MuppetsDave GoelzQueen LatifahQuentin Tarantino
The Muppets' Wizard of Oz
Medium: TV, film
Year: 2005
Director: Kirk Thatcher
Writer: L. Frank Baum, Debra Frank, Steve L. Hayes, Tom Martin, Adam F. Goldberg
Keywords: Wizard of Oz, fantasy, musical, comedy
Country: USA
Actor: Ashanti, Jeffrey Tambor, Quentin Tarantino, David Alan Grier, Queen Latifah, Steve Whitmire, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, Eric Jacobson, Brian Henson, Kevin Clash, John Kennedy, Rickey Boyd, Tyler Bunch, Julianne Buescher, John Henson, Drew Massey, Allan Trautman, Alice Dinnean, Mike Quinn, Gordon Robertson, Adam Behr, Jeny Cassady, Geoff Redknap, James Rowley, Dan Payne, C. Ernst Harth
Series: << Muppets
Format: 100 minutes (DVD version)
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0910812/
Website category: Fantasy
Review date: 12 July 2010
That was okay. I didn't think it was particularly great, either for the Muppets or as a Wizard of Oz movie, but I watched it painlessly enough and I wouldn't run away screaming from the idea of having to watch it again.
The Muppets themselves are great. Miss Piggy is genuinely interesting in the multiple role of all four witches, both good and evil. That's a kind of doubling-up we've never seen before. I do believe she's giving some personality to the witches for what might be the first time ever, not just being the usual one-dimensional broomstick-waggler but instead being her usual spoiled prima donna self. She's not just a witch, but a bitch. This becomes twice as interesting when she doesn't change personality when switching roles, so all four witches are callous and self-obsessed even though only two of them are evil. "She'll hunt you down and pry them off your cold dead carcass." That's a good witch talking, by the way. It got a laugh from me. Unfortunately the downside of all this is that Miss Piggy will obviously never be scary, but you've got to admit that it's not for want of trying. They've come up with some cool bits for her, from a Terminator-like moment with the house to plugging her into the backstories for both the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion to make her look more evil.
At the end of the day, she's not a particularly memorable Witch. She's Miss Piggy. That's what you take away with you. However if you can see past that, there's genuine innovation in this combination of witch and piggy.
Kermit isn't reinventing anything as the Scarecrow, but he's still great because he's Kermit and hence lovely. Actually, no. Let me take that back. I don't think a human actor could match what he achieves with "I don't have a brain", because it doesn't sound stupid from a Muppet. From Kermit, I bought it and laughed. Meanwhile Gonzo is the Tin Man and really made of tin. Fozzie Bear is fascinating as the Cowardly Lion, because he doesn't have an ounce of false bravado and right from the beginning he's just a big cuddly teddy bear. Fozzie doesn't want courage in order to terrorise people, but to overcome his stage fright and become a stand-up comedian. This is adorable. Finally you've got Pepe the Prawn as Toto (no, really), who gets all the filthiest gags and probably drew complaints from outraged mothers, but is actually very funny.
Those are the important characters, but there are plenty more backing them up. Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem show up to back Miss Piggy for a song, which is cool. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker are brilliant as always, Statler and Waldorf get a cool little cameo, Scooter shows up... it's all good. My favourites were the evil savage bunnies who show up when Fozzie's telling us that the Witch's spies include evil, savage bunnies. They don't do anything and we only see them from behind for a couple of seconds, but you've got to laugh at evil, savage bunnies.
Unfortunately we also have humans... okay, yes, Ashanti. I'm not going to weigh in on the popular Ashanti-bashing, but only because it's not her fault that her character sucks. When she's not singing, her acting's perfectly okay. (This might sound like a strange comment to make about someone who's really a singer rather than an actress, but bear with me.) Unfortunately the script's given her the motivation of wanting to leave Kansas, abandon her loser family and become a star. What's more, I'm not putting that much more bluntly than she does herself. She talks of wanting to "become somebody" and by extension implies that everyone else is a nobody. You can't blame Auntie Em for being insulted. Then later when we're in Oz, Ashanti's a clothes horse who cares more about designer labels than about whether or not something's magical. All this makes for a protagonist who's not particularly likeable, although to be fair she's never bad enough to make you want her dead or anything. She just leaves the story feeling a bit hollow, despite the Muppets' fun antics.
She can't sing, though. Her songs are boring and she's got a thin voice without enough character to make a mark in the Muppet medley song, despite the fact that her co-stars are doing comedy voices. That's also the scene where she slips as an actress, by the way, as she visibly realises she doesn't have a clue what she's meant to be doing and perhaps even knows she's being outclassed by glove puppets. You know how "muppet" sometimes gets used as a derogatory term for a gormless person? As a singer, Ashanti can't even get up to the level of "muppet". The obvious comparison point for this movie might seem to be The Wiz (1978), since both are African-American reinterpretations of The Wizard of Oz with a much-criticised singer in the lead role, but musically it's... no.
I disliked the film's "I want to be a star" motivation, but I liked some of what they do with it. Queen Latifah makes a good point when she asks "star or singer, because they're not the same thing." The Statler-Waldorf scene is about overcoming your critics. Poppyfields is a night club where Dorothy's tempted to stay instead of going on to bigger things. Finally Jeffrey Tambor's Wizard has a brilliant reveal and I love the fact that he's not a kindly uncle who's only lying to everyone in order to help them reach self-fulfilment, but instead really is a nasty piece of work. He's Mr Hollywood Bullshit and it's Dorothy who helps everyone, not him. Tambor also played the bureaucratic boss Tom Manning in the Hellboy movies, by the way.
The film's being faithful to L. Frank Baum's book rather than the 1939 film. Statler and Waldorf are playing the Kalidah, the witch's slippers are silver, not ruby, and the backstory is surprisingly faithful (e.g. the Tin Man and the flying monkeys). The best bit of all this is the scene where everyone first meets the Wizard, which has several different disguises instead of just the one floating head. There's some really horrible CGI on Gonzo's sexy woman who becomes a chicken, but think about it afterwards. That was deliberate.
Quentin Tarantino is being weird in his cameo, though. Oh, and did I mention that this is the first Muppet movie to be made after Disney bought them from The Jim Henson Company in 2004? Well, it is.
Personally I think this film has a rotten foundation, but also that it's built lots of good, clever stuff upon it. Overall, it's quite fun. It's certainly not brilliant and a lot of people seem to have found it either bad or inappropriate for children, but you could do worse. The Kansas stuff about Ashanti trying to get to a Muppet audition isn't very likeable, but it has the important feature of letting Ashanti say goodbye to her Muppet friends in Oz only to be reunited with their real-world counterparts. Goodbye isn't really goodbye, in other words, and they did it without "it was all a dream". The older actors are good, especially Queen Latifah and Jeffrey Tambor's sleaze. This isn't a film to make you run out and buy everything ever made with Jim Henson's name on it, but there's enough good stuff here that I can't say I'm not tempted.