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Pre-production of "Muppets' Wizard of Oz" TV movie officially underway

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Pre-production of "Muppets' Wizard of Oz" TV movie officially underway

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Hey, gang

Sorry that this morning's story is so short. But I literally just got in from LA. I took the red eye back to Boston last night. And -- to be honest -- I'm still a little blearly from the trip.

Even so, I wanted to share with you what I'd learned (so far) about the Muppets' next project. I was lucky enough to get a few moments to chat with veteran Muppeteer Dave Goelz last week at SIGGRAPH. And he was nice to confirm that production of "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz"
is in fact getting underway next month up in Vancouver.

But -- beyond that -- Mr. Goelz kept his mouth shut. So I had to turn to some other friends at Disney & Henson to get the rest of the skinny on "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz." This TV movie is being shot at a production facility in Northern Vancouver. And -- as far as TV movies go -- this will be a rather lengthy shoot. Production is supposed to start on Monday, September 13th and continue through October 25th.

The other thing I kept hearing about "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz" is that Disney is pouring an awful lot of money into this TV movie. People within the Mouse House kept saying stuff like " ... 'The Muppets' Wizard of Oz' will be on a par, budget-wise, with Whitney Houston's 'Cinderella.' " That lavish 1997 TV musical actually cost Disney over $18 million to produce.

Of course, the Walt Disney Company was able to recover all of the money that it poured into producing "Cinderella" -- as well as turning a tidy profit -- by quickly putting that TV movie through its Buena Vista Home Entertainment division. And -- based on what I've been hearing -- that's also the plan with "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz." With the TV movie airing on ABC during the May 2005 sweeps period (followed closely by an airing of the special on ABC Family & the Disney Channel), with the DVD of the production being released in late June / early July.

As for the film's production team ... Jim Henson's children are taking an active role in shepherding this loose adaption of the L. Frank Baum classic to the small screen. Brian & Lisa Henson will be serving as the executive producers of "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz," while Kirk Thatcher -- longtime Henson writer as well as the director of the 2002 NBC TV movie, "It's a Very Merry Muppets Christmas Movie" -- will be helming this production.

As you might expect, given that Miss Piggy & pals are involved in this prodiction, this TV movie will be a very loose adaption of the Baum story. Take -- for example -- the film's main character, Dorothy Gale. Instead of being this simple little girl from Kansas, Dorothy is now a young woman who longs to leave the plains for someplace like NYC to LA so that she can begin a singing career.

Of course, her Aunt Em and her Uncle Henry don't understand Dorothy's show biz ambitions. (FYI: Aunt Em, Uncle Henry and Dorothy will all be played by really-for-real human beings. This is a deliberate choice by the "Muppets' Wizard of Oz" production team, with the hope that this will help emotionally ground the TV movie's story.) Which is Dorothy thinks that she'll never escape Kansas. Until one day when a tornado scopes her up and ... Well, you know the rest of the story from here, right?

Speaking of who's going to be playing which roles ... Disney's playing things fairly tight to the vest right now. Even though it's now just four weeks 'til production officially gets underway, a lot of the key roles in "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz" have yet to be cast.

Which actress should play Dorothy seems to be a real bone of contention here. The Hensons are reportedly pulling for Natalie Portman of "Star Wars" fame, while the Disney reps are supposedly pushing for Anne Hathaway of the "Princess Diaries" series. Given that these two sides seem to be deadlocked over this issue, the production's casting director -- Donna Rosenstein -- is said to be searching for a compromise candidate. Someone whose name will bring a little height to the project, which (hopefully) will make it that much easier for ABC to promote this TV movie next May.

Speaking of TV movies for ABC ... "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz" won't be the only big budget TV movie musical that the Alphabet Network will have in production in Vancouver come September. In fact, a week before Kermit, Gonzo & Fozzie suit up to play the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion, Carol Burnett & Tracy Ullman will begin shooting a brand new version of that musical fairy tale spoof, "Once Upon a Mattress."

Given that these two lavish TV musical productions will be shooting virtually at the same time in the same part of the world, there's already reportedly been some talk at ABC about whether it might be smart of arrange some sort of crossover. To -- say -- have Ms. Burnett do a quick walk-on in "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz" and/or having Kermit do a brief cameo in "Once Upon a Mattress." Perhaps as a frog that Princess Winifred the Woebegone (Ullman) kisses in her search for a handsome prince.

Of course, given that "Once Upon a Mattress" is supposed to air in February 2005 as an ABC special during Sweeps, there are those at the network who think that it would be a swell idea to use the Burnett / Ullman musical as a way to promote "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz" (Which isn't due to air 'til the May 2005 sweeps period). Now they just have to convince Carol's people as well as Brian & Lisa.

Anyway ... That's what I know (to date) about "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz." I'm told that -- later this week -- there should be some additional news about the casting of the principal roles of the production. Plus I'll be investigating a rumor that Disney Consumer Products may have already arranged for some "Muppets' Wizard of Oz" related toys to be produced.

So -- as you can see -- it's a pretty exciting time to be a Disney / Muppet fan. Anyway, as I hear more about this production, I'll be sure to pass that info along.

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