Steam Engines of Oz
Steam Engines of Oz 2018
I wasn’t intentionally going down the Arcana studios rabbit hole, but I just happened to see this DVD at the library after returning Howard Lovecraft and the Kingdom of Madness so I decided to pick it up and get it over with. I didn’t have very high hopes for it even though I was about fifty-fifty with the Howard Lovecraft trilogy. In general, I’m a big fan of Oz adaptations and I do like it when they go away from the traditional Dorothy route and get into some of the extended lore even if I technically haven’t read any of it myself. But this suffered from many of the problems that existed with the Howard Lovecraft series, especially the low budget animation and limited quality for voice actors outside of a few notable characters. But this one also suffered from lack of interesting characters or a cohesive story and failed on almost all accounts.
One of the biggest issues with this movie is the lack of anything resembling an interesting character. The supposed main character is a naive engineer named Victoria, but aside from generic kindness, she doesn’t really have any defining character traits or personality at all. She is merely an empty vessel that the plot pushes around as things happen around her. She has a few companions, but they are all pretty much just as personality-less as she is. There’s the wizard Oz’s brother Digg, a Munchkin engineer Gromit who seems awfully tall for a Munchkin, and they eventually meet up with Oz himself as well as the Cowardly Lion’s son Magnus and a few other Munchkins of little note. Digg and Gromit also have no defining character traits other than Digg is kind of a stuffy British type while Gromit is supposedly an engineer but never does any engineering. Not only that, but Victoria herself is supposed to be a great engineer.
Besides the characters, we’re also given a look into a different era of Oz that isn’t given much backstory or explanation. There are basically three different factions. The first is the Emerald City controlled by the Tin Man who has put away his heart and is trying to industrialize Oz and get rid of all magic. He has an army of mostly incompetent soldiers with electric guns, electric swords, giant riding tigers, and eventually robotic flying bugs and soldiers come into the battle out of nowhere with no explanation. Second is the lions who are mostly actual animalistic lions except for three of them who speak and are anthropomorphic with clothes. One of them is the Cowardly Lion’s son voiced by Ron Perlman and while there’s a darker undertone to their initial introduction as they are prepared to feed Victoria to the pride, they end up being friendly for no real reason. Third are the Munchkins who have become steampunk hipsters who also have electric guns and planes but also have magic even though it never comes into play or makes sense with all the technology that they are using. And even though she doesn’t come into play except to move the plot into motion and save the day at the very end, there’s also the Witch of the North and her flying monkeys. In theory, the world is an interesting place with a lot to go on, but it’s never clear what any group’s motivations are and they just go to war because that’s what is supposed to happen in the movie.
The most interesting character is actually the Tin Man. He is given the most backstory, motivation, and character arc out of any of the main characters. He rules from a place of misguided compassion as he calls his prisoners “honored guests” despite the fact that Digg has been in a cell for eighteen years. We also get his original backstory via Oz voiced by William Shatner and the second best character in the movie based on vocal performance alone. It’s great to see that backstory done in a different style with 2D, black and white animation to give it a past tense feeling that works well. It was also nice to see a nod to Return to Oz with a visual cameo by Tik Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead. Tin Man also has the best visual design to him as he very much looks like a steampunk version of the Tin Man, but also still looks recognizable as the Tin Man.
The plot itself doesn’t help matters much either as it’s generally just tossing Victoria around from one setting to another as she goes from the underground engine room of the Emerald City to the group of lions to the Munchkin town back to the Emerald City and back through the rest like a pinball. There’s no real motivation other than a cryptic warning that the Tin Man must be stopped from someone she’s never met before and really has no reason to believe, especially as she seems to be indoctrinated into the Tin Man’s vision of progress. There’s no questioning by Victoria, it’s all just blind acceptance and no real struggle or growth. She doesn’t learn anything, she doesn’t grow up, basically all she does is give the Tin Man back his heart after fighting a battle that likely caused the deaths of many lions, soldiers, and Munchkins.
Besides the lack of interesting characters or a worthy plot, the animation itself is quite bland and obviously low budget. There are a few interesting character designs, but the backgrounds are very low quality and the movement from all of the characters is very stiff and stilted. All in all, it’s such a shame because there is the skeleton of an interesting story here, but it’s all wasted. Not only that, but looking at what’s available to see from the comic that it’s based on, the artwork there is absolutely gorgeous and a far cry from what ended up in the film. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.