Written by Adam Balsam and Randi Barnes
Directed by Will Finn and Daniel St. Pierre
Roughly a minute after the opening credits of Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return end, the Lion (no longer Cowardly) not-so-playfully threatens to give the Tin Man an “oil change.” Although this is but the first of many groaners to come, it at least establishes an accurate, if unentertaining, tone to the picture. There might be a nugget of an interesting story in this adaptation if the computer animation wasn’t so cheap-looking and flat, or if the character development in the script felt earned or logical, but Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return is a mostly poor excuse for a start to the summer movie season in terms of family-friendly fare.
Lea Michele voices Dorothy Gale, who wakes up the morning after her initial adventures in Oz to discover that the infamous tornado has destroyed her aunt and uncle’s house and farm to the point where it’s condemned by a mysterious and snarky appraiser (Martin Short). Before she can convince Auntie Em that simply leaving everything behind is the best option, she’s whisked away via rainbow (appropriately) to Oz by the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion (Dan Aykroyd, Kelsey Grammer, and Jim Belushi, respectively). When Dorothy and her little dog Toto arrive, they’re shocked to discover that many years have passed by in this fantastical land, which is now ruled by a cruel Jester (Short again) who’s locking up various leaders of the sections of Oz. Now, it’s up to her and a group of odd new friends, including a chatty owl (Oliver Platt), an officious marshmallow (Hugh Dancy), and the China Princess (Megan Hilty), to save the day.
In some respects, Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return hearkens back to a time in animation that’s long since passed. Although the film is computer-animated, the set-up, the female lead, the fantasy scenario, the songs, and the wisecracking sidekicks all recall the formula of the Disney Renaissance. Unfortunately, this comparison only proves detrimental, because comparing this film to The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast or even Pocahontas only emphasizes how much more accomplished they are, at least visually. (Co-director Will Finn worked on the latter two of those Disney pictures, as well.) The animation, from Prana Studios and Summertime Entertainment, is both uninspired and a little uncanny-valley-esque; characters like Dorothy have uncomfortably lifeless eyes even when they’re meant to be excited or especially emotional. Thus, it wouldn’t matter if the story taking place was more compelling, because the visuals simply don’t measure up.
Of course, the story’s not terribly interesting; it covers a lengthy amount of ground, but even though Dorothy picks up a new trio of friends to accompany her to the Emerald City, it’s just an impossible task to match up with the iconic 1939 film with Judy Garland. The Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man are part of this film, but as supporting characters (even though the movie opens with them frantically sending a message to Dorothy to help them with the as-yet-undefined threat from the Jester). Wiser the Owl, Marshal Mallow, and the China Princess simply cannot compete, even if the struggles they have aren’t quite as specific as needing a brain, a heart, and a nerve of steel. Also, the songs—by Bryan Adams, Jim Dooley, Tift Merritt, and Jim Vallance—may be constant, but they’re wholly unmemorable. Even if this movie isn’t meant as a direct continuation of the Garland version of The Wizard of Oz, that’s the gold standard. A movie like 1985’s Return to Oz, which also features Dorothy returning to a destroyed Oz and meeting new friends, may not be a brilliant film, but it has enough style and visual flair to compensate.
Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return has only a couple of flashes of wit amidst a generally bland and tiresome whole. Its star, Lea Michele, would seem to be the perfect choice to play a Disney princess (or something close to it); her Broadway chops alone qualify, but movies like this are the wrong kind of vehicle. Returning to the world of Oz is a kind of spectacle that has become, over time, particularly familiar. There will be an overload of color, fantastical creatures, and more; such is the description of nearly every blockbuster, let alone most animated films. In that respect, and in most others, Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return feels like almost every other wide-release movie, instead of something special and singular.
— Josh Spiegel