Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Moonlight Movie Reviews - Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return

Time for another trip over the rainbow, folks...

Yes, it's "Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return". Have you guys heard of this one? Possibly not. I don't have a television service myself, but I hear it was pretty much unadvertised. It seems like a lot of people have never heard of it. Maybe that's why it's doing so poorly. Then again, the reviews haven't been too supportive. But, with a 70 million dollar budget, they should have advertised a bit. There ought to be Legends of Oz toys in the Happy Meals right now, for crying out loud! Though I have seen some nice looking toys from this on Ebay and may have to get the Dorothy figurine at some point.

So, from a company no one's ever heard of (Summertime Entertainment) comes the latest film based on the public domain source material of the Wizard of Oz books. Though, this film claims to be based on a 1989 book (Dorothy of Oz) written by L. Frank Baum's grandson, Roger, so maybe they did have to pay for some rights. Anyway, I have not read that book, and it's been a while since I've read the originals, so be forewarned. I'm gonna discuss this stuff as a guy who is simply a surprisingly big Oz fan for being a straight, 30-something male. In fact, that's why I went to see this film on opening day, even though all I had seen of it at that point was a Facebook page which gave me the impression it was a pretty low budget flick. I'm not sure if 70 million is low budget these days, but while my feelings on the film seem to be more mixed than other reviewers, I do suspect most of that went to the voice talent. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Before I talk about the film, let me say that "Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return", which attempts to tell (obviously) a sequel story to the original Oz adventure, is not the first film to attempt such a thing. There probably have been more than I'm aware of, but the two that come to mind most immediately are Disney's 1985 live-action "Return to Oz" and a 1971 animated feature called "Journey Back to Oz", both available on DVD for those interested.

Disney's "Return to Oz" happens to be a particular favorite of mine, not just because it's Disney, but because it's boldly unique in being a much darker picture than most people wanted. More raw and realistic, though totally fantasy at the same time, full of the expected magical oddities like living scarecrows and clockwork men, a witch with a hallway of severed heads she used when she wanted to put on a different face, and so forth. The flying sofa with a moose-like head known as the Gump was a particular favorite of mine. The movie may have flopped for going back to the books rather than being the lighthearted, musical, MGM-based sequel that people wanted, but these days it has a pretty huge cult fanbase. It's a shame this movie wasn't a huge hit. Director Walter Murch, a legendary film editor and sound designer, never directed again after this, his one film, though clearly he was ahead of his time if one considers the success of current directors like Tim Burton. If you have a taste for darker family films (though maybe not THAT dark by today's standards), definitely give "Return to Oz" a try.

The earlier film, "Journey Back to Oz", is definitely a horse of a different color. Here's a film that seemed to imply that it was an official sequel to the MGM film. I don't know how true that was. I don't think this Filmation feature (that flopped on the bigscreen but found an audience via holiday television airings) had any actual ties to MGM Studios, though maybe I missed something in my research. It boasts an all-star (if very dated) voice cast and does bring back Margaret Hamilton, the original Wicked Witch of the West, though this time as the voice of Auntie Em. It's biggest boast is having Judy Garland's daughter, Liza Minnelli, in the role of Dorothy, and it IS freaky to hear how much she sounds like Judy, particularly when singing. Yes, it's a musical, though it's also done in hand-drawn animation, unlike the MGM classic. One thing it does share in common with Return to Oz though, or at least sorta, is how melancholy it is, albeit in a very colorful and family friendly way, but also a more tedious one. Both films use the witch Mombi as a villain, though in Journey, Mombi looks a lot more like an MGM style evil witch, green skin and all. At any rate, Journey Back is an interesting watch, if less enjoyable overall than Return (for me at least), despite being more promising for MGM fans. I loved watching it as a kid though, because I had a big crush on its animated Dorothy. Then again, I suppose I always had a thing for Dorothy, being that Judy Garland's version was my first live-action crush. 

Dorothy's adventures in the Land of Oz also continued through television series like the one pictured above, which was a personal fave and which I really wish would get a complete DVD release. That "Wizard of Oz" Saturday morning series of the 90's was actually based directly on the MGM film, with voices attempting to sound the same and everything. Was it a great show? I don't remember really, and people seem to say no, but I still liked it (and, again, really dug that version of Dorothy). There have been stranger shows too, like one I've only seen on VHS rental tapes called "Oz Kids" about the offspring of the Oz characters. And, as you know, with the huge boom in Oz popularity thanks to the novel and wildly successful Broadway show, "Wicked", there are tons of prequels and remakes (and even more sequels than I've mentioned) being added to the "Oz" machine all the time! Most recently with Disney's successful 2013 prequel, "Oz the Great and Powerful" (blatantly attempting to be an unofficial prequel to the MGM film), a rather impressive Tom and Jerry movie from 2011 based on the MGM film (with full rights, being from the same company like the animated show discussed above, and also with one of the most gorgeous animated Dorothys I've ever seen), and just this year, an Oz storyline on ABC's popular (and my favorite) television series, "Once Upon a Time". Oh, and then there's tonight's film for review, "Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return"....

