UltimateDisney.com | Review Index | Disney Television Movies (1991-Present) | Search This Site

The Muppets' Wizard of Oz DVD Review

Buy The Muppets' Wizard of Oz from Amazon.com The Muppets' Wizard of Oz
Movie & DVD Details

Director: Kirk R. Thatcher

Cast: Ashanti (Dorothy Gale), Jeffrey Tambor (The Wizard of Oz), Quentin Tarantino (Himself), David Alan Grier (Uncle Henry), Queen Latifah (Aunt Em), Steve Whitmire (Kermit the Frog/Scarecrow), Dave Goelz (Gonzo/Tin Thing), Bill Barretta (Pepe the Prawn/Toto), Eric Jacobson (Fozzie Bear/Lion, Witches)

Original Air Date: May 20, 2005 / Running Time: 100 Minutes / Rating: TV-PG

Songs: "Kansas", "When I'm With You", "The Witch is in the House", "Calling All Munchkins", "Poppy Fields", "Good Life"

1.33:1 Fullscreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned
DVD Release Date: August 9, 2005
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $15.99 (Reduced from $24.99)
White Keepcase

Buy from Amazon.com

When the Muppets made the leap from the small screen to cinemas, they told the story of how the characters came to meet in 1979's charming musical The Muppet Movie. Subsequent films featuring the furry friends would employ a similar comedic atmosphere and style in the years that followed, but the untimely 1990 death of Muppets creator Jim Henson wound up taking future Muppet movies in a different direction. The first feature after Henson's passing was connected to Disney, like the last production he worked on (the Walt Disney World short film Muppet*Vision 3-D). The Muppet Christmas Carol was made for Walt Disney Pictures, with Jim's son Brian Henson capably in the helm. Carol took a classic piece of literature and cast the Muppets in most, but not all of the leading roles. A similar process was employed for 1996's Muppet Treasure Island, also made at Disney.

In the nine years since the Muppets and Disney last got together, Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy and company appeared in two original stories, the coolly-received Muppets From Space in 1999 and the elaborate but unsatisfying It's a Wonderful Life-inspired It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie for NBC television in 2002. In February of last year, Disney purchased The Muppets Holding Company, a transaction reportedly close to occurring the weekend that Jim Henson died. The reunion of Disney and the Muppets had both entities looking towards a new feature film, but like the previous outing, this would air on television only, with no major theatrical engagement first. Still, a classic piece of literature was called upon, and sure enough, the prospects seemed promising. The resulting telemovie, The Muppets' Wizard of Oz, may be an entertaining two hours of network television by some standards, but it falls quite a bit short of expectations and the previous two Disney feature films.

Oz begins with music video-style credits in the bottom left of the screen. Dorothy Gale (played by pop star of the moment Ashanti) is not merely lamenting her simple Kansas lifestyle; she's doing it in song. It shouldn't take long for you to notice that this Dorothy and the rest of her family are African-American, a fact which may hark back to 1978's musical The Wiz which starred Diana Ross and Michael Jackson (back when he could still qualify for such a production). This is not the type of comparison that Disney's marketing department would relish capitalizing upon, but the Muppets' take on L. Frank Baum's dark and imaginative story does seem to have more in common with Sidney Lumet's all-black contemporary update than with the beloved 1939 MGM musical that one immediately thinks of when hearing the words "Wizard" and/or "Oz."

Ashanti's not in Kansas anymore. Our old friend Kermit has been reduced to trembling at the sight of crows.

In this incarnation, Dorothy is not just bored with small town existence, but she longs to be a pop star, presumably somewhere along the lines of Ashanti! For now, though, her dream of walking down a red carpet is just that. She spends her days clad in a plaid apron, toiling away at her Aunt Em's diner alongside its namesake (Queen Latifah) and Em's constantly-in-conflict husband, Uncle Henry (David Alan Grier). But one need not fear for Dorothy, because even though she misses her audition with the Muppets, they resurface when a tornado turns her trailer park and her life upside down.

