothing about the scene suggests they weren’t going willingly. It is awkward and doesn’t work.
The voice cast does a good job all the way around. Ron Perlman’s deep voice is put to good use as Magnus, where it instantly makes the character formidable. Ashleigh Ball is best known for voicing multiple characters on My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and provides a cool, determined edge to the calm, collected character. William Shatner is shockingly fantastic as the once mighty wizard of Oz. He lends gravitas and weight to the happenings and makes the stakes seem credible. However, it is Matthew Kevin Anderson that is most impressive as Tin Man. He allows the character’s cold-heartedness to come from a deep place of hurting and sells the anger he harbors towards magic very well.
The Steam Engines Of Oz is fun with exciting action scenes, solid character designs, and compelling stakes. Its low budget does hinder some of the awe the land of Oz was created to inspire and, as an adaptation, it may include a few extraneous things best left out.
The Steam Engines Of Oz (2018) Written and directed by Sean Patrick O’Reilly. Starring Ashleigh Bell, Ron Perlman, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Julianne Hough, William Shatner.
6.5 out of 10