New Friends of Dorothy
The first film version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz appeared all the way back in 1910. Ever since then, movies have been trying to revive or build on the fantasy world evoked in L. Frank Baum’s novels. The trouble is, this is a difficult thing to do, as last year’s Oz the Great and Powerful proved. Now comes the animated musical Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, and I’m afraid it’s destined to be tossed atop the miles-high scrap heap of failed Oz movies.
The film is based on Dorothy of Oz, a novel written by Baum’s grandson, Roger S. Baum. The kingdom of Oz is in danger of being taken over by the Jester (voiced by Martin Short), the Wicked Witch of the West’s downtrodden brother who wants to use his evil magic to take back his family’s legacy. In desperate straits, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the no-longer-cowardly Lion (voiced by Dan Aykroyd, Kelsey Grammer, and Jim Belushi) rig up a device to bring Dorothy (voiced by Lea Michele) back to Oz to put things right.
Co-director Will Finn is a Disney alumnus who previously directed The Road to El Dorado and Home on the Range. He gives this thing some clever touches like the Jester being unable to take off his costume because of a curse laid by his sister and the visual pun of a kingdom being bounded by a great wall of china — literally, since the wall is made out of teacups and saucers. When Dorothy is dragged into a candy kingdom’s courthouse, we can see that the courtroom’s floor is made of graham crackers while the roof is a waffle.
Sadly, the characters aren’t nearly as interesting as the décor. Despite a few efforts to render Dorothy’s friends’ new attributes — Tin Man, now in possession of a heart, is a mess whose emotions go all over the place — these characters are pushed to the background fairly quickly, as Dorothy has to recruit a whole new group of allies to take down the Jester. These include an owl who’s too fat to fly (voiced by Oliver Platt) and a marshmallow soldier (voiced by Hugh Dancy), both sorely lacking in personality next to the old crew. A personable voice cast is blanded out, particularly Michele, who doesn’t get to show any of the manic comic skills she has displayed on TV’s Glee.
Good songs might have bailed out this movie, but the ones here are by a variety of songwriters (including Bryan Adams and Tift Merritt), and none of them stand out. Dancy does have an unexpectedly lovely baritone voice, and Megan Hilty adds some personality as a diva-like china princess, but why on earth would you sign up Bernadette Peters to voice Glinda the Good Witch and then not give her anything to sing? Ominous a sign as that is, Legends of Oz isn’t terrible children’s entertainment. It’s just boring.
Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return
Voices by Lea Michele and Martin Short. Directed by Will Finn and Dan St. Pierre. Written by Adam Balsam and Randi Barnes, based on Roger S. Baum’s novel. Rated PG.