It would seem that we as a culture expect little more from our children’s entertainment than we do from our pornography: we want pleasant diversions, damn it, and we don’t want to think too hard or be blindsided by anything outside of our comfort zone. So with that criteria in mind I am forced to confess that Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return is actually, surprisingly, pretty okay.
That may not seem like a high praise but it’s more than Rio 2 managed to get out of me, so let’s not throw stones. Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return doesn’t have the budget of its studio-driven megafranchise competitors – the animation ranges from charmingly competent to distractingly stiff, and the cast is anything but A-list – but it’s a sweet, innocent motion picture with unassailable messages, some funny jokes, a few memorable songs, and enough old-fashioned gee-whiz enthusiasm that one character actually yells “Gadzooks!” and nobody even comments on it. Ironic detachment and pop culturing pandering are mercifully absent. In their place is a disarming, welcome sincerity.
Dorothy Gale (voiced by Lea Michele) wakes up the day after the tornado hit her family farm, but by the early afternoon, years have already passed in Oz. The Wicked Witch’s brother, The Jester (Martin Short), has stolen her broomstick and conquered the land, so Scarecrow (Dan Aykroyd), Tin Man (Kelsey Grammer) and Cowardly Lion (Jim Belushi) send out a magic Skittles rainbow to fetch Dorothy, bring her back and save the day. But when her old friends are kidnapped by Flying Monkeys – curses! – she has to recruit a new cadre of magical best buddies, including an enormous owl named Wiser (Oliver Platt), a marshmallow marshal named Marshall Mallow (Hugh Dancy) and a princess made entirely out of china named China Princess (Megan Hilty).
What follows is yet another road trip from one unusual locale to another, filled with atrocious puns (“The Great Wall of China” is actually made of fine china, ha-ha-HA), messages about teamwork and togetherness, and – as in the best of the Oz movies – a tendency to get creepy and weird when you’re not expecting it. The Jester kidnaps and tortures Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion and transforms all the other familiar Oz characters into creepy-ass marionettes. Patrick Stewart provides the voice of a tree who volunteers to commit suicide so Dorothy can turn him into a boat. And the sight of a marshmallow man with a flappy “South Park” Canada head singing a love song to his dead girlfriend while trying to reconnect her severed body parts with bits of his own white sticky goo is, you have to admit, quite a little novelty.
Yes, there are kind things to be said about Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return. Martin Short is doing a stellar job as the villain, for once a heroine saves the day without an arbitrary love interest motivate her, and what child or inner child could complain about a song dedicated entirely to candy? But it’s a far, far cry from great. The animation is colorful but mostly unremarkable. Most of the tunes are just bland. Bernadette Peters shows up and doesn’t even get to sing. An attempt to turn the aftermath of the Kansas tornado into a post-Katrina allegory goes nowhere. And like most animated movies, Legends of Oz feels obliged to end in a big battle sequence, although unlike most of its counterparts the decision actually makes some kind of dramatic sense: a hero who lived to take orders suddenly has to give them in order to save the day. Good for him, and good for the movie. It could have been worse.
In the end, Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return really does get by with simply being harmless, which isn’t much of a compliment but for a movie that’s aimed at little, little kids it’s not an insult either. There’s a tiny spark of imagination that yes, probably should have been a roaring flame. There’s an inoffensive message that probably could have been thoughtful and heartening. And yet, although Legends of Oz is undeniably hokey and low-fi, nothing about it is mean-spirited, ugly or stupid. It is simply “nice,” and isn’t “nice” kind of… well, nice?