Unlike Bert Lahr’s classic humanoid interpretation, the Cowardly Lion in Return to Oz actually walks on all fours. But even though this more recent rendition of the character is decidedly less like a man than its predecessor, care was taken to avoid too much realism. In fact, the first prototype of the lion possessed a greater similarity to its jungle-prowling inspiration than the director Murch cared to see. “Walter wanted something like the big dog character on Sesame Street – something that would walk around on all fours,” Lyle Conway commented.
Yet, as a fantasy creation, the Cowardly Lion possessed a personality unique unto himself. So mechanical designer John Stephenson went to work combining the requisite anthropomorphic qualities with a beast-like posture.
To make the quadruped stance convincing, tensile steel arm extensions – similar to the heavy-duty ones developed for the apes in Greystoke – were added to the body suit, extending from handgrips to about a foot farther down. The paws laid flat on the ground, but the mechanism itself allowed a certain amount of movement; so if it came in contact with an object, the limb seemed to react in a lifelike fashion. The suit itself was primarily the work of Cas Willing – with help from Greystoke alumnus, fabric designer Val Jones – and was made of lycra with padded foam muscles and foam chest. “The whole thing zipped up with a harness inside,” explained Jones. “It was covered with a material that’s actually smoother than real fur, and only slightly less realistic. But that’s what Walter wanted – much more of a character.”
John Alexander, the man who portrayed the Cowardly Lion in its few appearances, actually had to stand on tiptoe because the back feet of his costume were built up to enhance the feline’s haunch-shape. Stephenson tried to make it as comfortable as possible for Alexander by installing supports customized especially to fit the performer’s foot. But then, Alexander – who was one of the apes on Greystoke – was more familiar with the various annoyances that the result from donning an animals skin. “John is incredible,” said creature choreographer Pons Maar, “I don’t think anyone else could have been in that suite and done what he’s done with it – taking the straightforward look of how lions in nature move and transferring it into the costume.”
The costume tended to be rather heavy by nature, and care was taken to eliminate excess weight at every opportunity. Keeping in mind, as well as Murch’s dictum to avoid a ferocious-looking beast, John Stephenson and crew went through an involved evolutionary process in designing the lion’s skull. What began as a realistic and somewhat frightening model eventually took on the unimposing visage of a friendlier beast. Sculpted by Steve Martin – who worked on the apes in Grestoke and was reasonable for the wins and hair in The Dark Crystal – the lion’s head was never actually designed for some of the in-frame close-ups that became necessary, but the finished product was successful nonetheless. “From the original skull, we changed the whole forehead area to make it much higher,” said Stephenson. “Now he’s got a frown, and is slightly heavy-lidded, so he looks just a little worried most of the time. The major consideration was that the head had to be extremely light, which was a major problem. The skull is actually very close to a real lion’s skull. It’s made out of Kevlar, which is lighter and stronger than fiberglass – it’s the stuff they make racing boats out of, in fact.”
The Kevlar cut a substantial amount of weight as did the frame which was made from pierced aluminum. Further weight as eliminated by making the teeth from fiberglass instead of the usual, heaver, dental acrylic. The whole affair was then built on the front of a helmet which was tied to John Alexander’s shoulders with a strong elastic strap in order to transfer the weight from his neck to his shoulders. The actor’s head ended up far to the rear of the lion’s head, just below the mane, with the model’s limited articulations operated by radio control.
Further ballast was avoided when only the small servomotors for the eyes were mounted inside the head. The Bigger, more powerful servo for the mouth was worn on the chest, installed in the rib-cage compartment of the lycra body suit. The servos in the skull controlled the movement of the eyeballs – one on the left and one on the right – while another mounted further forward operated the bulk with a simple on-off switch. The eyes were kept aligned with a special bar that functioned like the axle of a car. “And there was a facility for actually focusing them,” added Stephenson. “We arranged it so that if the lion was looking at something very close to him, we could focus the eyes by twiddling a little knob. Open out the gauges and he’d be looking into the distance. “Even the eyes themselves were made lighter than usual. “Ordinarily when you make eyes, you make a core and then fill it up with resin. We didn’t do that with these. We just used a plastic shell. Basically what you do is make a donut color in painted acrylic, and you drop that into your shell. You then fill up with white acrylic behind it until it’s covered. Then you paint the back of it black, which gives you the depth for the pupil because it’s slightly behind color then. That was enough – and light enough, which is the main thing.”
In spite of the meticulous care given to creating the Cowardly Lion, the character did not weather the turbulence of Disney’s budget-cutting storm very well. “When the film was cut,” John Stephenson said, “the first thing they did was cut the lion out of it. Originally, we were going to do three heads – a close-up head, a light medium-shot heat [the only one finally produced] and then a very light stunt head. After the cut, they wouldn’t allow me to do a close-up head, which is what I really wanted to do more than anything else. Also, they wouldn’t allow us to make a duplicate costume. There are spare legs and feet, but only one body. Yet for all the limitations imposed by the film’s financial circumstances, the Cowardly lion survives the finished edition of Return to Oz.
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