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The Witches of Oz Blu-ray Review

The Witches of Oz (2011) Blu-ray cover art -- click for larger view and to buy from Amazon.com The Witches of Oz
Miniseries & Blu-ray Details

Director: Leigh Scott / Writers: Leigh Scott (teleplay & story); Eliza Swenson, Chris Campbell (story); L. Frank Baum (characters - uncredited)

Cast: Paulie Rojas (Dorothy Gale), Eliza Swenson (Billie Westbrook), Billy Boyd (Nick Chopper), Lance Henriksen (Henry Gale), Jeffrey Combs (Frank), Ari Zagaris (Allen), Barry Ratcliffe (Bryan), Sasha Jackson (Ilsa), Mia Sara (Princess Langwidere), Sean Astin (Frack), Ethan Embry (Frick), Noel Thurman (Glinda), Christopher Lloyd (The Wizard of Oz), Sarah Lieving (The Wicked Witch of the East), Jessica Sonneborn (Ev Locast), Elizabeth Masucci (Jennifer Mombi), Marissa Smoker (Young Dorothy), Al Snow (Nome King), Jordan Turnage (The Tinman), Monti Domingue (Amy), Brian Lee Huynh (Cab Driver), Brooke Taylor (The Good Witch of the South)

Original UK Air Dates: July 5 & 12, 2011 / Running Time: 164 Minutes (2 Parts) / Rating: Not Rated

1.78:1 Widescreen, 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish; Not Closed Captioned
Blu-ray Release Date: April 10, 2012 / Suggested Retail Price: $29.97
Single-sided, single-layered disc (BD-25) / Blue Keepcase with Side Snap
Also available on DVD ($27.97 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

Buy The Witches of Oz from Amazon.com: Blu-ray DVD Instant Video


Though L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published back in 1900, it endures as a source of great fascination today. The world's desire to return to the fantastic universe of that children's novel motivated an initially reluctant Baum to write thirteen sequels right up to his death in 1919. Even that didn't slow demand or supply.
Baum's publisher Reilly & Lee had Ruth Plumly Thompson continue the book series on an annual basis. By that time, work had begun on a fourth film adaptation, which if realized would have become the second feature film.

Cinema's fourth feature-length trip to the Oz well -- MGM's masterful 1939 Technicolor musical -- remains the definitive interpretation of the novel, even eclipsing the source text in familiarity. But while the prospect of topping such a dazzling crowd-pleasing blockbuster must have been daunting and no doubt encouraged the franchise to be left cinematically untouched for a number of years, eventually new adaptations arose in television animation and back in live-action film. Movies like The Wiz (1978) and Return to Oz (1985) have their charms and their fans, but neither found anything remotely resembling the acclaim and success of the Judy Garland film.

Still, others venture to provide an inventive new take on the property, with the 2003 Broadway smash hit Wicked adapted from a 1995 adult novel proving to captivate crowds around the globe and renew interest in Baum's series. Less than a year from now, Walt Disney Pictures will release Oz: The Great and Powerful, a prequel to the MGM musical, directed by Sam Raimi and starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, and Rachel Weisz. As with most releases in the studio's franchise-minded current strategy, a lot is riding on that $200 million tentpole.

For a visit to Oz at a tiny fraction of that risk and expense, there is Syfy. Less than four years after the network gave us the highly-rated three-part miniseries Tin Man, they aired the two-part "The Witches of Oz", but only in the United Kingdom. That four-hour broadcast was recently reconfigured into a 101-minute feature film titled Dorothy and the Witches of Oz and given theatrical release in a handful of random American cities February 2012. This week, the longer and, by most accounts, weaker cut hit home video with Image Entertainment's DVD and Blu-ray debut of "The Witches of Oz."

In "The Witches of Oz", Dorothy Gale (Paulie Rojas) is a young woman excited to have her children's books published in New York City. Mia Sara (of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Legend" fame) makes a rare acting appearance as the nasty head-changing Princess Langwidere.

