The fun starts when the Muppets team up with an all-star cast that includes Grammy Award winner Ashanti, Oscar® nominee Queen Latifah (2002, Best Supporting Actress, Chicago), David Alan Grier, Academy Award® winner Quentin Tarantino (1994, Best Original Screenplay, Pulp Fiction, and Jeffrey Tambor. Ashanti sparkles as Dorothy, an aspiring singer whose dreams of fame and fortune seem worlds away from coming true in the Kansas trailer park where she lives with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. But when a tornado transports her and Toto (Pepe the King Prawn) to the magical land of Oz, Dorothy meets the Wizard, who promises to make her a superstar – if she and her wacky new friends, the Scarecrow (Kermit), the Tin Thing (Gonzo), and the Cowardly Lion (Fozzie), can defeat Oz’s #1 diabolical diva, the Wicked Witch of the West (Miss Piggy)!
Featuring original music, hilarious performances, and 20 minutes of never-before-seen footage, The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz will lift your spirits and blow you away!
eyelights: Pepe the Prawn. Jeffrey Tambor.
eyesores: the cgi effects. Miss Piggy’s musical number.
“We’re on our way to see the Wizard of Oz, and he’s gonna make me a famous singer.”
‘The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz’ is a television movie that was produced by Disney’s Touchstone Television and broadcast on Disney’s ABC TV Network’s ‘The Wonderful World of Disney” on March 20, 2005. It was subsequently released on DVD in a longer cut, extended by well over 15 minutes (the box says 20 minutes, which is inaccurate).
Given the Muppets’ output since the ’90s, and the fact that they were now associated with tripe-peddling Disney, I instantly took a dislike to it. The fact that it featured Ashanti in the lead didn’t help; already unimpressed by her pop confections, I couldn’t even fathom what her acting pedigree might be given that this was her feature film debut. It didn’t bode well.
So I steered clear of it – like any self-respecting Muppets fan would do. I didn’t think twice about it at all.
Many years later, however, I got the chance to pick up the DVD for 2$. In a moment of weakness (‘The Muppets’ had recently been released), I decided that perhaps it would be worth exploring. I figured that the worst that would happen is that it would suck and I would resell it at a profit. However, it was always possible that it might not be all bad. Unlikely, but conceivable.
And so it is that I have come face to face with Disney’s version of the Muppets’ version of L. Frank Baum’s ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’.
‘The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz’ started off favourably. Taking the form of a music video, complete with credits for Dorothy Gale (Ashanti), we are taken into the world of a young Kansas girl who aspires to make a life for herself in Hollywood, as a singer. For some reason, she lives with her aunt (Queen Latifah) and uncle (David Alan Grier) and works in their diner.
I enjoyed this opening because it was a pleasing update of the original story, one that reflects our current celebrity-focused culture. Of course Dorothy dreams of becoming a star! (It wasn’t lost on me that Disney’s teen star factory is notorious from bringing out pop culture’s worst role models, evidently. And, given Ashanti’s age, it struck me as an unusual mix.)
I was actually rather enjoying myself in the beginning – surprisingly so. The interactions between Dorothy and her caretakers were decent, there were a number of small gags along the way, and we even were introduced to Pepe in the role of Toto – the most perfect substitute one could ever imagine, what with his sarcastic, hilariously self-involved personality.
I was starting to wonder why I had hesitated all this time.
Then we were introduced to the rest of the cast, which consisted of Kermit as the Scarecrow, Gonzo as the Tin Thing and Fozzie as the Lion (in a gorgeous redesign, complete with a full mane), and the film started to go downhill from there. That’s when I began to realize that this ‘Wizard of Oz’ is plagued by a similar issue as ‘Muppet Treasure Island‘ did: The Muppets are not themselves.
Aside from Pepe, who can fill in for a personality-less character with his own, the other Muppets are bound by their own characters’ personalities. This means that Kermit has to play a meek nitwit, Gonzo has to tone it down to be down-to-earth, and Fozzie ends up playing a mellow version of Woody Allen. What makes them so endearing to us, is inhibited by their roles.
The human actors are okay. There aren’t many of them, and they play it straight and narrow. Not great, but passable. However, there is a wickedly fun turn by Jeffrey Tambor as the Wizard himself, delightfully chewing the scenery just right. This makes up for a mercifully short (but altogether too long) interlude that features Quentin Tarantino, a non-actor by any standard.
This is part of the picture’s failed attempt to ring in a few pop culture references; by involving Tarantino, the film tries to get street cred. Except that it’s such a lame bit that it does the reverse. Then there’s the moment when Kermit asks the Wizard of Oz if he’s related to Muppeteer extraordinaire Frank Oz; a decent idea that was really poorly executed.
The only really good reference in the whole movie is at the beginning of the picture and belongs to Pepe: as he and Dorothy find themselves in the magical land of Oz, he turns to the camera and tells the audience that those who have Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ should start it now. This was a nice wink at everyone who’s heard of the urban myth about the album.
Otherwise, though, the humour was as hit and miss as the musical numbers were. Unlike the last two films, the few songs in this picture are originals that were penned for the occasion. Some are decent. And then there’s Miss Piggy’s big number, which was a bloody awful faux-metal tune that was show-stopping in that bad way. It made me think of the worst of ’80s hard rock. Ick.
Even worse is the horrible CGI that plagues this ‘Wizard of Oz’. I realize that it is a television production, which means limited budgets, but if you can’t make it happen, then don’t do it. The Muppets have always fared extremely well with puppetry and a little creativity. So why insist on inserting CGI and then do it so badly as to ruin entire sequences?
Case-in-point, the Muppets’ first encounter with the Wizard of Oz was made near-unwatchable because of the poor animation. Like the book, they had him appear to each individual character in different forms. Unfortunately, they looked so bad (especially the “alluring” woman, who couldn’t move naturally) that I just sat there dumbfounded instead of in awe.
Speaking of which, if there’s anything that’s really worth noting about this production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’, it’s that the filmmakers based themselves on the book, not on the classic Judy Garland film. This means that some of the plot points are different (the magic shoes aren’t red), as are some characters (the good witches aren’t amalgamated into one).
But that’s pretty much where the good points of ‘The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz’ end. The last half of the picture plods along without much heart, brains or courage. Its only saving grace is Pepe and Jeffrey Tambor, who bring charm and wit to an otherwise unexceptional production. It’s too bad, because, for a while there, it looked like it might restore the Muppets’ old magic.
Alas, it got lost in Oz.
Date of viewing: March 10, 2014