When L. Frank Baum invented the land of Oz, he created a place that would be remembered forever for its Munchkins, winged monkeys, the magical green sheen of Emerald City and its capacity to generate book, Broadway, television and movie spinoffs for as long as the Earth exists — and possibly even after it hurtles into the universe and lands abruptly on the Wicked Witch of East Mars.
As anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of the ruby slipper genre is aware, those spinoffs have always varied wildly in terms of quality. On the movie side of things alone, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” has spawned films that are exquisite and cherished (the 1939 classic of the same name), retroliciously funky (1978’s “The Wiz”), largely forgettable (1985’s “Return to Oz”) and narratively empty works of 3-D beauty (last year’s “Oz: The Great and Powerful”).
Now along comes “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return,” which manages to be animated in form but completely listless in content. This is a musical that borrows tangentially from some of the most imaginative source material in the history of children’s stories and weaves elements of that material into a tale with zero stakes and a troubling tendency to make Scarecrow say such things as “Copy that” and “Secure the chamber!”
“Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” is adapted most directly from “Dorothy of Oz” — a 1989 novel by Baum’s great-grandson, Roger S. Baum — that cherrypicks various characters and settings from the original “Oz” series and tosses them into a story that again requires Dorothy to save the merry old land from the forces of wickedness.
This time, that wickedness is disseminated by the Jester (voiced in the movie by Martin Short), the Wicked Witch of the West’s brother, whose reign of terror involves turning beloved leaders from all corners of the land, including Glinda the good (Bernadette Peters), into his metaphorical and literal marionettes. (Note to parents: This movie may induce a severe fear of puppet shows in very young children.) The only person capable of stopping the Jester is Dorothy, a fact made abundantly clear by the constantly reiterated but never fully supported contention that “Dorothy Gale is the only person who can save us!”
What’s wrong with “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return”? Let’s ease on down a list of missteps:
1. Its cast features some fantastic vocal talents, including “Glee’s” Lea Michele as Dorothy and Megan Hilty as the China Princess, but most of the movie’s original songs, a couple of which were co-penned by Bryan Adams, are like weak-tea versions of soundtrack singles from subpar Disney movies. “Even Then,” which gives Michele, Hilty and Hugh Dancy as Marshal Mallow (he’s a marshal made out of marshmallows, obviously) is the truly lovely standout. The rest of them? Let’s just say the film could have, er, let them go and they wouldn’t have been missed.
2. Speaking of fantastic talents, Peters lends her voice to this movie . . . and she doesn’t get a single solo. Honestly, she got to show off her singing abilities more effectively in 1979’s “The Jerk.”
3. Everything about “Legends of Oz” looks and feels flat, even through a pair of 3-D glasses. The CGI animated people, in particular, often appear oddly inhuman instead of realistically expressive. Dorothy’s Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, for example, look like they got lost in Kansas on their way to clock in for their regular jobs in “The Sims 3.”
4. Finally, while this 88-minute tale about a little girl in a blue jumper is hardly a harmful choice for kids, it’s painful to think that, for some of them, “Dorothy’s Return” will serve as their initial big-screen introduction to Oz. That shouldn’t be. Every child deserves to see Oz for the first time the way God, or at least MGM, intended: via the opening of a door, in a sudden pop of Technicolor gloriousness, with a wide-eyed Judy Garland as their guide to a place where Dorothy Gale becomes a hero — not because everyone keeps saying she’s one, but because she discovers that her bravery has been buried inside her all along.
Chaney is a freelance writer.
PG. At area theaters. Contains some scary images and mild peril. 88 minutes.