By Charles Solomon | Animation Scoop May 9, 2014 at 6:00PM
Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return reunites Dorothy Gale, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man - and just about every cliche of low-budget CG animation. The film is based on the novel "Dorothy of Oz" published in 1989 by Roger S. Baum (L. Frank’s great-grandson), and while the filmmakers simplified its convoluted plot, they failed to produce a story that’s compelling or even interesting.
Dorothy (voice Lea Michaels) wakes up in Kansas, right after a tornado has devastated her aunt and uncle’s farm. A strange rainbow sent by the Lion (Jim Belushi), Scarecrow (Dan Aykroyd) and Tin Man (Kelsey Grammer) carries Dorothy and Toto back to Oz. A nasty Jester (the ever-grating Martin Short) has stolen the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West and is using its power to destroy and enslave. He’s turned Glinda the Good (Bernadette Peters) and a lot of unidentified characters into puppets.
Like every other heroine in this kind of journey film, Dorothy makes new friends who help her along the way: Wiser (Oliver Platt), a motor-beaked owl; Marshal Mallow (Hugh Dancy), a candy soldier; China Princess (Megan Hilty) a snotty piece of animated bric-a-brac; and Tugg the boat (Patrick Stewart, who can’t need the money).
To no one's surprise, Dorothy eventually defeats the Jester in a protracted battle that suffers from the kind of namby-pamby pseudo-action that’s weakened many other animated features. Dorothy’s friends attack the winged monkeys with barrages of candy and bubblegum: It’s not dramatic enough to work as a real fight, but not silly enough to enjoy as slapstick. In the classic live action film, the Monkeys and the Witch are genuinely frightening, which makes the vulnerable Dorothy's victory over them exciting and satisfying. The filmmakers, obviously worried that parents might complain about something scaring their children, offer limp substitutes for drama and catharsis that are about as satisfying as drinking watered Kool-Aid.
Dorothy's Return is both over-animated and under-animated: The robotic mo-cap main characters move too little and have no weight; the equally weightless free animation of the Jester’s acrobatics is so jerky, it's nerve-wracking to watch. The character designs are unattractive: Glinda looks like a misshapen Barbie Doll, with weirdly slated eyes, a tiny mouth and a wasp waist.
The songs by five different writers are unnecessary and forgettable. Dorothy's opening anthem sounds so derivative, it's surprising she doesn't conclude, "Cold never bothered me, anyway!" Despite the presence of big-name (and not-so-big-name) stars, the vocal performances are unimpressive, and the characters never shut up. Martin Short's attempts at being manically comic and/or menacing make the viewer realize just how long 93 minutes can feel.
The film is being released theatrically instead of going direct to video (the bargain bin), where it belongs. And at the end, the Jester isn't killed: he disappears into the tornado he summoned - which means they've left open the possibility of sequel. Some locusts mount similar sequels every 17 years.