Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return arrives in theaters limping. After long delays, endless rewrites and decisions like "let's add songs by Bryan Adams," it finally comes out with a 5 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. What the heck went wrong with this film, anyway?
Legends of Oz is a sequel to The Wizard of Oz, based on a book written by L. Frank Baum's great-grandson Roger Stanton Baum in 1989. In a nutshell, the Wicked Witch of the West's brother, known as the Jester, has gotten the Wicked Witch's broomstick, coupled with a magic orb, and is using it to take over Oz. So the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion summon Dorothy back to Oz, to save everybody once again.
The thing about Legends of Oz is, it's not terrible. It's just not particularly good. The thought that kept running through my mind when watching this film is that the bar has been raised for animated films in the past decade, in terms of both budget and creativity. Legends of Oz just can't quite compete, in a world where even the lesser animated films are things like The Croods and Turbo.
Everything about this movie, despite its $70 million budget, just seems kind of... off. The animation is very video-game-cut-scene-y. Some of the scenes in Kansas, where the people are supposed to look realistic, run into the Uncanny Valley problem, leaving the humans looking like walking corpses. The songs are incredibly forgettable — I know, Bryan Adams, who'da thought it?.
The cast is sort of distractingly wrong. Like Glee's Lea Michele as Dorothy, who sounds like she's going to ask Mr. Schue for a solo at any moment. And Dan Aykroyd as the Scarecrow sounds just like Elwood Blues. On the other hand, Patrick Stewart (who seems to have gotten his name taken off all the marketing) is pretty great as Tugg, a tree turned boat. And Bernadette Peters as Glinda is inspired casting.
But most of all, the story. It seems as though Roger Stanton Baum wrote a serviceable but somewhat formulaic sequel to his great-grandfather's famous book — in which there's a certain sweetness and innocence to help counteract the been-there-done-that feeling. And the movie sort of strips out some of the simple charm of the book (and the original) in favor of a bit more wisecracking and gags.
In the book, Dorothy gets back to Oz via another pair of slippers, but the movie opts to create a big steampunk "rainbow machine" that transports here. The Jester in the book is just the court jester of Emerald City who's gotten corrupted due to the Wicked Witch's magic, but the film tries to make him a snarky supervillain. There's a weird attempt to use military metaphors for Dorothy and her friends, so that they become an army rather than just plucky adventurers. These changes seem aimed at making the film more relevant, but they just make it less innocent, somehow.
I kind of wish this film had had the courage to be sweet rather than trying to be funny, to be honest.
On the plus side, there are some neat visuals here and there — some of the big shots of Oz, like the Emerald City and the Candy Kingdom, are absolutely gorgeous. The big rainbow that scoops Dorothy up from Kansas is a neat effect, too:
Some of the non-humanoid characters are pretty well realized — I became pretty fond of Wiser the Owl, with his weird argyle feathers:
The best you can say about Legends of Oz, though, is it's an object lesson in how brutal the animation biz has gotten for theatrical releases. A movie like this one, with cheap animation and bargain-basement storytelling, sticks out instead of just feeling regular. A live-action film with this level of mediocrity could well have done okay.
I don't have that much more to say about this film, honestly. It feels as though it should have gone direct to DVD. There are dozens of direct-to-DVD animated films at this level, and they don't have to suffer the indignity of getting a Rotten Tomatoes page. When this film does come out on DVD, it will be a perfectly acceptable way of keeping your kids occupied for 90 minutes. It's just not worth the cost of a movie ticket.