As the story goes, Dorothy winds up in the whimsical world of Oz. While Ashanti's lack of actor's charisma immediately drains much of the fun from the Muppets' typical free-spirited atmosphere, her character's introduction to Oz seems colorful and encouraging enough. The Munchkins are the Muppet rats, with the streetwise Rizzo's clan filling in for the tiny people we expect to see. Dorothy's accompaniment is Toto, who is not a dog, but the oddball King Prawn Pepe. It is not long before Dorothy and Toto are heading down the famed yellow brick road with the hope of encountering the Wizard they are told can grant any wish. Accordingly, Dorothy and her pet prawn meet up with a scarecrow short on smarts (Kermit the Frog), an overheated "Tin Thing" (a teched-up Gonzo) who lacks a heart, and a Lion with stage fright (Fozzie Bear). The party of five (and Pepe's non-stop banter makes him easier to count than the traditional Toto) proceeds to the ultimate destination where they all hope to be made complete and happy.

In basic structure, this Oz is not too far from the Judy Garland classic, the Diana Ross vehicle, or L. Frank Baum's original text. But efforts are made to achieve several goals: to include the large and diverse Muppet cast in appropriate-sized roles, to leave creative room for the Muppet sense of humor to flourish, and to appease a wide number of demographics with different layers of jokes and plenty of contemporary references. It is that third task which weakens Oz most noticeably. Tailoring a piece of time-tested literature to suit the Muppets worked wonderfully in the previous adaptation of Christmas Carol and fairly well in Treasure Island. In fact, Christmas Carol required very little tinkering with Dickens' text to yield pleasurable results and still retain the Muppets' feel and flair. Similar treatment with Oz would seem inevitable and even welcome, but the execution of such a goal leaves a great deal to be desired.

Gonzo is a state of the art robot-type thing. In her largest of several roles, Miss Piggy is a gruff biker chick with a mean 'tude!

How does what sounds like surefire Muppet fun on paper leave both the typical audience member and longtime Muppet enthusiast disappointed? Oz seems to be a misguided production, one which stays faithful to the text in ways the definitive film version does not, and yet also seems intent on updating the story to a contemporary setting. The latter is served by "Poppyfields" being a trendy nightclub, the protagonist longing for "American Idol"-type fame, and an indulgent offering of forced references to modern phenomena that will soon date the movie in great ways. Oz whizzes through the parts we are most familiar with -- the introductions to the three lacking friends (which are about the most clever things in the movie) -- and then takes its time through a mess of a second half, meandering on biker chick witch Miss Piggy and other bizarre nemeses with only a sprinkling of comedy actually finding its mark.

This is not like the great Muppet movies of the past in spirit or appearance. While the visuals boast a just-made slickness, Oz betrays its real stars (the charming puppets who have entertained audiences for decades and currently seem to be in a funk) with the unappealing look of handheld digital video and liberal use of crude CGI animations. Casting can assume a fair share of the blame for Oz not meeting its potential as well. Some of the names bandied about when this telemovie was approaching the start of production were Natalie Portman, Anne Hathaway, and Hilary Duff. Settling on Ashanti was a poor decision; for one thing, unlike the three young ladies previously mentioned, Ashanti is not an actress. She lacks charm and any kind of chemistry with either human or puppet co-stars. For another, her rhythm and blues sound is out of place for the Muppets. With this musical flavor written into the movie at the very core, it's inevitable that significant portions will be lacking and indeed, they are. Ashanti is on the screen for an overwhelming majority of the picture and such an uncommanding presence hinders any liveliness the Muppets could summon.

Casting misfires are not just limited to the handful of humans. I can't be the only Muppet fan who thinks it would have made much more sense for the dog muppet, Rowlf, to portray Toto. As it is, Jim Henson's longest-running character makes only a tiny appearance near the end as per his current state of semi-retirement in the absence of his voice. Pepe has less than a fifth of the longevity of Kermit the Frog, and yet here, he seems to have as much to do as any of the gang. In four witch roles, most notably the biker villain who only bathes in bottled water, Miss Piggy's overbearing nature grates on audiences' nerves all the more in the shambles of the poorly-paced finale. And just what is with that Muppet who looks like Andy Dick?

What a letdown - Oz is just some low-budget CGI effect. Scooter and Bunsen Honeydew prepare Dorothy for an unnecessary makeover.

