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Sunday, April 8, 2012

THE WITCHES OF OZ -- DVD review by porfle



Fans of L. Frank Baum's celebrated Oz series never know what they're going to get in the way of screen adaptations.  They're either bright and whimsical with some deliciously dark touches (like the 1939 classic THE WIZARD OF OZ) or they play up the more bizarre and nightmarish aspects of the books (as in RETURN TO OZ).  Or, in the case of THE WITCHES OF OZ (2011), you get a confusing mish-mash of both styles along with various other fantasy and comic book elements.

This rambling saga (originally televised in two parts) starts out with a LORD OF THE RINGS-style prologue which gives the impression that we're in for a more solemn, Hobbity type of myth-fantasy than the chintzy, cartoonish fairytale that follows.  I think that may be what writer-director Leigh Scott was partially aiming for here, but aside from the scenes with Lance Henriksen as Uncle Henry and Jeffrey Combs as L. Frank Baum--two actors not known for their lighthearted frivolity--it's just too goofy to take that seriously.

Paulie Rojas' Dorothy is like an even more girly and saccharine version of Marlo Thomas' "That Girl" with traces of Didi Conn and Pee Wee Herman.  Wide-eyed and wincingly naive, Dorothy moves from Kansas to New York at the request of gorgeous literary agent Billie Westbrook (Eliza Swenson, who also co-produced and, bless her heart, composed the music) in order to publish her "Oz" stories which were begun by her grandfather "Frank."  But Billie turns out to be the Wicked Witch of the West, and Dorothy's Oz fantasies are really repressed memories of actual experiences that the witch wants to mine for information about a certain key to open a certain very powerful book of spells.

Much of the New York stuff is an awkward attempt to mix kid-friendly fantasy with real-world decadence, with references to "ass-kissing" and "sexing it up a little", terms such as "S.O.B.", and Dorothy being both leered at by a cabbie while changing clothes in the backseat and practically raped by a mugger.  At times, the effect of this clash of sensibilities is not unlike sipping on a bourbon and Kool-Aid cocktail.

During the first hour or so, Dorothy orients herself to big-city life and acquires a love interest--LOTR's Billy Boyd as funny-Scottish flake "Nick Chopper"--while Billie and her cohorts scheme to get the key from her.  With her flowing black hair, knockout bod, and what could only be described as a serious "legs" thing, Eliza Swenson owns the role and gives us an idea of what the '39 film might have been like if they'd gone ahead and cast Gale Sondergaard as the Witch instead of Margaret Hamilton (although Hamilton's likeness and acting style are closely imitated whenever Billie witches out).  The now-MILFy Mia Sara of FERRIS BUELLER fame is a hoot as Billie's wickedly cute but not-too-smart toady Princess Langwidere, who collects heads to wear the way other women collect shoes.

The story is at its best when it maintains a consistent tone for awhile, such as in the extended Kansas sequence that comes about halfway.  Here, we learn some interesting surprises about Dorothy's past as the film quits being tinny and insipid for awhile and comes closest to having an actual heart.  There's a recreation of Dorothy's journey to Oz inside the cyclone which, aside from proving that the '39 film's effects are still better than crappy CGI, finally lets us see the Wicked Witch of the East get crushed by that house while she and a Valkyrie-like Glinda the Good Witch (Noel Thurman) are trading magical destructo beams like a couple of Marvel superheroines.

A lot happens during the chaotic final hour when the Wicked Witch unleashes her evil minions, including some Flying Gorillas and, oddly, Lewis Carroll's Jabberwock, in an all-out war on New York City.  Some of it marginally cool, with the rest of the familiar Oz characters such as Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man losing their human fascades and regaining their true personas in order to engage the forces of evil in battle. 

Much of it, however, is just frenetic, confusing, and, finally, long-winded--especially when Dorothy attempts to "Oprah Winfrey" the Wicked Witch into turning away from the dark side.  Some of the more slapdash battle footage look
s like outtakes from a bad superhero flick like Shaqille O'Neal's STEEL, with the Tin Man resembling a cross between a robot and the original Iron Man.  There's even some mild gore as one of Princess Langwidere's interchangable heads explodes and another gets run over by a truck, and one mano-a-mano encounter ends, strangely enough, with a beheading that recalls the knife-to-the-chest scene in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN! 

Christopher Lloyd plays the Wizard like he's doing dinner theater for an easy-to-please audience, while Lance Henriksen's Uncle Henry comes across like an anvil on a trampoline.  Top honors go to Swenson and Sara for their wickedly winsome witches, along with Sasha Jackson as one of Princess Langwidere's alter egos.  Sean Astin and Ethan Embry earn a few laughs as the diminutive Muckadoos, ordered by Langwidere to bedevil Dorothy but more interested in raiding her refrigerator.  Billy Boyd is at his "I'm Scottish!" cutest here--whether or not that's a good thing is up to you. 

The DVD from Image Entertainment is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound and subtitles in English and Spanish.  Extras consist of a trailer and a trailer-length "behind the scenes" featurette.

While somewhat fun to watch if you can manage to settle into its goofball vibe, THE WITCHES OF OZ is "magical" in a curdled, insincere sort of way that makes it too distasteful for kids and too sickly-sweet for adults.  Oz fans who have to watch everything Oz-related will probably have to watch this, but there's a snowball's chance in Hell of it making a dent in their undying affection for a certain Judy Garland vehicle.



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1 comment:

BlahJoe said...

I'm really interested in this one - considering watching it, great review. Love the original film.