Thursday, May 15, 2014

Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return

For months now, a specter has haunted the halls of my local movie theater.  In dark ignored corner it sat, menacingly beckoning to all foolish enough to look upon it.  Most visitors simply shook their head in confusion, unsure of what to make of the specter.  They might have laughed it off, but they could not laugh off the chill it gave them within their hearts.  It was a simple sign with a simple design, foretelling the coming of a movie, the same as dozens of other advertisements decorating the cheap cinema wings.  But this was no regular movie.  It was a movie from beyond the dimension of major motion pictures, a demon from the Stygian abyss of movie-making.  A cheap bargain basement release that belonged only in the deepest and most forgettable of the Redbox phantasmagoria.  But instead this movie was here, its sign fluttering with sacrilegious pride in the same structure that was showing "Frozen".  Now many months later, the vision of horror has come to pass.

"Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return" is a film that - to put it simply - has no business being in a theater.  I know that comes off a bit snobby, but when you actually look at the jerky, frenetic standard of animation that "Legends of Oz" is trying to pass off as feature film-quality, it is impossible to not feel this is a movie that shouldn't have been made.  Or if it was made at all, it should have been quietly pushed out in some bargain shelf at a 7/11.  Of course, that this movie is a half-formed failure should come as no surprise since this is animated by Prana Studios, a bargain-bin animation studio whose credits include such classics as "Space Chimps 2: Zartog Strikes Back".  "Legends of Oz" is produced by Summertime Studios and distributed by Clarius Entertainment, and is the first film made by either of these companies.  It starts to make you suspicious about the entire project.  Amazingly cheap film with barely any advertising gets massive release, sketchy companies footing the bill, apparently supplying a seventy million budget behind this turkey.  Anybody else starting to smell a scam here?  I don't think this was a movie seriously made to entertain movie-going audiences.  What "Producers"-style scheme or illegal dump-and-dump market manipulation is really making this movie?  We may never know the real truth.

Ultimately though we must pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, because whatever is really going on, we can look only at the finished product.  "Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return" is easily one of the worst films of 2014 so far, it is that simple.  Its animation borders between merely mediocre to downright terrifying as semi-human faces twist and turn from whimsical cartoon to grotesquery.  The plot is a weak excuse for Dorothy to wander around from song to song, collecting various fools on her journey to defeat a villain badly overplayed by Martin Short.  It is hard to say which is more shrill:  the music or the characters.  At best "Dorothy's Return" is a film that could only be appreciated by the smallest of children, and even they will be more excited by the thrill of a bag of popcorn than the entertainment being projected on the screen.  At worst, it is a downright travesty of a film, weak by any standard, but downright embarrassing considering the wealth of beautiful and creative animated films it is trying to compete against.  I hope whoever is scamming their investors got their money's worth, because this movie is so bad it is criminal.

The Oz universe is one of the earliest fantasy stories, with the first book, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" being originally published by L. Frank Baum in 1900.  Since that time, Baum's universe has had a fascinating history, remaining a beloved part of pop culture for over a century.  The original run of novels started by Baum has continued from generation to generation of author for hundreds of years, with the last canonical Oz novel having been published in 2006!  That's fifty books altogether, which is absolutely amazing.  Then there are dozens of apocryphal books written by other authors, more and more being made every year, since Oz has been in the public domain for decades.  That includes Gregory Maguire's subversive "Wicked" series, which inspired the musical, and repackaged Oz as a dark fantasy world full of sexuality and violence.  But Oz is not merely books:  there's also the 1939 classic movie, there's a 1970s African American musical called "The Wiz", there's an anime, there's video games, and there's the terrible "Oz the Great and Powerful" film from just last year.  Oz is a simple enough adventure of magic and childlike fun, but it can be so much to so many people.  Its sad ultimately that all of tradition of joy and wonder had to eventually lead to this:

I'm worried this film might actually have been rendered using PS1 graphics technology.
With all that wealth of material, you could make several hundred films of any tone you wish.  But for whatever reason, out of all the Oz literature, Summertime Studios chose to adapt "Dorothy of Oz", a 1989 book written by L. Frank Baum's great-grandson, which ignores all previous continuity to make a whole new sequel to the original book.  So basically the plot is an immature and far less interesting retread of the same basic storyline as the 1985 film, "Return to Oz".  Where that film was night gruesome and awesome, "Legends of Oz" - whose title may be threatening a whole line of sequels* - is content to jump at the lowest hanging fruit, creating a pretty standard child fantasy adventure with nothing surprising or interesting.  Poison eggs?  Oz transformed into a dystopian future filled with wild monsters?  Creepy puppeteering?  All that can be found in the 1985 film.  Here you get... candyland.

The plot of "Legends of Oz" takes place one day after Dorothy's original adventures through Oz, which I can only assume is supposed to be the 1939 MGM film, considering the character design of all the characters is a blatant homage to that timeless classic.  Dorothy (Lea Michelle) wakes up to find her town in ruins, as families pack up their things in old jalopies and for a Steinbeckian migration to California.  Weirdly this movie does not appear to actually take place in the 1930s, since the corrupt land appraiser (Martin Short) drives a 1950s Cadillac, and there are skateboards, which as we all know, were invented by Marty McFly in 1955.  Martin Short's land appraiser badly hams up a ridiculous performance, threatening Dorothy's farm, causing her to wander around town singing, until a magical rainbow - because why not? - picks her up to take her to Oz.

