Tim here. By now, you've undoubtedly all heard the biggest news of the summer movie season so far: there’s a conspiracy by Big Hollywood to bury the little cartoon indie that could, Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return.
“Legends of which, now?” I can already hear some of you asking.
Exactly the point! As producer-fundraiser Greg Centineo so sagely put it:
We’re nobodies in this industry. And we stepped into a deep, deep ocean with some very, very big sharks. Some of those mainstream critics have not just trashed the movie, but literally tried to crush it… You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out something is wrong there.”
It's a well-established fact that critics and audiences tend to agree about 100% of everything, and the movies with the best reviews always make the most money. Surely only a shadowy cabal of self-sabotaging distributors and bought-and-paid for critics could be responsible for the film’s box office failure, and I am disgusted that you might even think it’'s because a handful of con artists fleeced a whole bunch of rich idiots out of their investments on a movie whose reported $70 million budget is clearly nowhere to be seen onscreen, obvious even from the trailer.
As a committed friend to the little movies, my mission became clear the instant this story crossed my path earlier this week: I had to see Legends of Oz, and I had to report back with my thoughts on this deeply maligned indie Signs of the conspiracy were all around from the moment I stepped foot into the theater. "One for Legends of Oz", I manfully requested of the girl at the ticket counter. She looked a little funny and consulted her list of films currently playing, and then looked back up. "I'm sorry, what?" Ye gods, even the movie theaters are in on it! I thought with a rising tide of horror. "Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return" I reiterated boldly, "the 3:40 show". She looked again and asked "You know that’s in 3D?" with a tone that unmistakably hinted that if I did know it was in 3D, I surely wouldn’t be interested in seeing it. That’s how deep it goes! They even want to keep the filmmakers from getting the extra pittance that comes from the upcharge to- holy crap, $5? When did my theater start charging an extra five goddamn dollars for 3D? Well, I was here anyway, and given that there were, like, two shows a day in each format, I didn't have an opportunity to come back later.
And so it was off down the Yellow Brick Road, to enjoy the charming family-friendly fare that so much love and attention and indie-made care had Holy Mother of God, what is that plastic zombie doing onscreen? Wait, that's Dorothy? I mean, isn't it kind of assumed that protagonists in movies should have some ability to move their faces into shapes that resemble human expressions? Like, her entire head is still when her jaw moves, her cheekbones don't even seem to flex. Ohhhhh, I get it. It’s paradigm-busting. We're so used to the Pixar-Disney-DreamWorks style of character animation that involves limber movement and subtle visual emotional cues that we can no longer appreciate really stylized work that presents the characters as rigid, inflexible collections of steel-like points of articulation. Very clever, Legends of Oz! I bet that’s also why the backdrops are so flat and devoid of any kind of multi-level depth-perception illusions of the sort that’s been part of the animation toolkit since the mid-1930s.
The film’s plot, adapted by a book from Roger S. Baum (grandson of original Oz novelist L. Frank Baum, who from the evidence here was engaged in that most august of activities, coasting on the family name), takes place on the exact day after the events of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with Dorothy Gale (Glee's Lea Michele) finding that the result of the famous tornado is that the whole town has been condemned as a disaster area, but before she can do anything about this, she’s sucked back to Oz by a rainbow, where she teams up with a new set of traveling buddies: obese owl Wiser (every kid's favorite, Oliver Platt), officious marshmallow soldier Marshal Mallow (Hannibal's Hugh Dancy), and anti-feminist cliché China Princess (Smash's Megan Hilty), to travel to the Emerald City and rescue her old friends Lion (According to Jim's James Belushi), Tin Man (Frasier's Kelsey Grammer), and Scarecrow (Yogi Bear's Dan Aykroyd)from the brother of the late Wicked Witch of the West, an angry clown called Jester (The Santa Clause 3's Martin Short). The best cast that 1988’s money can buy gives Legends of Oz exactly that kind of star power it needed to compete with the bigger studios, and just wait till we get to the songs! There are songs. Also, there is Bernadette Peters, and she does not sing any songs, which is all the proof I need that the producers were up to no good.
The whole thing is an undisguised retread of the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz with worse everything, though in fairness, the script isn't really all that bad. It’s just painfully ordinary. So Centineo deserves this much credit: the film didn’t deserve to be buried by critics, just lambasted and widely mocked. It's a D-, not an F. Maybe even a solid D! We can afford to be generous.
Still, though, it is sinfully ugly: the first theatrical wide release animated in its entirety at Prana Studios in India, the company responsible for Disney’s unpleasantly vinyl-like Tinker Bell videos. They're not bad at lighting and effects; but oh, mercy, are the characters ever appalling. Grossly exaggerated designs that don’t lend themselves to any kind of motion at all abound, and while the textures are impressive on some of them (Tin Man and Marshal Mallow especially), they resemble high-quality toys more than animated figures. And not even fun toys, with buttons that make them do karate moves, the kind of non-poseable toy that you never really know how to play with because it was molded with such weirdly frozen-in-action gestures.
I do, honestly, feel bad for the people who got rooked on this deal: it's clear from the evidence onscreen that a lot of money went into somebody's pocket and no more went into making the film than was absolutely necessary to haul it up to 90-ish minutes of what, if we are being forgiving, we can call moving images. But the second these people ask for some kind of special dispensation for the bullies beating up on them – no. Legends of Oz is fucking terrible, and it deserves every ounce of scorn it's received.