Okay, where to begin... Well, first off, as is usually the case, I did not see this in 3D. In fact, I only found this being shown at one Drafthouse theater (because I really don't wanna go to a non-Drafthouse theater if I don't have to, they won't have Drafthouse pizza), and that theater only had it in 2D. So, that's where I went, and boy, was that in a small screening room! There were a few other groups of people there, so it wasn't completely empty. It was around 6pm on the film's opening night last Friday. Naturally, the Drafthouse started things off with its usual, delightful selection of clips related to the film. I wish I'd been able to make it there earlier, because I missed most of them. Saw a bit of the Wiz and a few other things though, like this clip from an old cartoon show called "Off to See the Wizard"...

It wasn't long before the main feature started though: "Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return". I have no idea if the use of a colon there is to imply that the producers might be hoping for some sequels after this one, but I'll be surprised if that happens. Ya really never can tell though, and I'm not saying this movie was all that bad. It really wasn't. I'm getting ahead of myself again though. Let's talk about the plot.

So, it's the day after the Tornado hit Kansas, and Dorothy's family is trying to think about what to do, because their home, as well as the whole town, has been destroyed by the storm. Suddenly, an official looking man shows up and tells them their home (the whole neighborhood, actually) is being condemned, and they must move away. Dorothy is very upset by the idea of leaving her Kansas home, but as she tries to show that things can be fixed, a mysterious rainbow appears and sucks her up, up and away!

The rainbow was a transporter beam sent by Dorothy's old friends the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion, who need her help to save Oz from a new threat. It seems the Wicked Witch of the West had a brother she'd cursed to be a Jester; permanently. He literally cannot remove the Jester costume he's been forced to wear. Therefore, he is known as "The Jester", and he now has the Wicked Witch's broomstick, which apparently was the source of her power. On top of that, he has added a jewel to the top of it that makes it even more powerful! With this, the Jester has captured and transformed the most powerful people in Oz into marionettes, except for Scarecrow and friends, who are next on the list. Of course, Dorothy's arrival changes things. She is the hero of Oz, so she is threat number one, and as she journeys to help her friends, and of course, picks up new ones along the way, she is constantly being attacked in various ways by the evil Jester and his flying monkeys.

And that's the story basically. It's pretty standard, really. Oz stories are usually about the same. It's a road trip, you face challenges and pick up new friends along the way, you make it to your destination and fight the baddie. Kinda like a video game, really. Somehow, I never get tired of them, maybe it's just all the fantasy aspects I just find so fascinating. And, again, there is another pretty cute Dorothy here. They aren't always. Sometimes they amazingly actually make her look as young as she's supposed to be (hence why I never crushed on her in Return to Oz, even though I was a kid at the time too). This Dorothy you can only tell is supposed to be a kid when she's standing next to other humans, which is rare. It's computer animation, what're ya gonna do... Plus, the cowgirl boots are a really cute touch.

This brings me to the first big problem of the movie though. The Kansas scenes. In truth, I actually liked MOST of the Oz stuff. Overall, the film is okay, sorta like a non-Disney animated film from the 1980's. In fact, that's what some of the songs reminded me of. They were a mixed bag, but definitely not memorable at all, and some had that "non-Disney animated film from the 80's" sound to them that made them not so bad. And the visuals in the Oz stuff, despite what I've heard some reviewers say, aren't bad at all. This wasn't Disney or Dreamworks quality, that's for sure, but it wasn't bad at all for some studio I'd never heard of. But, then there was that Kansas stuff. Let me just say it: Everything about the Kansas scenes that bookend the movie (as is traditional) was bad! I mean, so bad... Let's hit the three biggest problems one at a time.

First, the only promotion I've seen of this film was on its Facebook site, which I've known of for a couple months at least. Well, they were sounding a lot like "Journey Back to Oz" by pushing this idea that this was the long awaited sequel to the MGM classic. I mean, maybe they just meant the long-awaited sequel to the original Oz story, but it really gave me the impression it was the old MGM movie they were trying to sell this one as a sequel to. I was buying it for a while too. But, from the very beginning, this movie ruins itself for being a sequel to any existing Oz story, because IT IS SET IN PRESENT DAY! Seriously! I have heard how other reviewers were confused by this, thinking the filmmakers were just not being careful. No, this is clearly SET in present day, not a half-assed version of the late 1890's or early 1900's, nor the 1930's. This movie picks up the day after the tornado... in present day! Let me say, you probably know by now that I hate when animated movies are referred to as "kids' movies" purely on the basis that they're animated, or fantasy, or animated fantasy, or family friendly, or whatever. I definitely don't think that is a fair label for most animated films these days, or for most Disney films in general, and definitely not for several other animated and family films I can name. Just because something is family friendly does not mean it can't be just as enjoyable for adults as for the kids, and it doesn't mean it can't be as smart, artistic, impressive and powerful as any other film. But, you can't avoid that "kids' movie" label when you blatantly pander to children, especially in a huge way like adjusting your setting for them. This movie, from the get-go, declared itself a "kids' movie", and that's sad, because it usually means they are aiming low and simple with everything. It means they aren't going to worry so much if things don't totally make sense. They are going to try to do things that are cool and hip to the child-mind, and they are going to make jokes that mostly aren't funny to people out of elementary school. And, even if the movie surprises you and only does some of that stuff, it still isn't good when it gives you the impression it's going to be that kind of movie right out of the gate.

