The Sci Fi Channel is off to see the wizard

Rick Kushman
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

A handful of stories pop up in the culture over and over, often in new, and sometimes wild, incarnations, and one is surely the tale of "The Wizard of Oz."

The 1939 film was based on L. Frank Baum's 1900 children's book, and it's come back in all sorts of versions, including the Broadway plays "The Wiz" and "Wicked," and, of course, the 2005 TV movie "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz."

Sunday night, Sci Fi Channel takes another whack at it with the three-part, six-hour miniseries "Tin Man" (at 9 EST, continuing at 9 on Monday and Tuesday), that is nothing like any of the others. It's only barely, and I mean barely, connected to anything in the Oz of Dorothy, Toto and the great and powerful wizard of Emerald City.

This film, in fact, is very Sci Fi Channel, for better and worse. First, it's not a kid's movie. There's darkness, evil and violence. There are also the flying monkeys, who are, frankly, pretty cool, but also not for kids.

And it's nothing about a lost but plucky heroine trying to get home. "Tin Man" is, instead, a classic sci-fi story with a very mean sorceress-queen trying to take over a world - an alternative universe called the Outer Zone, or, say it with me, The OZ - and she's facing the usual band of misfits leading what amounts to be a rebellion.

But it's also too derivative of so many science fiction adventure movies. There are streaks of "Star Wars," "Lord of the Rings," "Blade Runner," and every Western revenge story running through this thing, and there's a disconnected feel because of that. The story leaps from scene to scene, and plot device to plot device, as if it's more a tour of the world of science fiction than on The OZ.

"Tin Man" does settle into a better tale after the first night, and one of the best tricks throughout is the collection of twisted little links to the original Oz. In that misfit band, for instance, the Dorothy-like person is DG (Zooey Deschanel), a small-town waitress who is, of course, much more than she seems. She, apparently, has been to The OZ before.

She hooks up with a guy (Alan Cumming), who's had his brain removed by the sorceress; a sort of lion (Raoul Trujillo), who's a furry something-or-other and psychic, and a tin man (the always sterling Neal McDonough). He's a former cop whose family was destroyed by the sorceress. In The OZ, they call cops tin men.

Deschanel is at her best when she's befuddled by events, and she gives the film some life, but the centerpiece turns out to be the wicked queen-sorceress, Azkadellia (Kathleen Robertson), who's really, really bad.

Robertson plays her sorceress with both smooth malevolence and camp. She's part vixen, part James Bondian villain, part modern brat, and there's a moment when she confronts DG and you're just begging for her to say, "Welcome to The OZ, uh, witch."

And those flying monkeys - her best friends - rest as tattoos on her chest, which Azkadellia is not shy about showing. Remember, this is the Sci Fi Channel. A big target audience for them is teenage boys and young men. Slightly older men won't mind, either.

While the look of "Tin Man" is derivative of so many sci-fi stories, too, it does make for a total re-imagining of the Oz adventure. So the old road has a few yellow bricks here and there, but Central City, which is run-down and grimy, is anything but a shining emerald, and the wizard (Richard Dreyfus, who clearly enjoyed this role) is a guy doing a magic act.

All the pieces are there for a grand old tale and an epic adventure, and, at times, "Tin Man" gets there. But it's also disjointed, and it needs a bigger dose of pizzazz. Or swashbuckling. Or something.

Robertson is at times dazzling in her cool, forceful badness, but even she looses oomph after repeatedly faking the sweet little girl before turning vicious, and after repeatedly dissing her quivering followers with Darth Vaderlike disciplinary measures.

And though it has a few clever moments, "Tin Man" could use a lot more wit. Much of the film is shot darkly in the way of so much science fiction, and the tone is more serious than it needs to be in a sprawling story like this. A touch of irony here and there goes a long way over six hours.

Still, if "Tin Man" is missing that pop that makes for epic adventure movies, it's an entertaining-enough journey through territory that's both familiar and new.


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