A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 179 – Muppets’ Wizard of Oz

Muppets’ Wizard of Oz – August 26th, 2010

Tonight I was sort of in the mood for something I’ve seen before, but then I looked at the list and thought, well, I keep meaning to watch this. It’s a Muppet movie! It’s based on The Wizard of Oz! Both things I know, so yay! I do have to admit that while I have yet to find a Muppet movie I don’t at least like, some of the newer ones just aren’t the same sort of fun as the old ones. It’s tough for me to put my finger on it, but it’s probably easy to blame it on the absence of Jim Henson. He was the Muppets. It’s entirely possible to emulate his style, but impossible to be him. Still, that doesn’t mean the new stuff isn’t fun. It just isn’t ever going to be the old stuff. But that’s true of just about everything.

I would like to commend the folks who made this movie for at least one thing: The movie is based largely on the original novel, not on the 1939 classic movie. Sure, there are some nods to the movie, in particular I noticed that the lighting in Kansas at the beginning is done so that everything feels washed out and harsh, echoing the black and white of the original movie’s Kansas. It’s subtle, but I think it works. But mostly there’s a lot of book references. The munchkins all in blue, the green glasses in the Emerald City, a magic cap, silver shoes, etc. On one hand, it’s not going to be quite as well known now as the movie. On the other hand, that works for it in my opinion. Trying to spoof the movie could have gone badly, but spoofing the book means less comparison to a movie classic. It presents the story in a new way, with new details. It comes off as part spoof and part homage. And as a librarian, I do love when movies make nods to book details.

Of course, this is a Muppet movie, so the story is adjusted to fit in the characters we’re all expecting. There’s Piggy as all of the witches (sporting different hair styles and taste in clothing for each), Kermit as the Scarecrow, Gonzo as the Tin Man, Fozzie as the Cowardly Lion, the rats as the Munchkins, some of our favorite monsters as the flying monkeys, Statler and Waldorf as the Kalidah (right out of the book), and, my favorite, Pepe as Toto. A bunch of others make appearances too, like Clifford, the Electric Mayhem and Bunsen and Beaker, and I’ve got to say, none of them feel out of place to me. Let’s face it, in the first movie the Electric Mayhem are just hanging around in an old church when Kermit and Fozzie happen upon them. Being the band in a poppy-based nightclub (and having a nightclub with a poppy theme in the first place) isn’t so far fetched. I got precisely the amount of identifiable Muppets I was expecting in this movie, though I guess I’d have liked more crowd shots with random Muppets too.

Seeing as the movie has this whole re-imagining thing going on, the plot is a modern spin on the story. Dorothy lives in a trailer park in Kansas and works at her aunt and uncle’s diner. She wants to be a big star and, in a bit of Muppet meta that’s straight out of the rest of the movies, she wants to audition for the Muppets’ big tour. Her aunt tells her no, she sneaks out, ends up late and doesn’t make it to the auditions and then an argument with her aunt and forgetting her pet prawn (a real prawn, who magically turns into Pepe once in Oz) lead to Dorothy ending up in Oz. Once there, Dorothy decides that Kansas sucked anyhow and she’s glad to be out of there, so she’s going to go to meet the Wizard and get him to make her a star! That right there is the biggest shift. Never mind the modernization and the flying monkeys being a biker gang and cameos from Kelly Osborne and Quentin Tarantino. That’s all just details and dressing. Changing the essence of Dorothy’s character and quest is the Big Ass Deal here.

Given that the lead role is played by a singer, Ashanti, and given that apparently other young female singers auditioned for the role too, I have to assume that the whole “I want to be a star!” plot was nailed down right from the get-go. I get it. I do. The story was supposed to be current and capitalize on young talent. And it’s not like the Muppets haven’t ever capitalized on current talent, right? The Muppet Show, anyone? Take a look at the guest star list. Current talent was the name of the game, mixed in with some established hits. So we’ve also got Queen Latifah and David Allan Grier as Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. Now, I love Queen Latifah, but David Allan Grier will always remind me of Don “No Soul” Simmons. Sorry. But there’s Jeffrey Tambor too, and so we’ve got three established names to go with our young starlet. Ashanti’s not a great actress, but she’s not bad and there’s a certain style musicians who aren’t super seasoned actors tend to have with Muppets, so I expect it. And the only other one who has to act with the Muppets is Tambor, whom we already know is awesome with them.

Now, I won’t get down on the modern references. Napster was dated ages ago, and Manolos are so Sex in the City, the Osbornes aren’t the cultural touchstone they were when the show was new and edgy, though I will give them Quentin Tarantino. He’s got staying power. But as with the musicians-with-Muppets style, I expect current cultural references in my Muppet movies. I expect current names and jokes about fads. It’s part of the style of humor that’s always been there. I laughed at them because even though they are dated, I know exactly what the references mean. And I won’t criticize the Muppets. I think they were all performed wonderfully and I found myself laughing a heck of a lot more than I expected to. I will say a couple of the racier comments and moments seemed a little more Muppet Show than Sesame Street, and if the movie was aiming at family fare, they needed to be more in the middle of the two, but eh, no big. I liked it. I liked it a lot.

