There are more credited producers than there are Munchkins in “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return,” a kid-friendly 3D toon musical that offers another joyless trip down the yellow-brick road after last year’s “Oz the Great and Powerful.” Certainly the hit success of that Disney live-action tentpole may explain why this independent venture is getting a wide release, despite its merely passable animation and a story that feels straight-to-video through and through. Banking on audience affection for MGM’s classic “The Wizard of Oz” (but remaining within acceptable legal boundaries, of course) while cooking up a comparatively feeble set of adventures for Dorothy, Toto and friends, this first theatrical outing for Clarius Entertainment will likely melt away at the box office before finding a small pot of ancillary gold at the end of the rainbow.
Since the publication of its beloved first installment in 1900, L. Frank Baum’s 14-book Oz cycle has spawned any number of authorized and unauthorized sequels, alternative legends and revisionist histories; these include 1989’s “Dorothy of Oz,” which was written by the author’s great-grandson, Roger Stanton Baum, and provides the rough outline for Randi Barnes and Adam Balsam’s screenplay. Visually and iconographically, however, it’s clear enough from the film’s pink-clad Glinda (voiced by Bernadette Peters, who sounds heavily sedated) and green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West (making a brief posthumous appearance) that “Legend of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” is leaning heavily on the 1939 Victor Fleming-directed original — a movie that looms so large in the American cultural imagination, it’s the reason why so many of these subpar knockoffs exist and also the reason why they shouldn’t.
There are key differences, to be sure: This Dorothy Gale sings not in the creamy tones of Judy Garland, but rather in the slick pop-diva register of “Glee’s” Lea Michele. Our heroine has also surrendered her ruby slippers for brown-and-blue cowgirl boots, a less flashy but more practical choice of footwear for her long journey back to the Emerald City, where the Scarecrow (voiced by Dan Aykroyd), the Tin Man (Kelsey Grammer) and the no-longer-cowardly Lion (James Belushi) are in desperate need of her help: The Jester (Martin Short), the devious younger brother of the Wicked Witch of the West, has found a way to turn his sister’s broomstick into an all-powerful magic scepter, and is laying waste to Oz realm by realm, brick by yellow brick.
“Oh, Toto, this doesn’t look like the Oz I remember,” Dorothy murmurs at one point. Truer words were never spoken. With the Scarecrow strenuously trying to think his way out of the situation and the Tin Man and Lion basically reduced to bromantic bickering (“Sounds like somebody needs an oil change!”), it’s not long before the three companions have fallen into the Joker’s (er, Jester’s) clutches. Meanwhile, Dorothy and Toto make a new friend in Wiser (Oliver Platt), an oversized owl who can’t fly (didn’t we see this in “Rio”?), and slowly make their way to the Emerald City by way of some of Oz’s lesser-known, higher-rent districts, including Dainty China Country and Candy Country (didn’t we see this in “Wreck-It Ralph”?).
These two detours do allow for one of the picture’s few genuinely touching moments, in which the chivalrous Marshal Mallow (Hugh Dancy), rather than searching for Sugar Woman, courts and woos the haughty China Princess (Megan Hilty, back in Oz again after her superb stage performance as Glinda in “Wicked”). And as this sort of hackneyed fantasy-land mashup goes, “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” at least looks more competent than a tonal and technical disaster like “Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil.” As overseen by directors Will Finn and Daniel St. Pierre, the visuals here may be scrappy and derivative, but they won’t leave your eyeballs screaming for mercy, and the 3D, while hardly essential to the experience, has been applied with a judicious hand.
Much of this is watchable; virtually none of it is memorable. The humdrum songs go in one ear and out the other. There are noisy battle scenes, lessons in friendship and teamwork, and enough second-rate puns and wisecracks to test the voice cast’s collective patience (although Short seems to be in his element). And in perhaps the most tiresome bit of borrowing from “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy’s quest here is mirrored by a lazy framing device set in Kansas, immediately following the cyclone disaster that blew her to Oz the first time. When Dorothy woke up the first time, it was a glorious cinematic testament to the power of dreams; when she does the same here, it’s a glum reminder that you really can’t go home again.