In 1985, Disney’s Return to Oz, a sequel to MGM’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, bombed at the box office and was derided by many critics as being too dark for its intended audience, despite being more faithful in tone to the original novels of L. Frank Baum. In the ensuing years, perhaps to the delight of those involved with its troubled production, it has developed a cult following. Now it’s 2014, and it would seem filmmakers sought to ignore Return to Oz entirely and release a new direct sequel to The Wizard of Oz, a 3D animated musical called Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return. I expect this movie to do about as well as Return to Oz, financially speaking. Unlike Return to Oz, however, I don’t envision it ever generating a cult – certainly not one that’s likely to stay banded nearly thirty years down the line.
Adapted from the novel Dorothy of Oz by Roger Stanton Baum (L. Frank’s great-grandson), Legends of Oz is tepid and underwhelming, not merely as a story but also as a character study and a work of animation, the latter so on par with a hastily and cheaply produced Saturday morning cartoon series that one wonders how its estimated $70 million budget was utilized. This is doubly disappointing because, if the physical process of animation weren’t a factor, one could easily marvel at the bright colors and delightfully whimsical art direction and character designs. Making matters even worse, the songs by Bryan Adams, Jim Dooley, Jim Vallance, and Tift Merritt are not only unmemorable, they’re so generic and routine in their melodic and lyrical structuring that it’s doubtful they would work even as pop songs on the radio.
The film opens with the Scarecrow (voiced by Dan Aykroyd), Tin Man (voiced by Kelsey Grammer), and Cowardly Lion (voiced by Jim Belushi) using a rainbow machine to bring Dorothy Gale (voiced by Lea Michele) and her dog Toto back to the land of Oz, which is under siege by an evil Jester (voiced by Martin Short), the brother of the Wicked Witch of the West. His scheme to take control of Oz involves turning key figures, including Glinda the Good Witch (voiced by Bernadette Peters), into marionettes and stashing them behind glass display cases. The source of his power, which includes the ability to always be clothed in a jester suit no matter how many he tears away from his body, is a walking staff with a crystal ball affixed to the top.
Dorothy’s journey to save her old friends has her travel from one city to another, making several new friends in the process. There’s a gigantic owl named Wiser (voiced by Oliver Platt), who, because of his size, has lost the ability to fly. From the Dainty China Country, there’s the China Princess (voiced by Megan Hilty), a Marie Antoinette lookalike who cruelly yawns with boredom at all the potential suitors that line up to serenade her and can never speak to Dorothy without sounding snobbish. There’s the militaristic Marshal Mallow (voiced by Hugh Dancy), who comes from a city built entirely out of candy and is literally a marshmallow man. He will quickly become the China Princess’ love interest, despite her attitude problem. Finally, there’s an ancient tree that gets turned into a boat, and is appropriately named Tugg (voiced by Patrick Stewart).
One of the film’s biggest issues is that, in spite of the subtitle and her established importance to the entire Oz canon, it repeatedly demonstrates Dorothy as an unnecessary character. Every time her friends gets into scrapes, they’re able to get out of them without her getting involved too deeply. This applies to the climactic showdown with the Jester high atop a castle turret, which, given how desperately the Scarecrow and the others wanted Dorothy’s help to begin with, is incredibly odd. The more you watch the film, the more apparent it should become that she was included only out of narrative and nostalgic obligation to the audience. Had she been removed from the plot, the film might not have been as accessible, but its ability to move from the beginning to the end wouldn’t have been affected. The bookending Kansas sequences – which, contrary to what was established in the 1939 film, take place in the present day – would be the exception.
We all know about the tornado that transported Dorothy to Oz; it would seem that, in the aftermath of that tornado, Dorothy, her family, and all the other residents of her small farming community, are under threat of eviction from an unscrupulous government appraiser (also voiced by Short). But rather than seek the assistance of qualified federal government agencies, Dorothy spearheads a movement for the townsfolk to repair their homes and shops without any outside help.
Setting implausibility aside, this was, by my understanding, an obvious attempt at politicizing the film, the right-wing claptrap about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps taken to a ludicrous extreme. Some movies call for a political message. Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return isn’t one of them.