The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz

muppets-oz-poster“Those of you who have Dark Side of the Moon, press play now.”

The Scoop: 2005 NR, directed by Kirk R. Thatcher and starring Ashanti, Jeffrey Tambor, and Quentin Tarantino

Tagline: Everyone’s Favorite Story Becomes One Twisted Tale.

Summary Capsule: The Muppets and, inexplicably, Ashanti, are off to see the Wizard!

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Al’s Rating: A horse of a different color, but it’s all good!

Al’s Review: In the fall of 1989, just nine months before the death of Jim Henson, newspapers reported that Jim Henson Productions was in talks with The Walt Disney Company to sell the beloved Muppets for $150 million. After his passing, the deal crumbled.

Not forgotten, however, the near-takeover remained a dark cloud that every fan of The Jim Henson Factory had hovering in the back of their minds, as Buena Vista, Touchstone, and other WDC divisions became distributors of new Henson projects. In March of 2004, after the burning mountain plummeted into the sea but before the star Wormwood poisoned all the fresh water on the planet, rights to Kermit and the gang were purchased from Brian and Lisa Henson by the suits at Walt Disney for an undisclosed amount. The Internet wept. The Muppets working for The Mouse? Blasphemy! Could it really ever be the same? We didn’t have to wait long to find out: on May 20, 2005, The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz premiered on ABC.

So, how did they fair under Mickey’s yoke? Not too bad, actually. Ashanti as Dorothy, is, admittedly, rather bland and looking a little lost surrounded by all the felt and foam rubber. She could have used a few more films acting against human beings, methinks, before taking this on, but she works well enough to get the job done. Kermit as the Scarecrow without a brain, Gonzo as the teched-out Tin Thing without a heart, and Fozzie as the Cowardly Lion with a bad case of stage fright all fill out their roles rather nicely; each is funny in their own right, but are pretty much as you would imagine L. Frank Baum’s characters would be if played by Muppets, so there you go.

Moreso than simply filling in existing characters with frogs and pigs and bears and whatevers, the reason I began to like this film is that the stuff that is important to the story of The Wizard of Oz is all handled rather cleverly. The gingham dress is there, but is now part of a waitressing outfit from Aunt Em’s Diner. The flying monkeys still menace the skies, but now as a flying biker gang. Rather than wanting… wait, what did Dorothy want in the original? Was it just to go home? I guess… anywho, this Dorothy wants first and foremost to be a pop star with a music career, and after hearing of the wonderful Wizard, is off on the yellow-brick road with Toto, her loyal pet king prawn. Oh, yes — Pepe the King Prawn. Pepe the Prawn is, far and away, the very best thing about this movie — everything he says, every expression he makes, every single “…okay” that he ends his sentences with, has me absolutely on the floor. Say what you will about Clifford and everything else that came with Muppets Tonight!, Pepe is the coolest addition to the Muppet family in ten years. This is clearly his movie, and he shines.

The Muppets films released since the death of Jim Henson (Muppets Christmas Carol, Muppets Treasure Island, Muppets from Space) have been largely divisive among fans, as the humor has gotten more slapsticky and scattershot over the years. For those people who’ve been turned off by that progression, you’ll find no salvation here. The jokes in Muppets’ Wizard of Oz are largely goofy and obvious and more than once fall flat on their face. It’s also riddled with pop culture references and cameos that may be obsolete by the time you finish reading this review, but, let’s be honest: People out there born after 1980? How excited were you to see Dom DeLuise or Cloris Leachman or Telly Savalas pop up in The Muppet Movie? People born after 1990, how many of you can pick Cloris Leachman out in a line up? Maybe I’m not giving the average Joe enough credit, but I still watch the first three Muppet movies and say “I know that’s someone famous, but I’m really at a loss here…” So I don’t necessarily see a mention of Napster or Quentin Tarantino pitching action scenes ala Kill Bill as a something that will condemn the film to obsolescence in five years.

The Disney-fied Muppets are also, believe it or not, a little blue this time around. Not a lot, mind you, but the term ‘witch-slapped’ had me rewinding a few times to make sure I heard what I heard, and if you’ve ever wanted to see Gonzo talk about his nipples, this may be your film. There have been lots of complaints about the direction they’ve taken the humor of this go-round, any quick scan of Amazon.com or IMDb will make that more than apparent, but I really think people are making quite a lot of noise over some pretty tame stuff. Does it rob the characters of some of their sweetness? Maybe a bit. Is it anything more eyebrow-raising than what you can find in Ren & Stimpy? I think not. In addition, none of the lines are necessarily out of character for those who speak them, it’s maybe just kicked up a notch from what previous outings would have you expect.