If I had to make one criticism it would be the Big Ass Deal. Changing Dorothy’s goal is modern all right, but it struck me as wrong somehow. It’s obviously hardwired into the movie, not tacked on, but it sat uncomfortably with me, for all that they obviously worked hard to shift things in just the right ways to make it work. Maybe it’s that the goal itself, as pointed out by Aunt Em at the beginning, isn’t terribly well thought out and definitely somewhat shallow. Maybe it’s that the movie tries to simultaneously knock down and hold up the “be a star” goal. After denouncing it as fake, and realizing she really just wants to go home, Dorothy ends up getting to be a star anyhow. That’s awkward and undermining of the “message” part of it all. Which is really a pity, because if they’d somehow managed to write the ending better, my only complaint would have been the horrifying CGI chicken woman.

August 26, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz

August 26, 2010

The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz

I bought this movie way back in the days when I was still managing a Suncoast – back before those stores faded from existence. That would be more than five years ago now, and in all that time I haven’t watched this movie. It’s been sitting in our living room, still in its plastic wrap, waiting patiently for us to break it out and give it a view. I kind of had it in my head that this made-for-TV re-telling of the Wizard of Oz was a sort of second-rate rip off, and not a proper Muppet movie at all. Once again I’m glad of our movie-a-day project, because it gave me a chance to find out how wrong this perception was.

The fact of the matter is that this movie is both a very good Muppet movie and a very good adaptation of the original L. Frank Baum book. Or rather it’s an interesting melding of the Muppet universe with the original Wonderful Wizard of Oz story. As a Muppet fan who at one time devoured most of the L. Frank Baum books (back in second grade) I was intrigued and pleased.

Let’s start out with what has been changed. The story has been moved to the present day, and Dorothy works in her aunt Em’s diner. She dreams of being a big star and singer, but her aunt warns her that stardom is not all it’s cracked up to be and wants her to stay home with her and uncle Henry. (This is particularly witty, since Em is payed by Queen Latifah, who should know a little about super-stardom.) Instead of a cute little dog Dorothy has a pet prawn (and any Muppet fan knows where that is headed.) Eventually of course Dorothy is carried away in her double-wide pre-fab trailer park home to the magical land of Oz.

Interestingly there are a lot of bits from the book that are preserved in this adaptation which are not in the more famous nineteen-thirties version. The book has episodes where each character demonstrates that they already possess the characteristic they’re going to the Wizard to ask for, so there’s the Lion crossing a log and defeating some beasts (kind of tiger-men in the book I think.) Then there’s the scarecrow being forced to think of a way to rescue Dorothy and the Lion when they are overcome in the poppy fields. The wicked witch of the west commands the flying monkeys with a magic cap and has an eye that can see all. Everybody in the Emerald City must wear emerald glasses. Much of this is preserved in this re-telling. It’s just Muppefied. (For example the wicked witch’s cap is a magic biker’s hat because the flying monkeys are here a leather wearing biker gang.)

Toto is played by Pepe the Prawn, which is probably the biggest departure in the movie. Pepe, and Bill Baretta who performs him, is the break out star of the next generation of Muppets, so it’s a pleasure to see him. He acts to keep the movie light and current, not letting it ever become bogged down. Kermit plays the Scarecrow, the de-facto leader of Dorothy’s band in spite of his not having any brains. Gonzo is the Tin Thing. And Fozzie is the Cowardly Lion. Fozzie is another of the slight departures from the book – here he is afflicted by stage fright and must overcome his fears to become a great comedian. The creatures he must defeat when they are crossing the log are Statler and Waldorf, who try to heckle the group into falling. Miss Piggy plays all four of the witches, a nifty idea that I feel worked really well.

The performances in general are great. Ashanti, as Dorothy, is less irritating than some human stars in Muppet movies have been (in particular I’m thinking of the interminable human musical number in Muppet Christmas Carol, but that’s another review entirely.) At times she seems a little out of her element, but for the most part she holds her own. I was delighted to see Jeffrey Tambor as the Wizard (because I’m always delighted to see Jeffrey Tambor.) Scooter appeared with his first speaking role since Richard Hunt passed away (I believe) here performed by Rickey Boyd. Kevin Clash (best known as Elmo of course) got to reprise the role of Clifford from Muppets Tonight, which is always fun to see. Most importantly for me I noted in the closing credits that the torch had been passed for all of Frank Oz’s characters. I have suspected since the days of Muppets From Space that somebody new has been performing Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Animal, Sam the Eagle and all, and here I finally see his name. It’s Eric Jacobson, in case you’re curious, and he does an admirable job. And of course there’s Bill Baretta as Pepe and Johnny Fiama. I’m so pleased to see so many new Muppets coming into their own and old characters being passed on to a new generation of Muppeteers.

Oh, this isn’t a great movie. It doesn’t have the heart of The Muppet Movie or the originality of Muppets From Space. It does, however, do a good job at what it sets out to do. It provides a new interpretation of the book for all those who have only ever seen the 1939 musical, and it has a number of fun cameos. It could have been just a cheap made-for-TV attempt to wring cash from a pair of old franchises (the Oz books and the Muppets) but in the end it actually manages to entertain by finding a way to blend these two old franchises into something fresh and new.

August 26, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment