Well, that was bollocks. It's the first movie from L. Frank Baum's Oz Film Manufacturing Company and he managed to get it distributed by Paramount, but it flopped and they wouldn't touch the others. Personally I'm not surprised. The film's incoherent, with too many characters and a quest structure that turns the plot into a load of stuff happening at random. Arguably it's worth watching anyway since there's a lot here that's memorable, much more than you'd think immediately after finishing it, but at the end of the day you'll be fighting your way through pointlessness to get there.
Ironically the original Patchwork Girl book from 1913 was one of Baum's favourites. He's said that this was "one of the two best books of my career", the other being The Sea Fairies. The movie version omits the Glass Cat, the Shaggy Man, the Yoop and the phonograph, but it adds romantic subplots in the form of Dr. Pipt's daughter and her shrunken petrified boyfriend. Women who see this doll-like object fall in love with it. This is mental and not entirely in a good way. Maybe I'd better describe the story.
1. Ojo and his uncle Unc Nunkie are poor, because there are no more loaves on the bread-tree that grows in their garden.
2. Dr Pipt and his wife Margolette make a Patchwork Girl which they're going to bring to life with Dr Pipt's Powder of Life. Meanwhile Jessica, the magician's daughter has a sweetheart, Danx, who's one of a group of three white figures who might plausibly be either ghosts or zombies.
3. Mewel the donkey rubs his backside against a tree.
4. Characters go looking for things. So that Jessica can take Danx with her, Dr Pipt shrinks him to pocket-size.
5. They meet weird stuff.
6. Ojo breaks the laws of the Emerald City by picking a six-leaved clover and gets into trouble for this, but it seems trivial since the original offence is so silly and the film never goes out of its way to sell his jeopardy. This goes on for a while and ends up with a courtroom scene.
That's it, I think. I've missed out all the freaks they meet along the way, but none of those make any difference to anything. For a start, the plot is so scanty that I think it was the 47-minute mark when I realised that it was following a quest structure (i.e. had a structure at all). I knew that they were looking for a six-leaved clover, a dark well and three hairs from the tip of a Woozy's tail, but it hadn't occurred to me to put this information into a plot context. It doesn't help that they've broken up the credits and are presenting the different actors' names as intertitles whenever we meet their character for the first time. This is distracting. It helps you remember who everyone is, but it also puts unnatural stress on the fact that this latest character is Jinjur, Jesseva, the Soldier with the Green Whiskers (Omby Amby), Fred Woodward in another panto animal costume or whatever.
There's plenty of stuff I like here, though. The Woozy is a cardboard AT-AT walker from The Empire Strikes Back
, complete with laser vision. Look at him! He's all square! It's a robot in Oz! The Scarecrow shows up at the end, which is good. I'm fascinated by the mad idea of Dr Pipt and Margolette making a Patchwork Girl, not to mention Violet MacMillan's Ojo mixing up a brain Frankenstein-like from bottles marked "Judgement", "Obedience", "Ingenuity", "Cleverness" and so on. "I'm tired of doing my own work! Hurry and finish that Magic Powder and I'll make a servant girl and bring her to life with it." Then there's Raymond Russell's performance as Dr Pipt, which will make you think that either you or he is on drugs until you remember that the character's been stirring cauldrons with his feet for the last six years. He's unbelievable. He walks as if his legs are trying to fall off his torso. He'll go around thrusting his groin like a Rik Mayall character, or alternatively Cat from Red Dwarf
I also like the succession of freaks in the later part of the film, who are fun. The Lonesome Zoop is like the Creature from the Black Lagoon
, but a monkey. Hoppertown is exactly what you think it is, the Jolly Tottenhots are like troll meerkats and I even liked the laughing fat people.
There's weird stuff that's less successful, though. Miniature Danx is irresistible to women, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he's stiff as a board and about the right size for using as a dildo. Seeing women go gaga for an action figure is... odd. Most disappointing though is the Patchwork Girl herself, who I expected to be a Pinocchio-like iconic figure but just turns out to be a waste of space. Baum cast acrobat Pierre Couderc in the role and had him do nothing but hop around like a performing flea, which nullifies her as a character until the Scarecrow falls in love with her at the end and suddenly we've got the creepy drag queen factor of a butch man being coquettish in a circus outfit.
You might be wondering how inappropriate this film is, given the five-star horror rating of the (excellent) His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz
. (Note: as a children's film, inappropriate = good.) I've already mentioned a few of the odder bits, but I also liked Alarm Girl's see-through dress and the Woozy cocking its leg to urinate. That's about it, though. Compared with how you might have been hoping, the film's comparatively tame. It's weird, yes, and I liked the bit where the Hoppers decide that bipeds should have a leg cut off to conform to the law. I also found it oddly disturbing to see Violet MacMillan sticking her hands so freely inside the prone Patchwork Girl's skull, but that's it. There's nothing on the level of His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz
... or indeed the deleted chapter from Baum's original Patchwork Girl novel about a race of vegetables who grow "meat people" for food. Apparently Neill's illustrations show plants with the heads of human children being watered by their gardeners.
The special effects are extensive and striking, albeit not always successful. There's stop-motion animation, which is always cool even when it's this primitive. The Patchwork Girl assembles herself from assorted pieces, then later Dr Pipt falls asleep in a magic cottage reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast
(both Disney and Cocteau). There's also lots of cross-fading and an imaginative sequence for the reanimation of mini-Danx. The effect that doesn't work though is people walking up and down a wall, which is as simplistic as it was in those Adam West Batman episodes and yet manages not to work anyway. It's not clear enough what we're looking at.
Overall, this is an example of the whole being less than the sum of the parts. I'm rather fond of individual aspects of this film, yet the complete thing I ended up finding boring. Patchwork Girl sacrificing a leg was good. It's surprisingly nice to return to the Emerald City and see familiar faces like Ozma, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and so on. Best of all is Raymond Russell, though. Incidentally there was recently another Patchwork Girl adaptation, an animated video from 2005. This one I couldn't really recommend, although it's also in no way a dead loss. I won't tell you not to watch it, but be warned.