So one chapter in Muppet history has closed and another has opened. Our fine felted friends have persevered and journeyed successfully into the new century. It’s no longer 1979, and this isn’t your mama’s Muppet Movie, but neither is it Meet the Feebles. The easier it is to wrap your head around those facts, the sooner you’ll be able to enjoy this clever, demented and tremendously funny return to form. It’s not a perfect film, and when jokes are off the mark, it can be a little cringe-worthy. But these are the Muppets, and when they are on their game, they still know how to knock it out of the park. Despite all it’s naysayers, The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz is a fine start to a new Muppet dynasty and Kermit and company still have it, even when ‘it’ comes bearing mouse ears.

That's some spicy pork!

That’s some spicy pork!

Intermission!

  • Several elements of this adaptation are taken from L. Frank Baum’s original novel, rather than the 1939 film:
    • Dorothy’s magic slippers are silver instead of the traditional ruby
    • Tattypoo, the Good Witch of the North (who gives Dorothy the slippers) and Glinda, the Good Witch of the South (who gets Dorothy home) are two separate characters again
    • The flying monkeys are controlled by whoever a wears a certain magic cap; in the novel it’s golden, in the movie it’s biker
    • The Kalidah Critics – Statler and Waldorf – are based on the Kalidahs of the novel, though they look and act differently
    • The Wicked Witch of the West has an eyepatch and a magic eye
    • Each of the characters see the Wizard in a different way when they meet him
  • Miss Piggy in four roles? That should keep her happy.
  • ‘Kansas’ and ‘chances’? Excellent rhyme!
  • The Harry Potter reference?
  • The brief cameo by the evil bunnies?
  • The crummy 90’s CGI?
  • That Gonzo’s vision of the Wizard is a little disturbing
  • The flying monkeys singing Ride of the Valkyries?
  • All the famous Piggy-fied paintings in the castle?
  • Angel Marie really seems to like whipping

Groovy Quotes

Pepe: Those of you who have Dark Side of the Moon, press play now.

Gonzo (as the Tin Thing): Where’s my cell phone? [screws on his nose]
Pepe: Wait a second. That’s your cell phone?
Gonzo: Yeah.
Pepe: Interesting. What do these do? [pushing small buttons on Gonzo’s chest]
Gonzo: Nothing. They’re my nipples.
Pepe: I feel dirty.

Fozzie (as the Lion): Courage? Gosh, that sounds… scary.
Dorothy: Oh, don’t worry. It’ll be okay.
Kermit (as Scarecrow): Yeah, I mean, so you’re not so brave. I’m not so smart.
Gonzo: And I’m so empty inside I could cry.
Pepe: Si, and I’m so gosh-darn sexy it hurts.
Kermit: See, we all have our issues!

Pepe (as Toto): What happens in Emerald City, stays in Emerald City. Okay?

[The Electric Mayhem misses a song cue]
Dr. Teeth: Oops, sorry. [looks around] Hey, nice digs!
Piggy (as the Wicked Witch of the West): You’re late!
Janice: You know, like, not everyone has groovy flying motorbikes, OK?
Floyd Pepper: Yeah, we’ve been driving the same lousy bus since 1978!

Piggy (as the Wicked Witch): You’re a pest!
Rizzo the Rat: A munchkin, actually.
Piggy: Do you know what I do to pests?
Rizzo the Rat: You, uh, welcome them as a part of an unconventional multi-species family?

[on returning to Kansas]
Piggy (as the Good witch of the South): It’s your shoes. They have the power to take you anywhere.
Dorothy: Really? Anywhere? Well, I wish someone would have told me that before these magic shoes gave me these magic blisters.
Piggy: Look, this is the way things work in enchanted lands. The thing you were looking for was there all along! Jeez! Do you wanna get home or not?

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3 Comments

  1. The human performers do tend to be the weak point in any Muppet movie.

    While I certainly appreciate them using the source material instead of the MGM musical, I suspect it was more due to it being in the public domain.

    Assuming you’re reading this Al, here’s something which might be of interest. Last year, a Kickstarter for a Savage Worlds RPG setting called Battle for Oz was successfully funded.

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