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Dorothy Gale Week Day 3: Liza Minnelli in Journey Back to Oz (1974)

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????Director: Hal Sutherland

Writer: Fred Land & Norman Prescott

Cast: Liza Minnelli, Milton Berle, Margaret Hamilton, Paul Ford, Paul Lynde, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Danny Thomas, Mel Blanc, Dal McKennon, Larry Storch, Risë Stevens, Jack E. Leonard, Herschel Bernardi

Plot: In this animated kind-of sequel to the 1939 MGM film, a storm is brewing in Kansas again, and Henry (Paul Ford) is getting worried. His niece Dorothy (Liza Minnelli) feels a-tingle, remembering  how a similar storm once swept her away to the land of Oz, but her Aunt Em (Margaret Hamilton) swears to her that Oz is simply a figment of her imagination. As she sings to Toto about wishing to return, a cyclone snaps the two of them up and pulls them into the air. When Dorothy comes to her senses, she realizes she’s landed by the Yellow Brick Road in Oz, and rushes off to find her old friends in the Emerald City. Setting off, Dorothy encounters a creature with a pumpkin for a head (Paul Lynde). Pumpkinhead is fleeing from an evil witch named Mombi (Ethel Merman), who created him to help her conjure some powerful, terrible work of magic. Dorothy tells Pumpkinhead to come with her to the Emerald City, where her friend the Scarecrow will help him.

Dorothy finds Mombi’s hut, where a crow (Mel Blanc) invites her to peek at the cauldron simmering on the fire. Mombi traps her and reveals her brew will create an army of green elephants to conquer Oz and destroy the Scarecrow. When Mombi leaves to get firewood, Pumpkinhead sneaks in and rescues Dorothy. As they escape, they encounter a carousel horse called Woodenhead (Herschel Bernardi), stuck upside-down in the ground. They free him and he joins their party.

Arriving at the Emerald City, they warn the Scarecrow (Mickey Rooney about Mombi’s attack just as the Witch and her Green Elephants arrive. Dorothy and her friends climb on Woodenhead’s back, but Toto and the Scarecrow are captured in the escape. Dorothy, Pumpkinhead and Woodenhead set out for Tinland, to enlist the aid of her old friend the Tin Man (Danny Thomas).  At first he’s eager to help, but loses heart when told of the army of elephants. The Cowardly Lion (Milton Berle) initially puts on a show of bravado, but quickly reverts back to quaking when told of the elephants. Glinda, the Good Witch (Risë Stevens) who has been watching the proceedings with her… “Glinda-Bird”… arrives to offer her aid, and gives Dorothy a package which she warns her not to open until she arrives at the Emerald City.

Mombi sends a group of enchanted trees after the friends, but Glinda – watching through the Glinda-Bird – gives Pumpkinhead a magic axe that turns them into… well… hippies. Saved, they return to an Emerald City that has rapidly fallen into decay. They are attacked by an elephant, but Dorothy opens Glinda’s box and a swarm of magic mice pop out and chase it away, freeing them to assault the palace. The mice make it to Mombi’s chambers and chase her the gardens, where she disguises herself as a rose bush. The mice have sent the elephants on a stampede, though, and she is trampled flat. Toto, recognizing Mombi’s true form, leads Dorothy to the flattened rose, who blames Dorothy for her fate just as she dies. As she withers, the elephants fade and the Emerald City is restored to its former glory. The celebration is short-lived, though, as Pumpkinhead has fallen along with the rest of Mombi’s creations. Glinda tells Dorothy her magic cannot restore him, and Dorothy weeps for her fallen friend. As she cries, her tears touch Pumpkinhead’s face, and the magic of her love restores him to life. The Scarecrow awards his friends, making Woodenhead his own royal steed and knighting Pumpkinhead, then offers Dorothy anything she desires. She asks, as always, simply to return home.  The Scarecrow find a loophole in the Oz Constitution that will only allow Dorothy to return home the way she came, and Glinda creates a cyclone to carry her back.

Thoughts: In the 1970s theatrical animation could be divided pretty squarely into two categories: Disney, and everything else. This Filmation effort falls into the latter category: limited animation, competent but unimpressive voice acting and weak music. The idea of doing an Oz sequel was all well and good, but Filmation went with stunt casting (Judy Garland’s daughter voicing Dorothy, original Wicked Witch Margaret Hamilton doing a cameo as Aunt Em, plus several celebrities of the time) and an uncredited rewrite of Baum’s second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz. This movie plucks some of the characters from that book – Mombi and Pumpkinhead – turns the Sawhorse into a Merry-Go-Round horse, then turns the plot into something that’s trying hard to be The Wizard of Oz all over again. Instead of that other story, in which a young boy named Tip and his friends wind up stumbling on a plot to conquer Oz by an army of angry women, this movie has Dorothy once again marching to the Emerald City, once again picking up unusual friends along the way, once again being plagued by a Wicked Witch out for revenge. It’s incomprehensible to me why, with 14 Oz books to choose from by Baum alone, filmmakers never seem to look past the first three for inspiration, and often try to shoehorn elements from the latter two into the mold of the first one all over again. It’s equally baffling why they would create new elements when the originals (such as General Jinjur’s all-girl army, which the elephants are standing in for) work so much better. And for Heaven’s sake, why elephants? Okay, they’re big, they’re powerful, but the way the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion react to them you’d think elephants are their natural predators or something. Even mammoths might make sense, but the Tin Man going into a panic over green elephants simply doesn’t make any sense.

