Muppets' Wizard of Oz, TheReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/06/05 15:33:59
These are dark days for the Muppet fan.While the past few years has been good to the Jim Henson Company as a whole - “Sesame Street” is as solid as ever; the upcoming “MirrorMask” is getting promising hype; their other various television projects are doing fine - but for the Muppets themselves, things have been far less promising.
The downhill slide began with the 2002 direct-to-video feature “Kermit’s Swamp Years,” a stale, unimpressive throwaway that’s quickly been forgotten. Later that year, the mostly unwatchable “It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie” was created for ABC (the result of the Muppet franchise being bought once again by Disney), and it felt, at the time, that the company had hit the bottom of the barrel. Add in some obnoxious, ill-advised appearances in commercials for Pizza Hut and Denny’s (should Miss Piggy really be selling the ham-and-bacon special?), and it became clear that these were the results of a company in flux, too worn out by so many changes of ownership, unsure of where it was headed. It felt as if these appearances were being made only to keep the Muppet name in the public eye, as if they’d otherwise slip into pop culture obscurity forever.
Which brings us, finally, to “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz,” another made-for-ABC production broadcast earlier this year and now arriving on DVD in its complete cut (some 20 minutes were left out of its original TV run). And if you thought making movies and commercials just to keep Kermit’s Q rating high was bad enough, consider this: it’s been said that the only reason this movie was made was to sell Disney on the potential future profitability of the franchise. If it’s a hit, then Disney can go ahead a greenlight bigger, better projects. If it’s a flop, then it’s so long, Fozzie Bear.
Fozzie’s still around, so I’m guessing that Disney was satisfied with the ratings (and did well to ignore the many critical jabs). But if seeing more of this is what it takes to keep the Muppets around, is it worth it? I mean, I thought that hitting bottom with “Very Merry” meant there was nowhere to go but up; I didn’t think that they’d rather just stay at the bottom.
Which is as good a spot as any to actually get around to discussing the movie. As you can tell from the title, it’s a Muppet revamping of Frank L. Baum’s children’s classic, with Kermit as the Scarecrow, Gonzo as the “Tin-Thing,” Fozzie as the Cowardly Lion, Pepe as Toto, Miss Piggy as all four of the Witches (and as provider of the worst songs ever to come out of a Muppet production), and, adding the human touch, Ashanti as Dorothy.
With no offense meant toward Ashanti, who is both a fine singer and a fine actress (she surprised me with her well-played turn in “Coach Carter”), but reworking Dorothy as a girl who just wants to be a pop star - specifically so all the young Ashanti fans will swarm around their TVs to catch their favorite star belting out ballads in between scenes with Scooter and Sam the Eagle - is an indicator of everything that’s wrong with the Muppets today. The folks at the Henson Company have for too long been straining to be hip. We don’t need our Muppet movies to begin with videos starring the latest pop starlet, but that’s apparently what they think we do.
The whole mess of “Oz” suffers from the same problems as “Very Merry:” as long as whatever’s on screen is fast enough, loud enough, and loaded with enough hipster references, nothing else seems to matter. The Muppets have lost their gentleness, their warmth, their lovability. Their new owners merely want them to be a filter for all the latest pop culture gags. (I still can’t think back on “Very Merry” without cringing at the notion of an unwanted, extended “Moulin Rouge” parody. Sheesh.)
In fact, had I not been familiar with the core of Baum’s story, I’d be busy griping about the complete lack of narrative here. This new “Oz” isn’t a plot-driven adaptation on par with the criminally underrated “Muppet Christmas Carol” and “Muppet Treasure Island;” instead, it’s a series of barely-connected scenes held together simply by the motivation to get to the next inexplicable gag. For a clue on how little thought went into the actual structure of this movie, consider that the finale, which takes a mere five minutes or so in the 1939 classic version, gets stretched to an unbearable twenty minutes, with some nonsense about the Wizard (Jeffrey Tambor) hosting a TV event in which he gives all the heroes their new gifts, followed by Dorothy’s too-late realization that she doesn’t want to be famous (her wish to the Wizard, strangely enough, was never to go home, but to be a superstar) if it means missing her family, followed by more, and more, and more.
And that’s just one example of the movie’s unyielding sloppiness. Consider the scenes involving the Wicked Witch’s Flying Monkeys (a biker gang, in one of the script’s rare moments of cleverness), scenes that stumble over themselves as they try to figure out what to do. Or how about a pointless sidetrack involving a cameo from Quentin Tarantino (yeah, I’m sure all the kids can’t wait to see this guy they’ve never heard of), a one joke scene that goes on for an eternity?
One thing worth mentioning: “Oz” marks the first time that I can recall in which a human refers to the Muppets not as a frog, a pig, a bear, and a whatever, but as puppets. Which helps defeat the whole magic of the franchise, don’tcha think? After all, the main joke behind every Muppet story is that here’s this talking, singing, dancing, banjo-playing frog that everybody accepts as ordinary. And now, we get David Alan Grier throwing out a seemingly innocuous line about how the Muppets are “the most powerful puppets in Hollywood.” And with that one piece of dialogue, the movie does its worst to kill the whole thing. More carelessness that shows how little the new owners understand what makes their property work.
But the biggest killer of the film is, once again, the attempts at modern cool humor. “Oz” makes mention of “The Apprentice,” Las Vegas commercials, Napster, “Girls Gone Wild” (!), and “Dark Side of the Moon,” that last one being the best example of jokes that won’t even make sense to the intended audience. The whole thing, from the hipster nightclub scene to the pointless CGI business with the Wizard, screams, “Look at us!! Aren’t the Muppets still relevant? Hey! We can still be cool and fresh! We’re making fun of Napster! Isn’t that what you kids want? Look! Look over here!!” It’s embarrassing and depressing.Several times throughout the movie, my daughter, age five and a Muppet fan to rival her father, would look over at me, sigh, and, with this look of pure disappointment, ask, “remember the REAL ‘Wizard of Oz?’” I sure do, honey. I sure do. “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz” isn’t even enough to capture a kindergartener. One more sign that something’s gone horribly wrong at Muppet Central, and it’s high time somebody fix it.
|© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.|