In a period of perpetual celebration of the 75th anniversary of MGM's
, and a tribute at the Academy Awards -- an independently produced animated sequel that's not even based on any of the many canonical Oz books seems suspect at best.
By focusing on that heretofore overlooked aspect of The Wizard of Oz -- the real-world fallout from the Kansas tornado -- Legends of Oz immediately lays stakes as a kind of enlightened movie. It is in fact smarter (and better) than the Disney/Sam Raimi Oz the Great and Powerful, itself a bloated if otherwise decent effort. Legends of Oz does that thing that any well-meaning child-centric allegory does, be it Toy Story, Alice in Wonderland, or Narnia - it roots its adventure in the uncertainties and utter, unapproachable bigness of the changing, scary world surrounding the young protagonist.
In the case of Legends of Oz, Dorothy is emboldened (if still humbled and overwhelmed) by her previous adventure in Oz. That the 1939 Judy Garland starrer left audiences with the tantalizing unresolved question of whether she just dreamed the whole thing is beside the point. The point is that dreams of the fantastic, the vibrant, the dangerous, are oh-so essential in the developing minds of children.
At the start of Legends of Oz, there's no major studio logo. Likewise, when it ends, the Producer credits do go on in an odd way, with out-of-the-ordinary names and listings (such as "The Ross Family") that scream "crowd funding". Whatever the case, Legends of Oz arrives like a grassroots, little-movie-that-could. "How," I asked, "did an unproduced 'Oz' property (albeit not one by L. Frank Baum, but in this case a 1989 book by his great-grandson Roger S. Baum) wind up NOT in the clutches of a major studio??" That Roger Baum was an investment banker no doubt looking to tap into the family legacy perhaps lends a clue or two. But the whatever the case with the book, (an effort that infuriates many diehard "Oz" fans, due to it's flagrant ignoring of canon, as it presents what could gently be called an alternate version of Dorothy's first return trip to Oz, previously told in L. Frank Baum's "Ozma of Oz",) the film Legends of Oz, quite pleasantly, does not feel like a crass cash-in at all. The level of care is palpably felt across the board.
Granted, this isn't Pixar. Snippets of the animation venture into unintended eyesore territory. But, those are mere moments in the whole of an impressively realized film that stands out among the Rio 2s and Free Birds of the world. There is nothing cloying, grating, or obnoxious about the film's style, story, or characters. On the contrary, it's a colorful piece of work that earns it's theatrical release. Children will enjoy it, and grown-ups won't mind it.
The voice talent, particularly Martin Short as the villainous Jester - kind of a messed-up Joker; brother of the late Wicked Witch of the West, amusingly cursed by her to be trapped in his clown costume, rendering him forever the fool - routinely go above and beyond the level of paycheck work. The film's many original songs range from "okay" to "passable", but are not deal-breakers, either. Penned by Bryan Adams and others, the songs reflect a soft rock, late 1980s vibe, with a theatrical flare.
And like the songs, the film itself seems to reside in a not-so-distant past, a time and place free of computers and cell phones, yet far more contemporary than 1939. Perhaps this is Roger Baum's 1989? In any case, the tornado disaster scene is timeless in nature. Many rural homes and barns teeter on the brink of collapse as townspeople hightail it out of town in loaded-to-the-hilt pick-up trucks. Of course it's The Jester's Kansas counterpart, a jerkwad property appraiser, who is condemning everything in sight, even though Dorothy (Michelle) vehemently believes that the town can still be saved.
It's this situation that is parlayed into a new trip to Oz, in which her old friends The Scarecrow (Aykroyd), The Tin Man (Kelsey Grammer), and the formerly Cowardly Lion (James Belushi) summon her for help. From there, she meets new friends Wiser the overweight Owl (Oliver Platt), the candied military man Marshal Mallow (Hugh Dancy), and the nearly insufferable China Princess (Megan Hilty). Although the depiction of the established characters seems to run counter to L. Frank Baum's original unspoken punchline, in which the Wizard didn't actually give them anything at all, but did secretly give them confidence in their gifts that they had all along (Scarecrow, for example refers to how he's now a super-genius, his point of view shots revealing Beautiful Mind-style equations hanging in the air, confirming that this version of Scarecrow apparently was indeed improved by the Wizard), it's when Dorothy begins meeting the new characters that the movie begins to trail off. Meeting Wiser, Mallow and the China Princess is like attending the concert of a classic rock great who plays a string of well-meaning songs from his so-so new album. It's the built-in, unintended restroom break. But eventually, we do come to appreciate these characters on some level.
When Legends of Oz turns 75 years old, there will be no celebrations or re-releases. If the movie is widely remembered by next year's Oscars, that will be a surprise. It may not be legendary, but it certainly deserves better. In the contemporary land of often disastrous, too-colorful, over-thought and hyper "family" entertainment (a land that is indeed threatened regularly by greed-motivated Jesters), Legends of Oz stands out as an unexpected welcome breath of fresh air.