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The Muppets' Wizard of Oz

The Muppets haven’t felt quite right since the death of Jim Henson. It’s not just Kermit’s voice either, which absolutely no one seems able to do like Jim. It’s something deeper; their wit isn’t as sharp, or the characters as well drawn. I don’t know. In spite of that, it’s still great to see Kermit, Fozzy, Piggy and the gang whenever they’re available. It’s like going back to a comfortable old friend, one that never really completely lets you down. So it was perhaps a little disappointing to hear that the Muppets newest film would never make it into theaters. The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz was shown briefly as a television special, and is now being shipped straight to DVD for all the hungry Muppet fanatics who, like me, missed its appearance on TV. This isn’t the first time The Muppets have taken to remaking old movies in their image. This is basically the same sort of tact they took a few years ago with the wonderfully successful film Muppet Treasure Island. But the fact that they have to resort to riffing on other people’s ideas now instead of coming up with their own the way they might have when Jim was still around, is perhaps a big, flashing indication of how much the characters have changed in the past few years. That’s alright, though they may not be all that original anymore, I’ll happily watch the Muppet version of just about anything.

The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz is Kermit and the gang’s take on the classic girl from Kansas tale. In this incarnation, Dorothy is played by Ashanti, and has been updated to have grandiose dreams of stardom rather than a humble desire to go home. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Ashanti wanders through the Land of Oz not because she misses her Aunt and Uncle but because she wants the Wizard to make her filthy stinking rich. Our society has become frighteningly shallow.

Along her trip down the Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy encounters a requisite Scarecrow (Kermit the Frog), a Tin Thing (Gonzo), and a very bear-like Cowardly Lion (Fozzy). In between Dorothy and her dreams of super-stardom is a wicked witch with a strange resemblance to Cher, played by Miss Piggy. Once the gang gets together there are more than a few really great belly laughs, along with some nice, done on a budget set design.

But the film feels exactly like the made for television movie that it is. Most of the songs fall painfully flat, they’re missing the usual creative, Muppet flair we’re used to. None of them are memorable, catchy, or even listenable. As a musical the thing is a total flop. In parallel with this I’ve been watching “The Muppet Show Season One”, and I was immediately struck by how impressively creative and memorable the songs on that show were. The original music they put together for every episode was always one of the Muppets’ strengths back then, now it’s become their Achilles heel. The writing talent of people like Frank Oz and Jim Henson is simply no longer there.

Still, despite its problems the movie for the most part works. There are some wonderful cameos from people like Queen Latifah, David Allen Grier, and Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino seems the most geeked about being there, and his little pitch meeting with Kermit is easily one of the movie’s highlights. And the sense of magic and wonder that comes with the Muppets is still hanging around. I spent a lot of my time on the couch staring at the TV with a big, goofy, ten year-old kid smile. The Muppets have that effect on people, and though they’ve clearly lost an artistic step or two, it’d only take a decent writing department to bring them back in style. If nothing else, The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz will make you miss the Muppets of a few years ago. Let’s bring them back and do it up right. This is a made for TV movie, so you can only expect so much from the DVD release. For what it is, they’ve included a nice little set of extras along with the movie. Now if only it had been shot in proper, theatrical widescreen.

This is a single disc release, and as such they only had room for three extra features. The first is a bloopers & outtakes reel, notable mostly for the fact that it isn’t faked. I’ve become used to those fake, gag reels Pixar runs, but these were the real deal. No, you won’t see the Muppet performers with their hands up the puppets ass, but you will see how much improvisation the performers can manage when working with their Muppets. Most of the bloopers aren’t exactly funny; but they are entertaining.

The rest of the disc’s extras are dedicated to Muppet come lately Pepe the Prawn. He hosts a rather funny making of documentary in which he takes us on a tour of the Muppet set, interviewing cast members (both human and Muppet) about the film. Then there’s a separate, extended version of the interview Pepe does with Quentin Tarantino in his “Making of”. Quentin hangs out and riffs with the Muppets, confesses his lifelong love of them and his disappointment that his favorite Muppet, Rawlf the Dog was not in the movie. I know what you meant Quentin, where’s the Swedish Chef? Bring him back!

It’s not a thick, multi-disc set you’re looking at, but Buena Vista has done a solid job putting together a nice DVD release for a soon to be forgotten made-for-TV movie. If you missed it on television, and you’re any kind of Muppet fan (and you should be) you’ll want to pick it up