Another aspect which sounds the film's death knoll its insistence on being edgy. Such efforts are unnecessary and mostly unfunny. The Muppets used to make viewers laugh with their wit, cleverness, and off-the-wall sense of humor. Must they really resort to Pepe talking about how sexy he is? Unlike many viewers who have voiced their opinion at Internet sites like Amazon.com and IMDb, I'd be willing to let Gonzo's nipple talk slide and even if the Quentin Tarantino appearance seems uncalled for, it lightens up a flat and prolonged climax. On the whole, though, this film aspires not to the family-friendliness once associated with the Muppets but a type of demographic-reaching stew that would be fine if only it were funny.

Up against reality programming and hour-long dramas that demand a season's worth of attention, The Muppets' Wizard of Oz hardly makes for television one can classify as "poor." But on DVD, and as the latest of a long and likable string of Muppet films, these proceedings are sorely lacking. Oz does not come close to realizing its potential and for every bright moment, there seem to be at least two jokes or references which flop or yield disapproving sighs. If pleasing modern audiences means dumbing down the Muppets, then perhaps the current powers that be would be better served aspiring for esoteric entertainment. At least then somebody could be wholly satisfied in the old-fashioned Muppet tradition, instead of leaving lots of folks semi-pleased.

A quick note about the version of the movie which appears on DVD: the case specifies that this is an extended cut of the film and implies that 20 minutes of never-before-seen footage has been edited back. To me, that seems unlikely, seeing as today, two-hour timeslots of television generally entail around 86 minutes of content (with the rest filled with commercials). Even with the surely extended end credits, the film here runs only 100 minutes. Without having caught the movie in broadcast, the only thing I can vouch for being certainly new is a brief, thankless cameo by Kelly Osborne. If the other new material rounds out the endless second half, then it was probably better left out.

Jeffrey Tambor plays The Wizard like a slick car salesman. Quentin Tarantino makes a cameo as himself.

VIDEO and AUDIO

When it aired on ABC this past May, The Muppets' Wizard of Oz was presented in the 1.33:1 "fullscreen" aspect ratio, even in high definition broadcasts. That's a bit of an anomaly in this 16x9 digital age, particularly since Muppet movies have always made use of the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. What further suggests that Oz was shot in 16x9 is the package's disclaimer that "The film has been modified from its original version...formatted to fit your TV." Hasn't Disney grown smarter since their two Muppet movie DVDs released in 2002 left their subjects unsightly reformatted and fans fairly ticked? Apparently not, but if Oz is like most made-for-TV films produced these days, it was framed both for the 1.33:1 and 1.78:1 aspect ratios. It's too bad that the DVD didn't also include the latter widescreen presentation, since surely there was space to fit it without a noticeable drop in picture quality.

As it is, some of the framing within does seem pretty cramped and would benefit from expanding the dimensions to a slightly wider ratio. Otherwise, aside from the aesthetically lacking nature of the visuals, the DVD's picture quality merits no complaints. The element is perfectly clean, sharpness is just right, and colors are appropriately quite vibrant. The digital video definitely does not provide the same unique and apt look that film gives the Muppets, but at least its transition to DVD arrives with no extraneous mediums or noticeable problems, aside from the questionable aspect ratio decision and some minor shimmering in the end credits scroll.

Audio is delivered in a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack and this merits nothing but praise. While the songs are generally not too exciting for folks who aren't already fans of Ashanti or contemporary R & B, the sound effects are capably mixed and there are a few instances where channel separation is aptly used. Otherwise, Michael Giacchino's score occasionally calls to mind the music he created for The Incredibles and that can only mean moving your mind off of this film and onto thinking about Brad Bird's dynamic masterpiece. The volume levels are satisfactorily consistent, and as to be expected on such a recent production, all dialogue possesses flawless crispness, depth, fidelity, and clarity.

Ashanti struggles to keep a straight face when Gonzo forgets a line in "Oz Oops!" Fozzie tries out some standup material during his interview in "Pepe's Making Of." Quentin Tarantino appears as himself again, still in tongue-in-cheek fashion in an extended interview with Pepe.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The first of three bonus features included is "Oz Oops!", a 4-minute, 45-second reel of outtakes. These are fairly funny because when Muppet performers forget or flub their lines, they stay in character and often improvise something with their quick wit. That makes these similar to the pretend bloopers in Pixar's films, only these are more amusing because they're not scripted.