"Witches" is set in the present day. A barely grown-up Dorothy Gale (Paulie Rojas) works in a bookstore and a chocolate shop. She is also an aspiring author, her tales about Oz known and appreciated by the children of small-town Kansas (this is apparently an alternate universe where Baum's novels have not been published). Dorothy's books are about to reach a much wider audience, when she is invited to sign with a publisher in New York City. She and her dorky illustrator Allen (Ari Zagaris) are flown to the big city (without us believing this was shot anywhere near there...although surprisingly, it's Connecticut, not Canada), where they are wined and dined by high-powered literary agent Billie Westbrook (Eliza Swenson, who also receives credit for story, producing, original score, editing, and sound).

In New York, Dorothy makes the acquaintance of pint-sized jokers Frick (Ethan Embry) and Frack (Sean Astin), who appreciate a good limerick, and socialite Nick Chopper (Lord of the Rings' Billy Boyd). She also has the misfortune of running into Princess Langwidere (Legend's Mia Sara, at first), a head-changing baddie who longs to know where the key to Oz is.

The first half of "Witches" isn't very good, but at least it is coherent. Abruptly and unmistakably concluding with a cliffhanger 83 minutes in, the first installment is missed once the second begins explaining things. Dorothy's last name? Not really Gale. Her Uncle Henry (Lance Henriksen, looking very old and barely recognizable) is in fact her nephew, for Dorothy was born in 1899. And the Oz tales that came to her in dreams are not fiction but her own personal mostly forgotten childhood experiences.

Former child stars Sean Astin and Ethan Randall play the tiny comedy double act of Frick and Frack, irrespectively. Christopher Lloyd makes a few fleeting appearances, many of them holographic, as The Wizard of Oz, who looks more like Wonderland's Mad Hatter than Frank Morgan.

The second act is when things really go off the rails, starting with the dizzying abundance of exposition and progressing to what feels like over an hour of action climax, much of it loud and nonsensical.
The visual effects are piss-poor, the character make-up garish, and good luck trying to make sense of it all. Writer/director Leigh Scott has used a pair of scissors to put the pieces of this puzzle together and the results are just as horrifying (but not nearly as endearing) as they would be in the hands of an industrious child.

The efforts of the evil witches to get Dorothy to give them the key to Oz (they can't just take it, you see) are torturously prolonged. The series has nowhere to go past this idea and it spends about an hour stuck in neutral, haphazardly assigning the famed roles of Tin Man and Cowardly Lion to people in Dorothy's life (even on the fringes) and then turning our attentions to meaningless, dull one-on-one conflicts. By the time resolution arrives, you've either checked out or your name is Leigh Scott. And while it has a sense of humor and relishes paying homage to Baum's book (check out the silver slippers!), "Witches" doesn't even have the decency to go full camp and earn enjoyment the only way that most Syfy original programming can.

The interesting cast assembled here shows that Scott and his team, most of them veterans of "mockbuster" factory The Asylum (whose knock-off Transmorphers is given a nod in a faux Times Square billboard), have a good taste in movies. Here, you've got alumni of Back to the Future (Christopher Lloyd plays the Wizard of Oz in scenes few and far between), Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Aliens, The Terminator, The Goonies, and Lord of the Rings, not to mention Ethan Embry. Unfortunately, the involvement of these accomplished actors doesn't elevate the production, it only goes to show in how little demand they are.

When Mia Sara's output in the past ten years consists of a failed pilot and two TV guest spots, you think, "Ah, she must be busy raising Sean Connery's grandson." Then, she accepts this role and it seems to remove any question that she is hard up for work. Sean Astin may have been an integral part of one of the biggest franchises in film history not long ago, but he too is now on the other side of forty and would probably love if Adam Sandler could find him some more juicy supporting roles. And Christopher Lloyd did Santa Buddies and is one of the few returning cast members in Piranha 3DD, so we know he's not being selective. The on-camera talent pool recalls the high-profile miniseries NBC put together in the 1990s, only without the prestige and Emmy prospects of those.

Yes, that is Lance Henriksen, now a septuagenarian, playing Dorothy's uncle/nephew Henry Gale. Have no fear, Glinda is here.

Scott may appreciate some great '80s movies like you and I, or perhaps he is just shrewdly preying upon those whose quotes are at all-time lows. Either way, none of the cast's beloved work is emulated or aspired to. This might have a title that grabs your attention and a tad more polish than your typical Syfy original movie, but it is just as much of a wreck as those are, running into creative ceilings and shoestring budget restrictions that add up to something artificial, jumbled, and incoherent. Those qualities are never desirable, but they're easier to forgive when the title is comprised of compound words like "Megapython" and "Dinoshark." Feature the same shortcomings on a miniseries called "The Witches of Oz" and you're sure to enrage every Baum, Gregory Maguire, Wicked, and Wizard of Oz fan out there with your glaring lack of judgment.

