Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Muppets' Wizard of Oz, Part 5: By the Book

The Wizard of Oz appears on Oz television to present his gifts of brains, a heart, and courage.  But, despite his pledge to be truthful, he plays up his phony act and delivers fake placebos to satisfy the citizens.  He gives Dorothy her chance to become a famous singer, but she uses her moment in the spotlight to expose the fraud.  She decides that she'd rather live her normal life in Kansas than sell her soul to live a lie.

Yet, she still appears in this movie.

The Wizard tells her to find the Good Witch of the South who can lead her home, for reals.  Dorothy travels back to Munchkinland, where Glinda is visiting with Tattypoo and (after a brief bit of continuity fun where Glinda Piggy falls in love with Kermitcrow) it is revealed that by clicking her heels, Dorothy can return home.

I'll miss this crazy place.

Dorothy ends up back at Aunt Em's where, of course, Kermit is waiting to offer her a spot in the Muppets' tour.  Everyone lives happily ever after and nobody questions exactly what Dorothy went through over the past couple of days.

No questions asked!

Thus ends The Muppets' Wizard of Oz!

L. Frank Baum had one big thing going for him as an author.  He was an idea man.  He came up with a slew of interesting characters, settings, themes, and items and assembled them to create a fantastic world that children enjoyed visiting.  Unfortunately, he seemed to have an issue with plot structure.  If you read the many stories in the Oz series, you'll find that Baum enjoys introducing these elements more than he does writing a cohesive story.

The reason The Wonderful Wizard of Oz works the best out of the whole series is because there is a clear overriding theme of understanding yourself.  The Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion each doubt their own abilities and learn to trust themselves.  On paper, Dorothy's quest is pointless.  She's able to return home as soon as her journey begins.  But, as they say, it's not about the destination. But even this classic suffers from Baum's writing faults.

Fortunately, the 1939 MGM film fixed a lot of these issues, making it the classic that it is today.  It elevates the Wicked Witch to be the central antagonist, introducing her earlier and moving her death towards the end, giving the story a lot more focus.  The Good Witches are combined into a singular entity, cutting out a lot of unnecessary travel time, post-climax.  And character relationships are allowed to develop, making Dorothy more of a leader, rather than a bystander to the events.

Because the old version is made so well, all others have to pale in comparison.  Due to copyright issues, anything that the MGM film changed or added to the story is off-limits in other adaptations.  Much of what we associate with the story comes from that film.  The ruby slippers, the Witch's appearance, the music, the memorable lines.  No other version can use these.

The Muppets' Wizard of Oz chooses to embrace the original (at least, plot wise), but with this faithfulness comes many of the issues.  For example:

- Dorothy becomes a blank slate.  Any young female singer-actress could have played Dorothy and the movie would be exactly the same.  Outside of the bookending scenes, Ashanti never gets a moment to herself.  She doesn't quite bond with her travel companions.  Judy Garland, however, is Dorothy, and she is Dorothy the whole way through.  You understand what kind of person she is in the way she acts around the Scarecrow or the Witch or the Wizard.  Ashanti just does what Dorothy is supposed to do since the script requires it.

- The journey is no longer a dream.  In the original story, all of what happens in Oz is actually supposed to have happened.  This helps pave the way for sequels, of course, but it creates an odd moment for when Dorothy returns.  This girl has literally discovered a new country filled with new species and physical laws.  Shouldn't there be any...follow up by the government or someone?  When the trip is a dream, it further drives home the point that this is a personal experience for Dorothy to learn about herself and how she fits in the world.  This movie makes it all the more awkward because now the Muppets exist alongside their Ozian counterparts.  So, are there two Pepes?  What does this mean?  Everyone just reacts to the news that Dorothy has been gone with, "Oh, we thought you were dead.  Glad you're not!" And Dorothy never explains what happened to her.  That's creepy when you think about it.

- Everything happens because that's how it happened in the book.  Save for one important change which I'll get to later, the Muppets don't really bring anything new to the table.  There are three superior Muppet productions that I cannot help but compare this to.  The Muppet Christmas Carol, while also staying close to the book, worked because it presented an accessible version of the story to a younger generation while keeping that Muppet perspective.  Muppet Treasure Island was just a flat-out comedy that had a lot of fun with the material.  But a TV movie doesn't have the same budget as these feature films, you say?  Well, then how about the Alice in Wonderland episode of The Muppet Show?  It had to scale things down a lot, but it still managed to create fun situations.  All of these productions had the feeling that the cast and crew were enjoying themselves the whole time.  Much of this films reeks of cashing paychecks.  Muppets + Oz equals an guaranteed audience.  Why bother doing any extra work?

BUT through all of the mediocrity...there is a glimmer of something unique.

The Muppets are performers looking for recognition.  The driving force behind The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie is the journey that these individuals take to achieve their fame.  Traveling west, toward a better life, the ultimate American dream.  This translates perfectly to an Oz adaptation.

So, I greatly appreciated any element that referred to this interpretation of the story.  Dorothy wanting to be a singer, the Lion wanting to be a comedian, the Witch wanting all of the fame and glory for herself, and even the Wizard's phoniness.  This is why the Kalidah Critics scene is my favorite in the whole film.  It embraces this concept wholeheartedly.  This is a solid reason to create a new version of the story.

Wow, a rare, genuine, thematically relevant moment!

Unfortunately, the movie never transcends beyond this basic idea.  It never takes that next step.  The Lion's fear becomes stage fright, but what of the Scarecrow and the Tin Thing?  What does it mean to be brainless and heartless in Hollywood?  The answer seems so simple and rife with material.  The fact that the movie doesn't even consider going down this path greatly disappoints me.

It's just more fun to dress them up in costumes, I guess.

The Muppets' Wizard of Oz could have been great.  It could have been a classic in it's own right.  But it plays it too safe, too close to the book.  Other forays into Oz were more successful, such as the song medley from The Muppets Go to the Movies as well as the Muppet Babies episode coincidentally called "By the Book."  But this time, there was no Rainbow Connection.

So please enjoy the only Muppet version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that is worth your time.

No comments:

Post a Comment