Director – Will Finn, Screenplay – Adam Balsam & Randi Barnes, Based on the Book Dorothy of Oz by Roger Stanton Baum, Producers – Roland Carroll, Ryan Carroll & Bonne Radford, Music – Toby Chu, Songs – Bryan Adams, Jim Dooley, Mike Himelstein, Tift Merritt & Jim Vallence, CG Animation – Prana Animation Studios, Inc., CG Supervisor – Jouelle Baracho, Animation Director – Dougg Williams, Production Design – Daniel St. Pierre. Production Company – Summertime Entertainment
Lea Michele (Dorothy Gale), Martin Short (The Jester/The Appraiser), Oliver Platt (Wiser), Hugh Dancy (Marshal Mallow), Megan Hilty (China Princess), Dan Aykroyd (The Scarecrow), Jim Belushi (The Lion), Kelsey Grammer (The Tin Man), Patrick Stewart (Tugg), Tacey Adas (Auntie Em), Michael Krawic (Uncle Henry), Bernadette Peters (Glinda), Brian Blessed (Judge Jawbreaker), Douglas Hodge (Fruit Striped Lawyer)
In Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West’s brother The Jester has been cursed by her to remain in a jester’s costume that can never be removed. He turns Glinda the Good into a marionette and places her in a cabinet, alongside many of the other regional leaders. As The Jester commands the flying monkeys to attack the Emerald City, The Scarecrow, The Tin Man and Lion are forced to flee, not before The Scarecrow activates a device that sends out to Dorothy for help. In Kansas, they are dealing with the immediate aftermath of the tornado where Dorothy tries to stand up against a crooked insurance appraiser who has labelled the farmhouse to be condemned. Dorothy is then snatched up by a rainbow and whisked back to Oz. As she sets out to the Emerald City along the Yellow Brick Road, she passes through several strange lands and is joined by various companions, including the obese owl Wiser; Marshal Mallow, a marshmallow guard from Candy Country; and the princess of Dainty China Country.
Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return sets out to be a sequel to The Wizard of Oz (1939). There is nothing particularly wrong with that as there have been dozens of films offering up would-be sequels, reinterpretations or modernisations of the 1939 film and the original L. Frank Baum classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). What happened was that Summertime Entertainment (a company that also floated under several different aliases) attained the rights to Dorothy of Oz (1989) by Roger Stanton Baum. Roger is the great-grandson of L. Frank Baum and was a former stockbroker who started writing a series of new Oz stories after being approached by The International Wizard of Oz Club. Roger has produced a further thirteen Oz books to date.
The rights to Roger’s books were obtained by Summertime who had plans of producing an entire series of Oz films. Problems began after they started soliciting funding from private investors in 2006. In 2008, complaints were launched with the SEC concerning the practices of a Hollywood telemarketing firm who were promising massively over-inflated claims about the film’s box-office potential and further spinoff sequels. A $70 million budget was eventually raised (although claims are estimated that the telemarketers had raised as much as $100 million). Direction was handed over to Will Finn, a former Disney animator who had never directed before. The film eventually premiered and flopped badly, ending up earning only around $8 million total (according to The Movie Times). The investors have been extremely vocal online in feeling ripped off in terms of what was promised, while the producers blamed what happened on a conspiracy by Hollywood studios to shut them out. (The film’s lack of publicity and promotion may have helped ever so much). The film was widely pilloried by audiences and critics and even ended up winning a Golden Raspberry for Kelsey Grammer.
Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return went into wide release fifteen months after the high-profile Sam Raimi prequel Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013). Both revisited the basics of The Wizard of Oz, showing different aspects of the world and expanding the adventures of the familiar characters. Most spinoff Oz works tend to stick with the tried and familiar characters and never vary to much from that and, to its credit, Legends of Oz at least tries to introduce some new countries and peoples to the land. That said, it has a grating tone that sticks in the craw with any aficionados of the original. The Scarecrow, The Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion have been rewritten with a constantly bickering relationship, slinging modern flip insults at one another “Somebody needs an oil change … Can it, rustbucket.” Not to mention the climactic scenes that involve a dissembled Tin Man being turned into a hand-cranked machine gun to fire a volley of gumballs at the attacking Flying Monkeys. It seems a far world away from anything you would imagine happening in Judy Garland let alone L. Frank Baum’s Oz.
The film also notedly abandons the 1930s setting of the original and takes place with Auntie Em in modern dress and the folks of Kansas seen driving Volkswagens and pick-ups. There is nothing wrong with modernising the story – it is just that in appealing to fans of the original by acting as a sequel, it creates a continuity gap of seventy years in the surrounding culture that sits there with a glaring obviousness. There are other aspects of this version that seem off, like casting Bernadette Peters who delivers the part of Glinda with a hoarse throaty voice that makes it sound like she has spent a lifetime smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. What we have feels uninspired as a fantasy journey – even given that we are dealing within the realm of children’s films – there is an entirely schematic feel as Dorothy journeys through several lands, gathers new companions and then quickly moves to the showdown with the villain of the show. There is also the inclusion of a series of banal songs, something that has been substantially phased out of children’s films during the 1990s/2000s.
There is a certain imagination having gone in to constructing a new bunch of companions and lands. This is perhaps where the film is most successful and most approximates L. Frank Baum. There is Candy Country where everything has been construed along the lines of a candy theme – where the judge wears candy cane glasses, where they are imprisoned in liquorice shackles, lamps are shaped like ice cream cones and the major has cupcakes for epaulettes – or the venture into Dainty China Country where the architecture is designed like tea cups and people are in imminent danger of being broken (although admittedly this latter is a land that appeared in the original The Wonderful Wizard of Oz book, although was cut by the 1939 film). The main problem is the familiar pretty but very plastic CGI from India’s Prana Studios, who have been behind several of the TinkerBell and Planes films, which unfortunately comes out with an uncanny valley look that resembles earlier CGI animation of the early 2000s rather than the more sophisticated work that other companies have evolved to.
If nothing else, the film boasts a very impressive voice cast, including Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi and Kelsey Grammer as the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion; Martin Short doubling as The Jester and the dodgy insurance appraiser; Oliver Platt and Hugh Dancy as Dorothy’s new companions; Bernadette Peters as Glinda; Patrick Stewart as a talking tree that happily volunteers to be carved into a boat; and Brian Blessed as the judge in Candy County.