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THE MUPPETS' WIZARD OF OZ

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Ashanti, Queen Latifah, David Alan Grier, Jeffrey Tambor, Quentin Tarantino
Director:  Kirk R. Thatcher
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Disney
Features:  See Review
Length:  100 Minutes
Release Date:  August 9, 2005

"What happens in Emerald City...STAYS in Emerald City!"

Film ***

We couldn't help but pay attention to that man behind the curtain...or underneath the stage, as the case may be...when the man was Jim Henson.  Like a wonderful wizard, he breathed life into zany, funny, and memorable puppet creations, and the magic he created has lasted for generations, even long after he was no longer with us.

Some may argue that the Muppet endeavors following his untimely passing haven't quite lived up to the vision he once shared with us (okay, I'm one of those), but a true creative spirit never goes down for the count.  With the delightful made-for-TV movie The Muppets' Wizard of Oz, those lovable creations returned to fine form.  And somewhere, the great wizard himself had to be looking down with a smile.

True, no movie version of Oz will ever live up to the 1939 classic, but no matter...in the hands of the Muppets, tried and true tales frequently get modern and comical twists that win the audiences over.  This update may not appeal to L. Frank Baum purists, but for the Muppet lover in all of us, it's a great slice of family fun.

Interestingly enough, the other Oz (that would be Frank) was not on board for this production.  Was he missed?  Not really.  Eric Jacobson (no relation) is now puppeteering Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy, and as a fan who watches the Muppets with scrutiny, I have to say, I didn't notice much difference.

Likewise, Kermit has changed hands to Steve Whitmire, and the result is a breath of fresh air.  Brian Henson is a nice guy and deserves a lot of credit for keeping his father's vision alive, but as the voice of Kermit, he left a lot to be desired.

The story opens with a music video sequence, complete with title information in the lower corner of the screen.  The singer is Dorothy Gale (Ashanti), who works as a waitress in a Kansas diner with her Aunt Em (Latifah) and Uncle Henry (Grier).

She dreams of getting out and becoming a star, but she just narrowly misses her opportunity to audition for the Muppets.  Then...wouldn't you know it...a tornado rips through, carrying her and her doublewide, along with her pet king prawn Toto (Pepe), into a magical new land.  "Where the..." she asks.  "Hold it!" cries Toto, looking at the screen.  "For those of you with Dark Side of the Moon, press play...NOW!"

She has arrived in Munchkinland, where the Munchkins look suspiciously like rats.  Her trailer has accidentally killed the Wicked Witch of the East (Miss Piggy plays ALL four witches), picks up a pair of magic shoes, and sets off down the yellow brick road to seek help from the great Wizard of Oz to help her achieve her dream of stardom.

Along the way, of course, she picks up a few friends:  Scarecrow (Kermit), who wants a brain, the Tin Thing (Gonzo), needing a heart, and Cowardly Lion (Fozzie), who wants to be a stand-up comedian but suffers from stage fright.  All join Dorothy in her quest to see the Wizard...but the Wicked Witch of the West (you-know-who) has some evil designs of her own!

All of this is silly, lighthearted fun, of course, with plenty of gags to spare.  My favorite is in Emerald City, when Dorothy enters Dr. Bunsen Honeydew's Makeover Machine and comes out the other side looking like...ah, no, I'll let you discover that for yourself.

There's eventually a big showdown between Dorothy and the Witch, and just as we reach the big action climax, there's a hilarious cut that shows Quentin Tarantino pitching his idea for a mega-violent samurai sword battle between the two to an increasingly nervous Kermit!

Of course, alls well that ends well, and there's no place like home...but thankfully, our Dorothy gets the best of both worlds:  a loving family, and a shot at her dream.  Hey, with the Muppets, anything is possible!

I had a big smile on my face from beginning to end...and I'm glad to say the DVD fleshes out the TV version with an additional 20 minutes of footage, so it feels like you're seeing a true feature film.  Home may be where the heart is, and my heart is still with the Muppets after nearly 30 years.

Video ***

This is a pretty good looking full frame transfer for Disney...the world of Oz is a colorful one, from the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, and all the tones come across with cleanness and clarity.  I noticed no bleeding or lack of focus.  Images were generally sharp and crisp throughout with only a touch of softness here and there.

Audio ***

The 5.1 mix is a lively one, making the music sound big and loud and giving some extra punch to the big scenes.  Dialogue is clearly rendered throughout (okay, I can't understand ALL of what Pepe says, but what the hey), and dynamic range is formidable.

Features *1/2

Not much in the extras department...an amusing gag reel, a short making-of featurette hosted by Pepe, and Pepe's interview with Quentin Tarantino.  I'd have enjoyed the last two more if not for the fact that Pepe is one of my least favorite Muppet creations.

Summary:

Jim Henson was both a good man AND a good wizard, and his creations continue to weave their spell of magic.  The Muppets' Wizard of Oz is a fitting new addition to the Muppets' library of films, and will be a pleasure to both young and old fans alike.

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