Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Disney's Journey to Oz, part 4

Far back in the 1930s, Walt Disney dreamed of adapting The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It was not until 2005 that the Disney Company actually produced a film version of the story. However, they mixed one of Walt's fondest wishes with one of their newest acquisitions: Jim Henson's Muppets. The result was the TV movie The Muppets Wizard of Oz.

Jim Henson was also an Oz fan, and Oz references had popped up with the Muppets before: an Alice in Wonderland-inspired sketch with Brooke Shields on The Muppet Show went awry and ended with everyone singing "We're Off To See The Wizard!" A Wizard of Oz medley featured in The Muppets Go to the Movies, and the Muppet Babies episode "By The Book" featured an Oz segment. But that was before the Muppets had become owned by Walt Disney Pictures.

The Muppets had done literary adaptations before, with the heartfelt The Muppets Christmas Carol and the wacky Muppet Treasure Island. They were not a major property at the time, and Disney wanted to revitalize the brand, so Oz would become the new testing ground.

The TV movie opens in modern-day Kansas, where Dorothy (Ashanti) dreams of becoming a superstar, but currently, she's stuck working with Aunt Em (Queen Latifah) and Uncle Henry (David Alan Grier) in their diner. She misses an audition to work with the Muppets, but is able to give Kermit a CD. A tornado strikes the trailer park, and sends Dorothy and her pet prawn Toto to the Land of Oz, where Toto becomes a giant anthropomorphic prawn (Pepe the Prawn). Stepping out into Munchkinland, they meet the Munchkins (Rizzo the Rat and the other rats) and the Good Witch of the North, Tattypoo (Miss Piggy), who tells Dorothy that she landed on the Wicked Witch of the East (Miss Piggy).

Clad in the Witch of the East's silver Monolos, Dorothy and Pepe head down the Yellow Brick Road to meet the Wizard of Oz, who can help Dorothy become a star. Along the way, they meet the Scarecrow (Kermit the Frog), the Tin Thing (Gonzo), and the Cowardly Comedian Lion (Fozzie Bear). Facing the Kalidah critics (Statler and Waldorf) and the drowsy club Poppy Fields (where Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem play), Dorothy and her friends reach the Emerald City at last, where the Wizard sees them one by one in different forms. (Yes, he uses the ball of fire, a lovely lady, a dragon and a giant head, but he appears in these forms to the Scarecrow, Tin Thing, Lion and Dorothy in that order.) He tells them that he needs to bring them the Magic Eye of the Wicked Witch of the West (Miss Piggy).

The Wicked Witch, a diva herself, attacks Dorothy with the Flying Monkeys (a flying biker gang), and plans to televise Dorothy's execution on her reality show. Dorothy manages to kick her into a tub of water, which turns out to have non-purified water in it. (This version clarifies that the Witch only has a reaction to non-purified water.) She melts (though she claims she's getting skinnier at first, shrieking "I win! I win!"), and Dorothy takes the Magic Eye back to the Wizard, who she discovers is a fraud, an ex-tour bus driver from Hollywood (Jeffrey Tambor).

The Wizard uses his control over the media to give Dorothy's friends their gifts and have her sing on TV, but Dorothy realizes that this isn't what she wants after all, so she decides she wants to go home to Kansas. The Wizard instructs her to go see Glinda (Miss Piggy) in Munchkinland. Glinda tells her how to use the Silver Shoes to get home, which Dorothy does, Pepe electing to stay behind. Aunt Em tells Dorothy that she would be all right if Dorothy did become a star as long as her heart's in the right place, and Kermit arrives at the diner to ask Dorothy to join their tour, which she accepts.

The TV movie was not considered a success. Rather than reintroduce the Muppets for a new audience, the movie tried to update them with pop culture references and a little bit of risque humor, which, to this viewer, felt out of place for the Muppets and Oz in 2005. Luckily for the Muppets, a much better revival for them was finally pulled off in 2011.

Still, that Disney had made an Oz movie showed that the yellow brick road was yet beckoning to the company, even in the twenty-first century.

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