VIDEO and AUDIO

You'd think that even with a slew of creative problems, a 2011 miniseries would be certain to look excellent on Blu-ray Disc, but "The Witches of Oz" is not even without issues in that regard. The series is presented in 1.78:1 here, matching the aspect ratio of its HD broadcasts.
But IMDb and a bonus feature indicate that this was shot for 2.35:1, the wider aspect ratio commonly employed for theatrical fare but just about never for TV. While framing did not appear to be an issue and the difference between 1.78:1 and 2.35:1 is less extreme than most of the highly problematic pan and scan jobs, it is odd and theoretically troubling to be getting either more or less of the picture than intended. To boot, one brief random shot and the entire end credits are presented in 2.35:1, giving this an air of compromise.

Other than that, the picture is quite satisfactory. The CGI and green screen work is very bad and some dark night shots exhibit a bit of unsightly grain. But the video is usually sharp, vibrant, and clean. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio is similarly pleasing. Dialogue is crisp and substantial. Surround channels are used less heavily than you'd expect, rarely being asked to provide more than slight reinforcement. But there is adequate clarity and range to this basic mix, which is all you could want and ask from basic cable.

Writer/director Leigh Scott deserves the lion's share of the credit and blame for "The Witches of Oz." The lion's share! Get it? Look at that mane! Take a good look at Dorothy, Toto, and their Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow (x2), and Tin Man on the Blu-ray's main menu montage.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

"The Witches of Oz" is joined by two short bonus features on Blu-ray. "Behind the Scenes Featurette with Writer/Director Leigh Scott" (2:48) is basically a promo for the miniseries, with Scott providing a few remarks on the project's origins and cast among B-roll footage, concept art, and 2.35:1 clips.

There is also a trailer (1:46) which is neither an ad for the theatrical cut nor the Syfy UK broadcast. It just seems to be a general all-purpose preview probably composed for this very home video release.

In typical Image fashion, the animated menu plays tinted clips in the open space afforded by the repositioning of cover art elements. The disc does not support bookmarks, but it does kindly resume playback after powering down.

There is neither an insert within nor a slipcover above the side-snapped Blu-ray case.

The Wicked Witch of the West (Billie Westbrook) is all about this key to Oz, which must be given to her. The Cowardly Lion (Barry Ratcliffe) and the Not Tin Man (Billy Boyd) have different focus points in this moment of Manhattan melee.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Supposedly, the theatrical edit Dorothy and the Witches of Oz improves on the horrendous visual effects and the atrocious pacing of this "Witches of Oz" miniseries. It's not clear when or if that version will be coming to home video. While I doubt there is a triumphant film to be made from these unsavory two-hour episodes,
I can't imagine a tauter cut being as egregious as this. If you're at all compelled to check this out, you may do well to wait for that feature film. Otherwise, you're probably just as good to see if Sam Raimi's movie can deliver something worthwhile at its high price tag. (Although lately that early March window has been bad luck for Disney, from the creative disappointments of Tim Burton's hugely profitable Alice in Wonderland to the colossal financial failings of Mars Needs Moms and John Carter.)

Image's Blu-ray features a questionable aspect ratio and almost nothing in the way of bonus features, but the picture and sound are good and chances are you'll be able to get this disc for next to nothing should your curiosity get the best of you.

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Related Reviews:
Return to Oz The Muppets' Wizard of Oz Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Miniseries: Alice (2009) A Wrinkle in Time (2004) Little House on the Prairie (2005) Heidi (1993)
New York Fantasies: Enchanted The Sorcerer's Apprentice Call Me Mrs. Miracle Elf
Mia Sara: Ferris Bueller's Day Off | Sean Astin: The Goonies | Ethan Embry: All I Want for Christmas That Thing You Do!
Christopher Lloyd: Piranha Santa Buddies Angels in the Outfield Angels in the Endzone
Stonehenge Apocalypse Camel Spiders Twitches Stardust Hocus Pocus

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Reviewed April 14, 2012.



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