Somehow this is sadder even than the ruins of Oz in the 1985 film.
Oz is once again in peril, this time thanks to another hideous Martin Short character, the Jester.   The Jester is the Wicked Witch's little brother, who has captured her Broomstick and created his own empire of terrible music numbers and even worse acting.  Dorothy's old crew of the Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow summon her to Oz to save the day.  But since they are immediately captured, we do not get much of the nostalgia of seeing the old gang back together.  Instead Dorothy collects an inferior group of less interesting heroes, including a fat Owl, a marshmallow soldier named Marshall Mallow**, the Dainty China Princess who is appropriately made of China, and a talking boat inexcusably played by Patrick Stewart.  Yes, that Patrick Stewart.

Reading the list of actors stuntcasted or otherwise manipulated into lending their voices for "Dorothy's Return" actually sounds hopeful, since many of them were famous funny actors decades ago.  There's Jim Ballushi, Kelsey Grammar, Dan Aykroyd, Oliver Pratt, and Martin Short.  They all give lousy performances, ranging from Aykroyd's completely bored delivery to Martin Short's hamtastic performance that is so profoundly annoying that will want to strangle this man.  So far out of all of 2014, Martin Short wins as the single worst actor in anything.  Congrats.  On other fronts, BRIAN BLESSED plays a judge just to add to "Legends of Oz"'s long list of crimes against great actors.  Lea Michelle has a great singing voice, being a Broadway alumni, and could easily have sung some of the greatest songs from "Wicked" instead of the bland collection assembled here, a schizophrenic songbook that sounds suspiciously like it was written by four different people... because it was.  Speaking of Wicked, Megan Hilty, who once played Glinda for packed houses at the Gershwin Theater, now is playing the China Princess for a much smaller audience across the country.  Hilty winds up being the only part of the film that actually works.  The Princess is bitchy, entitled, but she has a nice weird love story with the marshmallow man, and a great singing voice.

China Princess, you are the only thing I liked about this movie.
To be fair, the film's tone is somewhat appropriate.  "Legends of Oz" does not fall into the trap of many animated films of throwing in dirty humor for the parents to add energy to a lifeless movie.  It remains a light adventure for the kids - but only for the kids.  The characters are underwritten, the story has no subtlety of any kind.  There is just nothing interesting going on with the story.  The humor is bad, the dialog is bad, the characters are off-note.  Almost nothing works here.

But beyond all else, the animation is godawful.  I cannot stress this enough.  It is wildly inconsistent, with some textures being well-rendered but then there's the owl's feathers, which look blurry and unfinished.  None of the creators really knew how to animate humans, so the Kansas segment might just be the very worst animation I have seen in a movie theater.  In Oz it looks like a different animation studio might have taken over, since the animation is roughly doubles in quality, while remaining poor.  Dorothy's face while it attempts to contort its weird plastic doll shape into a frown is downright horrifying.  Aunty Em and Uncle Henry look like walking corpses in weirdly modern dress for the time period.  Then curiously, in comes the Good Witch Glinda, with a very inspired character design, and fluid motion, which is of course, a completely different art style from the rest of the human characters.

Here's the thing though:  you don't need to be told "Legends of Oz" sucks.  You can tell.  You already knew.  You take one look at the nightmarish visage of Dorothy on that poster above, struggling to conjure up a smile on her cheap wire frame, and you knew already what kind of movie this was.  Everybody in the local movie theater who looked at the poster and wisely chose to ignore it made the right choice.  I was fascinated to see something this bad end up in theaters, and I had to check it out to see how terrible it was.  Frankly, in the end, I was somewhat disappointed.  "Legends of Oz" is bad enough and forgettable enough to be easily the biggest flop of all of 2014 so far, but is it a true legend of a bad movie?  Not really.  It is just a cheap inferior knock-off product.  If you want a really bad Oz movie, try suffering through the James Franco version from last year.  There's nothing in this movie to compare to the hurricane of terrible that was "Oz the Great and Powerful"'s sad attempt at the Wicked Witch, with a CG face made out of uncanny valley and Meg Griffen's voice.  I was not physically repulsed at "Legends of Oz", so in that way, it beats 2013's attempt at an Oz adventure.

However, in the end it is just a weird footnote.  It's the unfortunate story of a production company trying too hard in a league above its abilities.

* If "Dorothy's Return" gets a sequel, then I will be the next Queen of England.  Bow to me.

** Ouch, movie.  Fucking ouch.


  1. *First time watching the commercial*


    As I said in the look ahead post, this movie SCREAMS discount bin. I would have seen it, but no one was ballsy enough to suffer with me. Jake and the Cinema Snob can already describe the horror that is this movie.

  2. Uggggh. Gonna stay out of the theaters a little while longer, until I can get my boyfriend to watch Frozen with me.

    *headdesks in agony*

  3. how do you think the snowman planned on fitting his snowy thang into the china princess. If you where a lonely Bachelor, would you want a woman the size of your hand? What was wrong with ripe sixteen year old Dorothy?
    And why does the jesters head always leave its body? I hope floating heads doesn't become a new trend in movies