Judge Bryan Pope finally decided his future lies beyond the yellow brick road.
All the fun and splendor of the magical land of Oz in a wonderful new full-length musical cartoon adventure!
When we last left Dorothy Gale, she had been safely returned to Aunt Em's and Uncle Henry's sepia-toned, Depression-era farm, leaving behind the colorful wonders of Oz only to subject Toto to further persecution at the hands of nasty old Miss Gulch. After all, it's only a matter of time before the old biddy realizes the pooch figured a way out of that picnic basket.
Director Hal Sutherland's busy, meandering follow-up picks up where the original left off. But it slogs through an unimaginative story that may amuse children, but will leave parents wondering where the magic went. I suppose no movie can capture that special something Victor Fleming's classic had, and this animated film tries. There's something missing, and not just the Munchkins or Dorothy's ruby slippers.
After moping around the farm seriously rethinking her "there's no place like home" philosophy, Dorothy's prayers are answered when yet another cyclone plops her down in the merry ol' land of Oz. And my how things have changed. Scarecrow has been crowned king of Oz, the Tin Man is ruler of "Tin Land," and Cowardly Lion is finally king of the jungle. Oh, and a new wicked witch, Mombi, is hatching a plot to overthrow Scarecrow and take over Oz. Her strategy? Storm the Emerald City with a herd of homegrown green elephants. One can only assume the winged monkeys learned their lesson after the last go-around.
Journey Back to Oz began life in the early 1960s as a project of the struggling Filmation company. Sutherland landed an impressive cast of voices (including Judy Garland's 17-year-old daughter, Liza Minnelli) and secured Oscar-winning songwriting team Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen to write a dozen or so (forgettable) songs. Eventually, the company ran out of money and wasn't able to complete the picture until the early '70s. The film was given a limited theatrical release in 1974 and became a Saturday-afternoon television staple beginning in 1976.
By and large, the animation is better than I expected from a company that eventually gave us He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. The highly stylized background designs, in particular, are splendid, bursting with color. They single-handedly save the film from being the dreary enterprise Disney's 1985 Return to Oz turned out to be (although that film somehow acquired a cult following after moving to home video). On the other hand, the less said about the carelessly animated scenes involving the stampeding elephants, the better.
My biggest qualm with Journey Back to Oz runs deeper. The film betrays several of the original's characters and—most unforgivably—its spirit. Even Sidney Lumet's oft-lamented The Wiz, for all its flaws, had a soul. Both of those films taught us that the things we most desire are already inside of us. It's simply a matter of knowing where to look. We knew all along that Scarecrow had a brain, Tin Man had a heart, and the Lion had courage. They did not, and neither does this movie. Here, Scarecrow is a useless clod who wiles away the hours doing crosswords. When called upon to help their old friends, both Tin Man and Lion are all too eager to pass the buck.
So thank God for small favors that Dorothy picks up a couple of new friends along the way. Pumpkinhead, voiced by the unmistakable Paul Lynde, and Woodenhead Pinto Stallion III (Herschel Bernardi) are among the film's few pleasures. So is Ethel Merman, whose shrill vibrato makes Mombi a fun harpy, even if she doesn't ooze evil like Margaret Hamilton's witch did. Speaking of Hamilton, she does a voice cameo as Aunt Em, a neat twist. A number of other Hollywood luminaries make surprise appearances as well, including Mickey Rooney, Milton Berle and Danny Thomas.
Minnelli is the film's biggest asset, but also its biggest liability. Her voice is spooky in how closely it mirrors that of her legendary mother, but it also serves as a sad reminder of how wonderful a place Oz was the first time we visited, and how you can never really go back.
Journey Back to Oz is given a full-frame transfer. The colors are gorgeously displayed, but the pan-and-scan format is a constant distraction. The stereo soundtrack is clean and crisp. No subtitles.
Entertainment writer Andy Mangels helped supervise special features for this edition, and he has produced an impressive package. The gem is the information-packed, feature-length audio commentary moderated by Mangels. Director Sutherland, producer Lou Scheimer, story director Fred Ladd and director of color Ervin Kaplan go into tremendous technical detail about the film, and it's amazing how much they recall after 30 to 40 years. Some of the stories will interest even the most casual viewer (Minnelli was furious over not being able to re-record her dialogue when she felt she sounded too much like her mother), but this track is a dream come true for animation enthusiasts.
Mangels dug up another feature that, to put it plainly, brought my childhood flooding back. The original television broadcast included a wraparound story starring Bill Cosby (incidentally, Filmation was also behind Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids). Those live-action segments, in which Cosby and two children float above Oz in a hot air balloon while following Dorothy's progress toward the Emerald City, are included here.
Also included are brief interviews with Scheimer, Sutherland and Ladd (listen to the commentary instead), an image gallery, sing-a-long feature, and trailers for a dozen or so other Ink and Paint programs, and they are trippy. The package claims to include a script and music sheets accessible via DVD-ROM, but I was unable to pull these up.
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