The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (2005)

Rating:

USA. 2005.

Crew

Director – Kirk R. Thatcher, Teleplay – Debra Frank, Adam Goldberg, Steve L. Hayes & Tom Martin, Screen Story Debra Frank & Steve L. Hayes, Based on the Novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, Producers – Martin G. Baker & Warren Carr, Photography – Tony Westman, Music – Michael Giacchino, Songs – Brandon Christy, Adam Cohen, Debra Frank, Michael Giacchino, Steve L. Hayes & Jeannie Lurie, Muppets, Puppet Effects & Digital Performances – Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, Visual Effects Supervisor – Ralph Maiers, Special Effects Supervisor – Tom Lazarowich, Production Design – Michael S. Bolton. Production Company – The Jim Henson Company/Touchstone Television

Cast

Ashanti (Dorothy Gale), Jeffrey Tambor (The Wizard of Oz), Queen Latifah (Auntie Em), David Alan Grier (Uncle Henry), Quentin Tarantino (Himself)

Muppet Performers: Bill Barretta, Dave Goelz, Eric Jacobson & Steve Whitmire


Plot

Dorothy Gale works as a waitress in the Kansas diner of her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry. Dorothy’s greatest dream is to be able to make it as a singer. She is able to hand an audition tape to the Muppets who are touring the country, looking for a new young star. As a twister alert comes, Dorothy returns to her trailer park home for her frog Toto, only for the trailer to be picked up and carried away by the tornado with her in it. The house is deposited in the magical land of Oz and crushes the Wicked Witch of the East as it lands. This serves to release the Munchkin talking rats from the Wicked Witch’s thrall. The Munchkins tell Dorothy that the person who can help her become a star is the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City. Dorothy sets out on a journey along the Yellow Brick Road to find The Wizard. Along the way, she gathers various companions – a frog scarecrow; Total Intelligence Network, or T.I.N. Thing, the Wicked Witch of the West’s information gleaning robot; and a cowardly lion-bear, who join her, each seeking to visit The Wizard for their own reasons.


The Muppets were one of the quintessential pop culture icons of the 1970s/early 1980s. Creator Jim Henson put them through one hilarious tv series – The Muppet Show (1977-81) – and two very witty movies – The Muppet Movie (1979) and The Great Muppet Caper (1981) – and one mediocre – The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984). The joy of these comes in their sly wit that lies halfway between children’s amusement and sly often meta-fictional asides to the adult audience. Following Jim Henson’s death in 1990 and the inheritance of the Henson empire by his son Brian, Brian mishandled the Muppets through a handful of film and tv incarnations that have included The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Muppet Treasure Island (1996), Muppets from Space (1999), It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (2002), Kermit’s Swamp Years (2002), as well as a short-lived tv series revival Muppets Tonight (1996), all of which are mediocre at best and missing the sophisticated level wit and humour of Jim’s films. The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz had a miniscule theatrical release but was mostly seen on television.

A number of these modern Muppet movies are remakes of classic stories – Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883). The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz is a remake of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), although more than anything, it is a remake of the most famous film version of the Baum story – The Wizard of Oz (1939).

The Muppet remake certainly conducts some interesting modernisations of the 1939 The Wizard of Oz. Auntie Em and Uncle Henry’s Kansas farm has been replaced by more modern social realities – they manage a diner in rundown rural Kansas and the home that gets whisked away by a tornado is in a trailer park. The most notable change has been to recast the Gale family with African-American rather than Caucasian ethnicity – a move that would probably cause outrage back in 1939 but now almost entirely passes by without notice. Even just the image of Dorothy played by Ashanti dressed in hipster jeans and low-cut tank top beneath her pink-checkered apron signals that we are in for a far more modern Wizard of Oz.

The other interesting difference that is made is the changing of the message that runs through The Wizard of Oz – in the original, Dorothy is only seeking to leave Oz and return to the comforts of home in Kansas again; in the Muppet version, Dorothy is contrarily trying to escape from Kansas in order to follow her dream of making it as a R&B singer. Thus the theme of the journey through Oz, including the reasons for going to visit The Wizard, is not for Dorothy to get back home but to find fame and fortune as a singer. This leads to a showbiz theme that is awkwardly wound in throughout the film – the Wicked Witch of the West’s torturing of the party has to be filmed by a live tv crew; Oz’s speech is broadcast via tv and so on.

Of course, the other change that comes is the rewriting of the story to squeeze the Muppets in as characters, which result in some bizarre cross-species miscegenations. Thus Kermit improbably becomes a frog scarecrow; Fozzy Bear is cast as the Cowardly Lion; The Munchkins have been reconceived as rats; while the two grouchy critics become marauding monsters that tear the party apart with their words; and the field of poppies becomes a nightclub. The most amusing of these pieces of recasting is of Miss Piggy as The Wicked Witch of the West, a role at which the persona of Miss Piggy seems rather well suited. In the most radical move, The Tin Man is turned into some kind of robot/computer network (a mechanoid version of Gonzo) – the term robot and the idea of the computer was something that had never even been conceived when L. Frank Baum wrote the original book.

As with much of modern fantasy – Ella Enchanted (2004), Shark Tale (2004), Shrek 2 (2004) – there is an intrusive element of modern humour with the script making all manner of quips and contemporary culture asides. “I gotta walk to the centre of your country, is there not like a bus I can take?” Ashanti asks the Munchkins before setting out on the Yellow Brick Road. There are billboards in Munchkinland; Glinda used to appear in a quartet called the Four Little Pigs and refers to herself as the East Side Sister; Toto the frog becomes Dorothy’s agent and starts wielding a cellphone. There is a cameo from, of all people, Quentin Tarantino, who would probably rank as the likely guest to ever turn up in a Muppet movie. Jim Henson’s usual fourth wall breaking gags have just become a little too hip. (Although there is a cute line when Kermit first meets The Wizard: “Hi Mr Oz. Are you by any chance any relation to Frank Oz?” – Frank Oz being Jim Henson’s co-creator of The Muppets and the original voice of Miss Piggy). Certainly, The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz received the most critical slagging from fans out of all the Muppet movies so far.

Ashanti starts out with the right kind of innocence as Dorothy but eventually seems a little too blank in her perpetual range of gee-gosh expressions. Her Dorothy never seems to bubble with innocence the way Judy Garland did, rather Ashanti seems to only be dully reacting to circumstances. Crucially of a film like this, she never maintains the appropriate suspension of disbelief to convince us that she is interacting with non-human performers.

Moreover, it is a cheap depiction of Oz that we get, one that never extends any further than the camera’s eye does. Case in point being that we get a moderately impressive CGI effect of the giant exterior of the Emerald City, which opens to reveal mist beyond – but see nothing at all of the interior of the city. The Wizard’s transformations are only cheap CGI effects.

The Muppets were subsequently far more successfully revived on the big screen with The Muppets (2011) followed by Muppets Most Wanted (2014) and the tv series revival The Muppets (2015-6).




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