Sunday, March 9, 2014

Journey Back to Oz (1974)

          The most noteworthy aspect of Journey Back to Oz, a slipshod animated sequel to the classic live-action movie The Wizard of Oz (1939), is the fact that Liza Minnelli provides the voice of intrepid heroine Dorothy Gale. (Minnelli’s mother, legendary entertainer Judy Garland, played the role in The Wizard of Oz.) Minnelli acts the part with passion and sweetness, singing several songs with her signature gusto, but the novelty of her presence isn’t sufficient to make Journey Back to Oz feel special. Setting aside the film’s second-rate visuals—production company Filmation’s crude style falls somewhere between the cheapness of Hanna-Barbera and the elegance of Walt Disney—the main problem is the story, an unimaginative retread of the original film. When Journey Back to Oz begins, Dorothy is once again bored in Kansas, wishing for a return visit with her magical friends. A cyclone conveniently appears, plopping Dorothy on the side of the Yellow Brick Road. She meets several new friends, discovers that the kingdom is once again threatened by a wicked witch, and rallies new and old pals to help restore order.
          Even though the makers of Journey Back to Oz borrowed liberally from the work of L. Frank Baum—the creator of the Oz universe—new characters and contrivances fail to impress. The Signpost (Jack E. Leonard) is a likeable dunderhead patterned after the original story’s Scarecrow; Woodenhead Pinto Stallion III, a wooden horse, serves the same valiant-but-clumsy function as the original story’s Tin Man; and so on. Worse, beloved characters appear in disappointing iterations. For instance, the Cowardly Lion is portrayed as having lost the nerve he gained with Dorothy’s help, and the Scarecrow, though now King of Oz, is a non-presence who spends most of the story in captivity. Furthermore, Filmation’s strategy of frontloading the voice cast with famous actors is distracting, because each of the actors adheres to his or her familiar persona. For instance, Ethel Merman delivers obnoxiously loud vocals as the witch Mombi, while Paul Lynde, portraying the new character Pumpkinhead, sounds like his usual bitchy-queen self.
          Yet another problem is the film’s song score, penned by Hollywood pros Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, because the numbers are hopelessly trite compared to the magical tunes in The Wizard of Oz. The Cahn-Van Heusen numbers range from the saccharine (“Keep a Happy Thought”) to the embarrassingly blunt (“That Feeling for Home”). Ultimately, Journey Back to Os doesn’t trample on fond memories—as did the bizarre live-action 1985 sequel Return to Oz—but the whole thing feels half-assed and unnecessary. No wonder the picture flopped during its initial theatrical release. Nonetheless, Journey Back to Oz found an audience when it was resuscitated for television a short while later, with new live-action bits featuring Bill Cosby created to bracket the original animated feature.

Journey Back to Oz: FUNKY

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