With the voices of Lea Michele, Kelsey Grammer, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi, Martin Short. Written by Adam Balsam, Randi Barnes. Directed by Will Finn, Dan St. Pierre. Rated PG for some scary images and mild peril. 88 minutes.
With the summer’s big animated film not coming out until June, and May being given over to “Spider-Man,” “Godzilla” and “X-Men,” it’s the perfect time to bring out a cartoon movie like LEGENDS OF OZ: DOROTHY’S RETURN for little kids that probably should have gone direct to video. Based on one of the recent Oz books by Roger S. Baum, the great-grandson of Oz creator L. Frank Baum, it’s an adventure mixing some familiar characters with some new ones in story that should divert the youngsters while having their parents checking their watches.
Another tornado has hit the Kansas town where Dorothy (voice of Lea Michele) lives and a shady “appraiser” (Martin Short) arrives to condemn everyone’s property and kick them out. Dorothy objects but before she can fight back she is whisked to Oz by the Scarecrow (Dan Aykroyd), the Tin Man (Kelsey Grammer), and the no-longer-cowardly Lion (Jim Belushi). It seems Emerald City and the rest of Oz is under attack by the Jester (Martin Short again), brother to the late Wicked Witch of the West. He has turned Glinda the Good Witch (Bernadette Peters) and other characters into marionettes, using the magical powers still contained in his sister’s broomstick.
To find her friends, Dorothy and Toto have to make new alliances, including with a talkative owl named Wiser (Oliver Platt), a marshmallow soldier (Hugh Dancy), and a china princess (Megan Hilty). There’s even an old, dying tree named Tugg who allows himself to be turned into the boat the characters need and is voiced by none other than Patrick Stewart. There are some mild scares along the way but even the cartoon’s flying monkeys aren’t half as frightening as the ones in the 1939 Judy Garland film. If your children can handle that, this should be a breeze.
There are songs from time to time but don’t expect any of them to buzzing through your head afterwards. There’s nothing like “Frozen’s” hit “Let It Go” here. On the other hand while the animated characters are rather straightforward, the textures in the film are quite remarkable. From human hair to Wiser the owl’s feathers to the patina of the china figurines, the quality of the computer animation is quite good. If the script doesn’t compare to the best of films of Pixar and DreamWorks, the animation clearly builds on what has been done earlier to good effect.
The film also manages to avoid the “uncanny valley” effect, where the more realistic the animated human characters are the more artificial they seem, especially around the eyes. Of course most of the characters here are fantasy creations, but even in the Kansas scenes the human characters are just cartoonish enough to work. This seems to be the first independent feature from Prana Animation in India, which has done some work-for-hire for Disney. If they get a script that plays for adults as well as kids, they could be a studio to watch. Until then “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” is strictly for the little ones, although serious students of computer animation may want to take a look as well.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.