From the moment that L. Frank Baum put pen to paper back in 1900 and swept that first generation of collective and individual imaginations up into a Kansas twister, the stories of Dorothy Gale, her little dog Toto, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Woodsman and the Land of Oz have dazzled and delighted young and old alike for more than 100 years. Baum himself penned a total of 14 Oz stories as well as a play before MGM and Judy Garland dropped in on an eye-popping Technicolor Oz. Since then multiple versions of the original stories have been told and retold in various types of media, not to mention authorized and unauthorized sequels aplenty, including the 1989 “Dorothy of Oz” written by none other than Baum’s great-grandson, Roger Stanton Baum. It’s Roger Baum’s story that screenwriters Randi Barnes and Adam Balsam have now adapted for yet another generation with the eye-popping and engaging animated LEGENDS OF OZ: DOROTHY’S RETURN.
Our story begins immediately after Dorothy’s return home from her first adventure in Oz. Seems that the time continuum in Oz is a bit different than here as months have passed in Oz but it’s only been mere moments since the twister in Kansas. And Dorothy, Uncle Henry and Aunt Em have their hands full. The farm and the town are destroyed. And while Dorothy wants to stay and rebuild, Uncle Henry thinks it’s time to move on. But just as Dorothy runs off with Toto to worry, wonder and, yes, sing, she is contacted by the Scarecrow via a rainbow from Oz. Her friends are in trouble and need her help.
Swept up into the rainbow, Dorothy and Toto are transported back to the Oz where they find things are dark and ominous. Seems like the Wicked Witch of the West had a younger brother named The Jester. Always put down by his older sister, Jester sees her death as a chance for him to be the one to rule Oz and has found a way to turn her broomstick into a scepter with a magical orb that wields magic and destruction on Jester’s command. While Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion have fallen into Jester’s evil clutches, as has Glinda, it’s up to Dorothy to save them and Oz. But where’s the Yellow Brick Road?
Making new friends in Wiser the Owl, China Princess, Marshal Mallow and a tree named Tugg, the group encounters new challenges and adventures as they journey through lands like Candy County and Dainty China Country on their way to Emerald City to free Dorothy’s old friends and restore Oz.
LEGENDS OF OZ: DOROTHY’S RETURN is a fun engaging film that while clearly aimed at very young audiences, delivers wide-eyed wonder and lip smacking smiles for kids and the kid inside each of us. I grinned, I smiled, my heart smiled, I laughed, I teared up and at films end, I wanted to see the next chapter!
Directed by Will Finn and Dan St. Pierre, the animation is vivid, bright, richly colorful overall but the attention to detail is what is truly standout. A perfect example is Dainty China Country. The detail and illustrative design and animation finish had teacups looking like real bone porcelain while China Princess and her court look like vintage collectible Royal Doulton figurines. Meticulous perfection! The specificity and perfection of that one sequence blew me away.
As Disney and Sam Raimi did last year in their live action take on Oz, in LEGENDS OF OZ: DOROTHY’S RETURN the animation of characters, Emerald City, Candy County, China Country, all harken back to the W.W. Denslow plate illustrations of the original book as well as John Neill’s subsequent drawings in Baum’s sequels. The connective tissue of the various mediums and incarnations of the Oz stories is beyond evident, calling on many touchstones to Victor Fleming’s 1939 technicolor masterpiece. Even the design of the Emerald City and the Wizard's room is so distinctive that it could have served as storyboard for Sam Raimi’s 2013 "Oz the Great and Powerful."
Unfortunately, voicing is hit and miss. As Dorothy, it sounds like Lea Michelle took her voice up a couple octaves to sound more girlish. And what is up with Dan Aykroyd as Scarecrow? The voice is enough to give someone nightmares. Acceptable and effective are Jim Belushi and Kelsey Grammer as the no-longer-cowardly Lion and Tin Man, respectively. An absolute delight is Oliver Platt as Wiser whose warm tones - and thanks to story an character construct - harken to the famous friendship we saw develop on screen between Dorothy and Scarecrow through Judy Garland and Ray Bolger in the 1939 “The Wizard of Oz”. The friendship of Dorothy and Wiser in LEGENDS OF OZ is undisputably the most heartwarming journey in the film. Sir Patrick Stewart is perfection as Tugg, “captaining” himself through some dangerous waters in Oz as the age old tree who offers to put his timber to use as a ship to transport our new heroes. Ambivalent is the word for voice casting of Bernadette Peters who, as Glinda, has a vocal range too gravely and too bass for the pretty in pink bubble floating good witch. The real voice casting gem, however, is Martin Short who knocks it out of the park as Jester, making him a cross between Short’s characterizations as Frick in “Merlin” and Jack Frost in “The Santa Clause 3".
Written by Balsam and Barnes based on Roger Baum’s book, the adventures are engaging, the journey fun, the underlying lessons about friendship and loyalty well told, but the dialogue itself proves hit and miss; some is laugh out loud funny tongue-in-cheek, some lifted from the 1939 movie, but then most was off-kilter and uncomfortable as if they couldn’t find the words to construct a sentence. A very disconcerting mix that while kids may not notice, adults will.
While I give kudos to composer Toby Chu for incorporating several bars of Herbert Stothart’s 1939 “Miss Gulch/Wicked Witch” theme music into the score for LEGENDS OF OZ: DOROTHY’S RETURN, the lyrical songs fall flat. There was nothing cohesive between the individual songs nor songs with the score. Each has very different tones that clash with the overall visuals and story construct tonal bandwidth.
But again, despite some of its mis-steps, LEGENDS OF OZ: DOROTHY’S RETURN is a wonderful journey for kids and the kid in each of us, full of twists and turns and twisters, fun and frolic and heart. There's no place like home when that home is OZ.
Directed by Will Finn and Dan St. Pierre
Written by Adam Balsam and Randi Barnes based on the novel by Roger Stanon Baum
Voice Cast: Lea Michele, Dan Akyroyd, Jim Belushi, Kelsey Grammer, Sir Patrick Stewart, Bernadette Peters, Martin Short