"Pepe's Making Of" (7:20) is a brisk but entertaining behind-the-scenes featurette. In it, the King Prawn takes you around the set of Muppets' Wizard of Oz and talks briefly with Ashanti, Kermit, Gonzo, Fozzie, and Jeffrey Tambor. Short remarks from Queen Latifah and David Alan Grier round out this piece. One can tell it was culled from a great deal of footage with Pepe and I'd like to see a lot more content and a bit more serious discussion of the project. As it is, it's somewhat superficial and free of surprises, but a passable lightweight general production piece.

In an "Extended Interview with Quentin Tarantino" (6:15), the King Prawn leads a tongue-in-cheek chat with the violent film director who makes an Oz cameo as himself. Tarantino talks about his appreciation of the Muppets, his Oz appearance, and how he would recast roles in his movies with Muppets, punctuating each phrase uttered with an "alright." Young audiences will be at a loss to know what's going on, or they may be encouraged to check out these rather inappropriate-for-kids productions. While it's also not a serious making-of piece, adults may find it occasionally amusing.

Now this looks like a more interesting movie. Swedish Chef and Rowlf as envisioned in their "Pulp Fiction" roles by Quentin Tarantino. The Main Menu is enhanced for 16x9 televisions, the feature is not.

The 16x9-enhanced Main Menu features a neatly animated background which alternates between a nice day and a gloomy twister. Outside of Gonzo's "fuzzy" chest, there's not much else animation, but the colorful imagery from the film is well-selected. All menus are accompanied by selections of Michael Giacchino's score.

Like other Disney DVDs, sneak peeks play at the start of the disc. The marketing powers that be have decided on the most effective titles to cross-promote by default on the DVD, and they are Valiant, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, "The Muppet Show" Season One, and Kermit's 50th Anniversary reissues of The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and Muppet Treasure Island. The Sneak Peeks menu holds additional promos for My Scene Goes Hollywood: The Movie, the Halloweentown movies, the ABC sitcom "According to Jim", and Radio Disney.

Inside the keepcase, one will find a double sided-insert with scene selections and a bonus features overview, an application for the Disney Movie Club, and a coupon booklet. The last element offers savings on this telemovie's soundtrack CD and Tarzan II, a $5 mail-in rebate for buyers of both this and "The Muppet Show" Season One, and plenty of advertisements for upcoming Muppet and non-Muppet DVDs.

Kermit, Pepe....er, Scarecrow, Toto...yeah, you get the drift. Why is it that the Muppets can show more believable emotion than their living, breathing co-star?

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Muppets' Wizard of Oz provides sporadic amusement, but certainly fails to live up to the highly pleasing standards of the Muppets' past films. Its evident shortcomings in casting, songs, writing tone, and humor all add up to an experience which is never more than mildly entertaining and always far short of the excitement promised in theory. While the DVD offers first-rate picture and sound, the feature presentation does not stand up to viewing away from the confines of commercial television. The fullscreen aspect ratio seems questionable, the extended cut may do more harm than good, and the handful of bonus features are diverting but brief and superficial. While Muppet completists will need little encouragement to add to their collection, others are encouraged to try the gang's other projects first, including the concurrently released "Muppet Show" Season One set and the four film Special Editions Disney will release in November.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com

Buy from Amazon.com

Related Reviews:
Also New to DVD: The Muppet Show: Season One (1976-77)
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992, Kermit's 50th Anniversary Edition) Muppet Treasure Island (1996, Kermit's 50th Anniversary Edition)
The Muppet Movie (1979, Kermit's 50th Anniversary Edition) The Great Muppet Caper (1981, Kermit's 50th Anniversary Edition)
Return to Oz (1985) A Wrinkle in Time (2004) Eloise at the Plaza (2003) The Even Stevens Movie (2003)
Bear in the Big Blue House: Visiting the Doctor with Bear Bear in the Big Blue House: Early to Bed, Early to Rise
Recently Released to DVD: The World's Greatest Athlete (1973) The Boatniks (1970) Toby Tyler (1960)

UltimateDisney.com | Review Index | Disney Television Movies (1991-Present)

Reviewed August 9, 2005.