Thursday, June 11, 2015

Revisiting The Muppets' Wizard of Oz

Before The Muppets' Wizard of Oz, I remember actually writing out ideas for an Oz movie starring the Muppets. I was seven years old when The Muppets' Wizard of Oz aired in 2005, and I was eager to see my favorite story and some of my favorite characters come together for a new movie. At the time (and for many subsequent viewings on home video), I loved it. But as I've got older, my love for the film has definitely waned...

The Muppets taking on The Wizard of Oz probably looked great on paper. This would be the first Muppets film since Disney acquired the franchise in 2004, and since Disney had enjoyed success with similar adaptations The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island in the 1990s, it just sort of made sense. But unlike its predecessors, The Muppets' Wizard of Oz is filled with so much adult humor and pop culture references that it, bizzarely, feels disrespectful to both the source material and the Muppets franchise (and maybe even the Disney brand itself). There is literally a reference to Girls Gone Wild in this thing, and a really out-of-place cameo by Quentin Tarantino (which oddly earned him top billing on the poster and DVD cover).

The movie does have some positive qualities, however. It's sort of a musical, and the few songs that are here are pretty fun ("Kansas" and "I'm With You" being the most memorable). The sets and visual effects are surprisingly well-realized (especially for its time and likely lower budget). Jeffrey Tambor as the Wizard, Queen Latifah as Aunt Em, and David Alan Grier as Uncle Henry are all well-cast and are clearly having fun in their supporting roles. Ashanti, though not exactly a "natural" actress, seems to give the role her all and is ultimately likeable as Dorothy. But those are just about the only good things I can say about The Muppets' Wizard of Oz, as most of the comedy (something that the Muppets are obviously known for) is either jarringly inappropriate or just falls flat, and moments of magic or wonder (which would be expected to be present in an adaptation of The Wizard of Oz) are largely absent.

There seem to be a lot of references and nods to the film adaptation of The Wiz, but I'm not sure how intentional that connection was. I haven't been able to come across any sort of article or interview with the creative team that discusses that, so it's possible that some of the similarities between the two could just be coincidental. The most obvious similarity is the choice to make Dorothy an African-American adult, but there are several other parallels in terms of adaptation as well, such as the ways the Poppies and Flying Monkeys are portrayed.

Because Disney and ABC gave the film a good push in terms of marketing, it earned solid ratings in its initial airing and likely sold pretty well on home video. It was never directly advertised as a "comeback" for the Muppets, but I think that general feeling was there, and it had the potential to be something special.

Thankfully, Disney managed to get the Muppets franchise back on track in 2011 with The Muppets, which was a finanical and critical success and even won an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Its follow-up Muppets Most Wanted didn't enjoy the same level of success, but still stayed true to the identity of the franchise.

Though I wouldn't recommend this to families (or anyone, really...), I think it's worth at least one viewing for dedicated fans of Oz and/or the Muppets, as long as they go in with appropriate expectations. I personally didn't love the direct-to-video film Tom and Jerry & The Wizard of Oz, but that is a safer (and much more respectful) alternative for younger viewers.

You can buy The Muppets' Wizard of Oz on DVD and digitally here.


ozaline said...

I thought some of Pepe as Toto's humor was good, but yeah it was more bad than good.

Pretty succinct run down.

rocketdave said...

I've never gotten Pepe's appeal; it kind of perplexes me that he's like one of the only characters to survive from Muppets Tonight, aside from Bobo.

I can't think of much to say about The Muppets Wizard of Oz that wasn't already covered in this blog post. Like a number of the Muppets' projects since Jim Henson's passing, it was pretty disappointing.

I was a huge Muppets fan as a kid, but am sad to say that I'm just not into them the way I used to be. I'm not sure if it's because I've grown up or if has to do with the fact that they seemed to lose a little of their magic without their creator. Even the movie The Muppets, which was such a critical hit, I only thought was pretty good. For me, it still didn't quite recapture the feeling of the Muppets in their heyday. I actually thought Muppets Most Wanted was an improvement over the first film, but the fact that critics were less generous the second time around leads me to suspect that a lot of the praise the preceding movie got was largely due to the nostalgia factor. Still, I hope that the upcoming mockumentary series on ABC will be a success; a lot of people seem excited about that.