A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , , ,

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