Toto, We Should Have Stayed in Kansas
Probably everybody has seen the original "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), one of the golden films of the golden year of Hollywood history. Golden is the word, because some believe that back in 1900 natural storyteller L. Frank Baum was writing a thinly veiled parable about the gold standard. Gold was a popular topic of discussion then due to the perennial candidacy for President of William Jennings Bryant, famous for his 1896 "Cross of Gold" speech. In fact, that is a doubtful interpretation, an over-reading of the symbolism in "Oz," but it shows that there is depth to the story and multiple interpretations, a sign of good literature that makes you think.
|The rainbow symbolism is a bit dodgy without Judy Garland singing the song|
Well, "Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return" (2014), an animated feature film directed by Will Fine and Dan St. Pierre and written by Baum's great-grandson, Roger S. Baum, is not going to get multiple interpretations. It is a standard sequel, adding nothing to the original and simply allowing theatergoers to spend more time with familiar characters. Now, if it were Judy Garland and Ray Bolger on the screen and this were 1940, that might not be such a bad thing. However, in "Legends" we are left with rote animated figures and standard tv actors as voice actors doing standard tv gags, and it just isn't very special.
|The Good Witch, Glinda, is one of the few good things about "Legends of Oz"|
Having found her way back home, Dorothy and Toto discover that the farm is devastated and that the government is evacuating everybody for safety. Not liking what she sees, Dorothy is abducted by her friends in Oz, namely the Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Tin Man, via a Rainbow Transport Beam. They have brought her back because they - and all of Oz - are in grave danger.
|Dorothy with Fruit Stripe Lawyer in Candy Court - please leave the lawyers in Kansas|
It turns out that the Wicked Witch of the West (now deceased, of course) had a kid brother, the Jester, who is not too happy about what happened to big sis. He has converted her broomstick into a scepter and is using it to take over Oz. By converting important people into marionettes, the Jester intends to remove all opposition and finish what his sister had started.
Dorothy needs allies to fight the Jester, and she gets them when she meets an owl named Wiser, a stuck-up princess, marshmallow soldier Marshal Mallow, and Tugg, an elderly tree. They all get together and... well, you can figure it out from there.
|The boys are all tied up, they'll have to get back to you.|
Just like the original, this is a film about distinct characters. Producer Summertime Entertainment assembled an A-list cast for "Legends" which is its premier selling point. While Lea Michele is the ostensible lead as Dorothy, Martin Short as the Jester provides all the action and has the best lines. Every time Dan Ayckroyd says something as the Scarecrow it's hard not to think of "Ghostbusters," and you keep waiting for Patrick Stewart as Tugg to say "Make it so." Jim Belushi makes little impression as the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr is an impossible act to follow), while Kelsey Grammer gets it all wrong as the Tin Man, who is supposed to be an old softie, not an action hero.
|Martin Short rules in "Legends of Oz: Dorothy Returns"|
It's easy to be critical about this film, and I hate doing that, but the truth will out and here I go. First, the CGI animation is terrible for anyone who has seen "Frozen" or "The Lego Movie" or, actually, any top animated feature film of the past decade. The art of animation is moving fast, and it has left "Legends" behind. Second, the plot has promise, but the execution is horrendous. The original "Wizards of Oz" was about a magical journey which was completely explained and understandable as something arising from Dorothy's subconscious. It was not real, as the movie pointedly revealed in the final scene, it was simply a young girl's imagination running wild in the depths of delirium. There were no "magic beams" and no need for the town to be condemned - and there was no FEMA to send people to camps back in 1939. Also, it looks as if they studied "Alice in Wonderland" just a bit too closely when creating the environment for "Legends," as the distinctions between Oz and Wonderland are few and far between in "Legends."
|The romance between Marshal Mallow and Princess works beautifully|
Third, the original worked because of Dorothy's childish innocence. She is constantly befuddled and feeling her way in an unfamiliar environment, which gives her an enduring charm. There were no sarcastic asides as Lea Michele tosses off, and Dorothy triumphs through a well-intentioned accident of fate with unintended consequences, not because she's some kind of action hero or rabble rouser. She was reacting, and she only triumphs because of her inherent goodness. That childish innocence and wonder which made "The Wizard of Oz" perhaps the best children's film of all time is completely absent in "Legends." Fourth, "The Wizards of Oz" was a fantasy musical, and here's a quick test: do you remember how "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" goes? Probably yes. How about any other songs from the 1930s? Probably no, or very few. Lea Michele attempts to sing some songs, and I can guarantee you that nobody in 75 years is going to remember any of them. Finally, the trio of the Tin Man, The Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion were the rock of "The Wizard of Oz," and doing a sequel without them as movers and shakers as in the original is a bizarre choice which completely ruins "Legends." They only appear together at the beginning and end of the film, and that's not enough.
|Oz has a forbidding look which is a bit off|
The list of positives is a bit shorter. The animation, while weak, is very colorful and bright, with stylized characters that sort of work (but also look a bit too much like dolls). Martin Short gets off some great hammy lines that you will remember after the film, which is quite a feat in this mess. "Legends" is the best thing Short, a terribly underrated and mis-used comedian, has done in years. There's also a cute romantic subplot involving Marshal Mallow (Oliver Platt) and the Princess (Megan Hilty) which is fun. It would have been intriguing for Dorothy to find love, but, well, she doesn't. Perhaps they felt that would have detracted from her status as action heroine, which would be a stupid reason, because its absence lends a certain sterility to the film which makes you wonder what, exactly, is the point. Romance is good, and not just between a girl and her dog. Oh, and to the producers, I just want to say a big thank you for not giving Toto a voice and an attitude and maybe some karate moves. I don't think I could have sat through the entire film if you had. Thank you so much for resisting the temptation.
|Stay home next time, Dorothy|
Young children who don't have memories of the original may enjoy this film a lot more than others, but most older folks are likely to be disappointed unless they enjoy visiting the scenes of accidents and toting up the damage. Below is the trailer for "Legends of Oz: Dorothy Returns."