Okay, so, started out with a lot of concern the second I realized, in the opening credits no less, that this film was set in modern day. The next thing that ruined the Kansas stuff for me was the visuals. Particularly the other Kansas citizens. They were really, really badly done. All except Dorothy! The rest, and Dorothy's Uncle Henry was the worst of them, looked like video game characters! And I mean from an OLD video game. Oy. The two villain guys didn't look as bad, but wow, Uncle Henry! Jeez!

Thirdly, there was the plot taking place in Kansas about the guy condemning people's homes. This was really stupid, and I hate to tell you why, because it will ruin the resolution, but basically, it was the dumbest thing ever... All the Kansas stuff was really bad. I mean, REALLY bad. But I'm still not gonna say this was a bad movie, because the bulk of it I found entertaining and sometimes actually good.

Of course, the bulk of the movie was in Oz, and for the most part, though it wasn't perfect, I liked the Oz stuff. I was a bit concerned at first, because our first peek into Oz was of Scarecrow and Tin Man bickering, and it was not appealing nor well-written at all. The classic trio did not charm as a group, but they didn't get that much screen time anyway. Still, ya wanna see these guys again because they usually are a great team, so that was a little disappointing. Not the first time I've seen these Oz reunions botched though. Never cared for their attitudes in "Journey Back to Oz" either.

As I said, I didn't find the designs or animation for Dorothy or the general Oz characters and stuff to be bad. No, not Disney or Dreamworks quality, but still decent. Some of it I actually thought was pretty good. The China doll city stuff, for example, visibly looked quite lovely and detailed. No, I didn't have much trouble with the visuals. The voice acting was all quite good too, with an all star lineup. I do suspect though, that too much money went to securing great voice talent. It probably should have gone into other areas. Obviously, there were things that needed improvement, especially all that Kansas stuff, but even some things in Oz. To be blunt, the script needed more work. Sure, Martin Short was perfectly cast as the Jester, and I do like the idea of Bernadette Peters as Glinda (though she would have worked well as China Princess, who got more screen time, I think), but as much as I love Dan Aykroyd and Kelsey Grammer, if I didn't know that was them as Scarecrow and Tin Man, I wouldn't be able to tell, and same with James Belushi, Lea Michelle, and everyone else. Patrick Stewart was fine and recognizable though, and if he'll do American Dad, I don't see why he shouldn't be in this. But, it has often been said that great, professional voice actors are often better and probably more affordable choices than expensive, big name actors for most characters in most animated features. Sure, sometimes the part calls for a Robin Williams or a James Woods, or a Martin Short or Patrick Stewart, and definitely sometimes a Bernadette Peters, but don't go crazy. Focus on making a great film, which starts with a great script. The problem with this particular film's writing, aside from the Kansas plotline (which was just purely stupid and insulting), is that sometimes things contradict themselves. For example, the China Princess smashed all her suitors because she thought it was funny, but she was concerned that anyone might have been broken during an earthquake the Jester sent to her city moments later. There are several things like that throughout this film. They are the problems of the film, and aside from the Kansas stuff, they're really the only problems I had with the bulk of the movie. Seriously, I enjoyed most of it, for the most part. 

So, I don't really discourage anyone from seeing "Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return". If you're an Oz fan, you're probably gonna want to, no matter what. If you aren't, well, you'll only wanna see this one if you have kids who might enjoy it. I hate calling any movie a kids' movie. No moviemakers should aim to make something that is simply a kids' movie when they could make something that is great for kids and adults both, but some movies truly are just kids' movies because that's all they choose to be. There are moments in this film when I can tell it could have been better than that, but overall they chose to make it a kids' movie, so that's what it is mostly. The Kansas stuff is just bad though, even for a movie aimed solely at kids. The Oz stuff is mostly entertaining, though it is kids' movie entertaining. But at least it didn't get into the cool catch phrases and fart jokes arena. And no, I don't hate fart jokes, but there are funny fart jokes, and there are kids' movie fart jokes. Anyway, luckily, this movie doesn't have that problem (that I remember). It just has the bar set a bit too low with some of the writing. It's still entertaining and fairly enjoyable, but it's not a masterpiece or anything. So, make of that what you will.

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