Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return is an unexpectedly amusing, funny, and solidly constructed low-budget animated film that is sneaking its way into theaters.
Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return seems to have snuck up on us. Aside from numerous posters in crowded mall areas, I did not see any previews, billboards, or online advertising for this one. Usually, low-budget films that take this sort of advertising approach tend to be the odd ones; it was the way I discovered the awful-but-good Antboy. In a way, I was kind of hoping that this CGI reinterpretation of the Oz myth (based on the books written by L. Frank Baum’s great-grandson, Roger S. Baum) would be equally crazy. At best, I could hope for a cheapie, bonkers film full of enough weird ideas to keep my screwball gland pumping.
Imagine my delight, then, to discover that Legends of Oz is actually a pretty darn good little movie. It’s full of interesting characters, good pacing, good plotting, and a fantastic villain. It is mercifully free of pop culture references (save for one involving marshmallow Peeps), fart jokes, bland kiddie-friendly lecturing, and that insufferable form of frantic pacing that seems to infect most kid films these days. And how nice to find an animated feature that isn’t either over-marketed by Disney gurus, nor outright terrible. In a year that has already been inflicted by The Nut Job and Rio 2, Legends of Oz is a soothing baum. Er, balm. I’ll also say this: I like Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return way better than Sam Raimi’s Oz, The Great and Powerful.
Most Oz stories involve quartets of misfits traveling through Oz to the Emerald City, and Legends of Oz is no exception. Dorothy (Lea Michele), having only experienced a single day’s time since her last Oz adventure, is recovering from the tornado. Her house has been condemned, and Aunt Em and Uncle Henry (Billy West and Mike Judge) are contemplating moving away from Kansas. Just when Dorothy is lamenting the loss of her home, a magical rainbow appears out of the sky and teleports her back to Oz to help her old friends Scarecrow (Dan Aykroyd), Lion (Jim Belushi), and Tin Woodman (Kelsey Grammar). Several years have already sped by in Oz, and the entire land has now been taken over by a malicious Jester (Martin Short), who rules with a magic scepter, and who is cursed to never remove his outfit (he removes one Jester outfit, only to be wearing a slightly different one underneath). Martin Short is so spirited in the role of the Jester, he could easily play The Joker in a future Batman iteration. If Zack Snyder is looking for older Jokers for his next superhero flick, I implore that he consider Short.
Dorothy has to trek to the Emerald City to help her friends. Along the way, she accumulates a talkative fat owl named Wiser (Oliver Platt), a duty-bound marshmallow soldier named Marshal Mallow (Hugh Dancy), a fastidious china doll (Megan Hilty), and an ancient talking tree named Tugg (Patrick Stewart). Bernadette Peters has a small role as Glinda the Good Witch, and Brian Blessed plays Judge Jawbreaker. There are some songs sprinkled throughout, some of which are actually a bit memorable. The end-of-Act-I love song is a highlight (Hugh Dancy can really belt one out), and while a song about working together and being a team (penned by Bryan Adams, no less) sounds like it would be an insufferable experience, it actually plays well enough with the tone of the film.
The funny parts are funny, the adventurous parts are adventurous, and there are even some scary bits to rattle the little ones. The Jester, for instance, has been kidnapping the leaders of Oz and turning them into wooden marionettes. And that, my friends, is supremely creepy. Too few kid films eschew scary, forgetting that little kids actually kinda like being scared. I know I did. It’s the impulse that led me to see Ghostbusters as a wee lad.
It’s certainly not a perfect film; there are some annoying jokes, and the three original Oz characters (Scarecrow, et al) are actually the weakest part, involving the broadest jokes and the most embarrassing dialogue. But for a film that was previously not pinging on anyone’s radars, it was amusing and startling.