'Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return'
Directors: Will Finn, Dan St. Pierre
Voices of: Lea Michele, Dan Aykroyd
L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” is a major cultural institution, and yet one can count the number of major films it’s spawned on one hand. That’s partly because it’s not Baum’s books but a movie — the 1939 titan — that looms largest in the world’s mind. One, however, can always count on a cheapie adaptation, usually one from small companies. Films like 1971's "Journey Back to Oz" — with Judy Garland's daughter, Liza Minnelli — or "The Witches of Oz" boast cut-rate visuals and affordable casts, and were made only after jumping through a gauntlet of copyright loopholes.
That would seem to explain the so-called “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return,” a DTV-style toon inexplicably slipped into theaters and charging extra for 3-D that largely exists to make the images darker than intended. All the expected Oz elements are here, except for the ones that weren’t able to be obtained legally (like the ruby slippers). The animation looks like cut-scenes from '90s video games while the hot voice cast includes Jim Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Martin Short, who voices an evil jester. If that wasn’t popular-20-years-ago enough for you, the songs are by Bryan Adams.
There are 14 “Oz” books to choose from, and it’s telling that it goes with one not by Baum, but by Roger S. Baum, the author’s great-grandson. It’s a cheapie cash-in of a cheapie cash-in. Here, Dorothy (voiced by “Glee’’’s 27-year-old Lea Michele) is summoned by a moving rainbow to the alternate universe from which she’s just escaped. Among the terrible friends she collects on her journey are an annoying fat owl (Oliver Platt), an old tree (Patrick Stewart) and a regal marshmallow (Hugh Dancy), gravely overestimating the public’s desire to see puffy foodstuffs made to talk in posh British accents.
She also meets a girl made of china (Megan Hilty), which also happened in last year’s “Oz the Great and Powerful.” That film had its haters, but it had ambition and genuine love for the material and the period, thanks to director Sam Raimi. This is an in-name-only desecration, amusingly pathetic in its attempts to be classier than it is. There are scores of puns; each time you hear the name "Marshal Mallow," you relish the poetic simplicity of naming a scarecrow character “Scarecrow.” It can’t even get Depression-era Kansas right — Dorothy appears to come from a land where people dress in plaid that came from the Gap, while a skateboard even makes an appearance. That it scored a few actual names — Bernadette Peters is in this, amazingly, as a squeaky-voiced Glinda — gives it the veneer of class, but it was designed to fool kids and their gullible parents, yet make everyone who sees it sad.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge