Don’t Miss…Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return (2014)

16 May

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I saw Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return in a multiplex on Sunday of its opening weekend–Mother’s Day afternoon. I didn’t expect to see many kids in the audience on this particular holiday, but the ones who were there sounded delighted with it, and so was I! This 3D animated musical sequel to The Wizard of Oz was visually inventive, with a charming story, attractive new characters, and some beautiful songs. It pulled in only 3.7 million in box office receipts, coming in 8th for the weekend. I hope those who passed it up on its first weekend will give it another look. It includes plenty of Oziana references, enough to entice committed Ozophiles (Ozmaniacs?), but anyone who has enjoyed the classic 1939 film or read any of L. Frank Baum’s books will get the jokes and feel a tug of nostalgia too.

Legends of Oz loosely follows the plot of Dorothy of Oz (1989), written by Roger S. Baum, L. Frank Baum’s great-grandson (in fact, the original working title of the film was Dorothy of Oz). Just as the MGM musical made some creative changes when they adapted L. Frank Baum’s original story for the screen, Legends of Oz has made some significant changes when adapting his great-grandson’s tale.

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Let me set the scene as the movie does: Dorothy wakes up in her room in Kansas, and she is joyfully reunited with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. But their house and surrounding farm buildings are badly damaged by the tornado. The first problem they face will be a visit from a shady appraisal agent, voiced by Martin Short, who wants to condemn their house and force them (and their neighbors) off their property. This Appraiser is the “Miss Gulch” of the film; in Oz, he will appear again, but in the form of a villainous Jester (also brilliantly voiced by Short). Time has passed much faster in Oz. The Jester now wields the wand of his sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, and has used its power to wreck the Emerald City and oppress its citizens. Therefore, while Dorothy is wondering how she might help her Aunt and Uncle and save their farm, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion are trying to call Dorothy back to Oz to save them from the Jester.

In any Oz sequel where Dorothy will play a role, some method has to be found to get her back to Oz! For example, in Out of Oz (2011), the last book in his “Wicked Years” series, Gregory Maguire made use of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to open a portal from California to Oz–echoing L. Frank Baum’s own sequel Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz (1908). In the Legends of Oz film (as in Roger S. Baum’s Dorothy of Oz), Dorothy knows that things are getting unusual again when she sees a giant rainbow racing towards her. One end snakes across the prairie and finally lifts her and Toto up, sliding them along on a fast trip to Oz. The rainbow was sent by the brainy Scarecrow who has rigged the machine in the Wizard’s chamber for this purpose, but the Jester and his flying monkey henchmen arrive and interrupt Dorothy’s flight; suddenly she is deposited not in the Emerald City but in the Gillikin Country. In her adventure-filled passage from there to the Emerald City she will encounter the important new characters of this story, including: Marshal Mallow, an officer in Candy County; the China Princess, ruling over her lands protected by the Great Wall of China (!); Wiser, an enormous, loquacious Owl; and Tugg, a boat built with the help of the Talking Trees. Together they will battle the Jester and try to restore beauty, peace, and equilibrium to Oz (until the next sequel!).

The beauty of the art direction (especially all the porcelain people in the Dainty China Country) and the creativity in the animation made it a delight to watch throughout. In one early scene, the Jester demonstrates that he can’t ever remove his parti-colored harlequin costume because of his wicked sister’s curse: every time he tries to pull it off, it just changes to new colors, switching faster and faster without ever releasing him. Marshal Mallow is an adorable creation, genuinely sweet, although he looks like a very stately, uniformed Muppet: the two marshmallows forming his head are hinged to let his jaw work. His character is voiced by Hugh Dancy, whose rich singing voice makes the song “Even Then” perhaps the most memorable of this lovely and lively score. Megan Hilty (from Smash) plays the haughty China Princess perfectly and sings with Dancy. But the story is really all about Dorothy–from the moment she put on her spunky cowboy boots and started to sing, I felt confident of this Dorothy. Lea Michele gave her a bright, youthful voice and a convincing range of emotions; her effective acting carried through her solo song, “One Day,” and all the songs, and this film is fortunate indeed to have the benefit of her vocal power and expressiveness.

On his website, Roger S. Baum wrote:

We have only to look at the fact that Oz has just passed its 100th Anniversary and is just as popular as ever. America’s greatest fairy tale continues to send us on a wonderful journey, from which we never tire.

Perhaps, the secret, why it remains a modern fairy tale after all these years, is hidden within the story. Herein lies the truths of courage, wisdom and heart and to these three we can easily mix a foundation of good faith, love and understanding.

Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return respects this tradition and adds to it with distinction. And I’m so glad it was a musical!

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Dorothy Gale ranks 83rd on The Fictional 100.

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