[9 May 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
“There’s no place like home…”
Those were the magic words uttered by lost little girl Dorothy Gale as she hoped to escape an unnatural world of wonder and return to her family’s rundown Kansas ranch. After spending time in the enchanted land of Oz, our heroine realized that her Aunt and Uncle, as well as the various farmhands that filled her lazy rural days, were far more fulfilling than a lifetime in a place overflowing with Munchkins, anthropomorphic beings, flying monkeys, and wicked/good witches. Sure, the populace of this appealing place had a certain draw, but this little girl wanted the familiarity of home, and eventually, she got it. Long after Frank L. Baum dragged out his dynasty over dozens of novels, Hollywood had provided the definitive word on the Emerald City and all that lay within. While never comprehensive of the author’s vision, The Wizard of Oz continues to stand the test of time.
It also has taken down its far share of wannabes. Before 1939, there were numerous silent and animated adaptations, and after that fateful year, there were additional takes on the material. But none surpassed what Victor Fleming and his then all star cast - Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, and Jack Haley - managed to capture. Recently, the copyright lapsed on Baum’s work, resulting in a series of revisits from studios such as Disney (Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful) and the Syfy Channel (Tin Man).
Now we get something called Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, an independent production which hopes to make a dent in the lucrative kid vid animation genre. Based on a book by a Baum - Frank L.‘s great grandson Roger Stanton - and featuring new “characters” to complement the classics, what we have here is a horror, a less than successful attempt at animated invention which, instead, plays deader than the Wicked Witch Dorothy 86-ed her first time around the famed Yellow Brick Road.
Our story starts with Dorothy (Glee‘s Lea Michele) returning to Kansas, only to be called back by her pals the Scarecrow (Dan Aykroyd), the Tin Man (Kelsey Grammer), and the now not so Cowardly Lion (Jim Belushi). Seems a new villain, the brother of the Wicked Witch of the West known as The Jester (Martin Short) has figured out a way to turn his sister’s broom into a magic wand, and he’s out to destroy Oz once and for all.
After capturing her cohorts, including Glinda the Good (Bernadette Peters), our fiend moves forward with his evil plans. Dorothy then hooks up with a new group of guides, including China Princess (Wicked‘s Megan Hilty), Wiser the Owl (Oliver Platt), Tugg the Tugboat (Patrick Stewart) and a soldier made out of candy known as Marshall Mallow (Hugh Dancy), in hopes of finding a way to undermine the Jester.
With an artistic style which renders all most all the humans robotic and stiff, as well as a vision of Baum straight out of a direct-to-DVD title, Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return only exists for one reason, to grab some of the cash flowing through that seemingly endless river of revenue generated by animated family films. Let’s face it - you can’t make a billion (with a “B”) dollars at the box office with your musical take of ice and snow and not have the rest of the industry green with envy. Even the most mediocre titles - we’re looking at you Madagascar, Ice Age, The Nut Job, et. al. - can find significant fortunes among non-discerning parents and their aesthetically addled kids.
Now, no one is suggesting that every CG effort be Pixar, but a small percentage of their Oscar winning ways would be nice, right? Well, Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return can’t even aspire to pen and ink Disney circa the uncertain ‘70s. There is no magic here, no attempt by the filmmakers to be creative or original in their thinking. They bring on the familiar Oz faces (though radically redesigned in order to avoid similarities with Warners Bros. court-established copyrights on the original MGM characters) and then toss them aside to make way for a stupid owl, a snooty spun sugar military man, and an equally uninvolving princess. The minute Patrick Stewart’s seafaring vessels speaks, visions of American Dad and Star Trek fill your mind’s eye.
Equally mindless is the music. Though Bryan Adams gets an Academy Award nominee shout out in the press materials, there are actually numerous composers involved here and all won’t know a good song if it stood up in a crowded room and announced itself to the would-be writer. What they do provide is a droning combination of slick commercial crap and half-baked Broadway. Put another way - there won’t be viral videos of international fans singing the songs from this movie any time soon, that’s for sure. In fact, this all feels like a scam, like one of those made by The Asylum mockbusters where a recognizable idea is given the schlock treatment in hopes of an easy buck.
By recycling the familiar while finding enough differences to avoid litigation, Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return may keep the pre-schooler happy, but anyone with more than a brainpan in their head will be bored by this static, uninvolving effort. Even worse, by coat-tailing onto the memory of one of the great movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age, this inexcusable piffle threatens to undermine its legacy as well. Indeed, for everyone who huffed and puffed when Mr. Evil Dead put his imprint on this property, this is the actual motion picture nightmare you were complaining about. To use another age old adage, sometimes, you can’t go home again. In the case of Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, they shouldn’t have even tried.