The performances, as I said, are merely adequate. Liza Minnelli is clearly cast simply for the gimmick of having her take up her mother’s role, as she brings nothing to the part. She’s not terrible, but there are most certainly more talented voice performers who could have done more, granted the character the sweetness and innocence she demands. As it is, the only thing that really can be said about Dorothy in this film is that she “kinda sounds a little like Judy Garland.” The animation is weak as well – Filmation does a far better job with the non-human characters than Dorothy. She’s surrounded by characters like the Tin Man and Pumpkinhead, which at least look amusing, but Dorothy herself is a stiff, unemotive creature that only really has one expression. This isn’t one of those times where I’m willing to chalk it up to the limited resources of the time, either. If Disney could make magical, powerful characters in the 1930s, the only excuse for the poor animation of the 70s is pencil-pushers cutting corners, and that I refuse to forgive.

Some of the other characters are better, at least. Milton Berle as the Cowardly Lion and Mickey Rooney as the Scarecrow fit the parts nicely. Danny Thomas’s Tin Man is less impressive, and Paul Lynde… well, he’s pretty much Paul Lynde talking out of a Jack O’Lantern. Ethel Merman’s Mombi isn’t bad at all, but she’s playing a typical, stereotypical witch, not particularly doing anything innovative. But my biggest problem with them is more along the lines of characterization than animation. The notion that the Tin Man or Lion would ever refuse to help Dorothy is preposterous. Hell, the entire point of the Lion’s story arc in the first book (or movie) is that he will always overcome his fear to help his friends! You mean to tell me you wave a little thing like an army of magic green elephants in his face and the king of beasts will lose his ability to fight? Absolutely not, my friends. I cannot accept this. The scenes with the Tin Man and Lion ultimately have no impact on the plot anyway, they’re included simply so that the recognizable characters could put in an appearance. It would have been just as effective and far less insulting, from a story standpoint, if the movie skipped from the escape from the Emerald City to the point where Glinda pops up. (It would actually be better, in fact, because if Glinda was watching the whole time, why the hell did she wait so long before taking action?)

Speaking of Glinda, here we see one of those oft-used fantasy tropes that usually irritates me: the “don’t open it until the proper time” gimmick. Writers often use this to create some false suspense, but at least they usually make some effort to explain why the giver of the gift won’t say what it is: magic, arbitrary rules of the game, “you wouldn’t have believed me,” something. None of those are brought into play here, though, there was no reason for Glinda to make a secret out of the box’s contents. It’s just there so we can have a brief moment in the forest where Woodenhead suggests opening the box to escape the trees and Dorothy can tell him no, reminding us that she’s a good little girl who does as Glinda tells her.

The songs, like the voice acting, are merely adequate. Each character gets at least one, Dorothy gets several, none of them are particularly memorable. This was par for the course for films of this nature, sadly, and that’s even sadder when you compare it to the incomparable music from the 1939 film.

When I learned of the existence of this movie, I was initially very excited – as I always am when I find out about a version of Oz I haven’t encountered before. Sadly, the whole thing fell very flat for me. It was at least more recognizable than the 1925 Wizard of Oz, but in truth, that’s mostly because it was built on the back of the Judy Garland film. That’s not to say you can’t tell a good Oz story that way – many people have – but this didn’t hold up for me. Still, I can see a lot of similarities to the cartoons I grew up watching, the ones that hold a special place in my heart even today. On the other hand, I can also recognize that a large number of those cartoons I loved as a kid are terribly weak when looked back upon with a discerning eye. I suspect that if I had watched this movie as a child, I’d probably upon it with rose-colored glasses. As it is, I’m just left sliding the disc back into its NetFlix sleeve and feeling a little disappointed for the second time in this week’s experiment.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!


The Christmas Special Day 10: The Fat Albert Christmas Special (1977)


Note: Revelations about Bill Cosby himself have obviously tainted perceptions of much of his work, this special included. However, I have chosen to keep this article in its entirety as a sort of archival piece. Regardless of who Cosby himself turned out to be, I stand by my thoughts on the work itself as being valid.

Director: Hal Sutherland

Writer: Bill Danch & Jim Ryan

Cast: Bill Cosby, Jan Crawford, Gerald Edward, Eric Suter, Marshall Franklin, Eric Greene, Kim Hamiton, Julius Harris, Ty Henderson

Plot: Fat Albert (Bill Cosby, who did about 75 percent of the voices) and his gang are preparing for their Christmas pageant, when old “Tightwad” Tyrone – owner of the junkyard where they’ve built their clubhouse – shows up and declares he’s tearing down the clubhouse. While the gang tries to think of a way out of their predicament, they’re approached by a boy named Marshall (Marshall Franklin). His father is out of a job and their car broke down right outside. To make matters worse, his mother is about to have a baby. Fat Albert invites them in to warm up, and sends Bill to help Marshall’s father find a hospital. Fat Albert chases down Tyrone to try to convince him to leave the clubhouse alone, fearing it’ll be torn down with Mrs. Franklin inside. Tyrone agrees to leave the clubhouse standing if Fat Albert plays Santa Claus outside of his secondhand store to try to draw in customers. Bill and Mr. Franklin return, unable to get help at the local hospital without insurance. Mrs. Franklin stands up to go to the distant city charity hospital, but can’t go any farther. Bill and his brother, Russell, rush off to find help.

The rest of the gang finds Fat Albert outside Tyrone’s store and begin snatching his free samples, and an angry Tyrone fires Albert and promises to demolish the clubhouse. Old Mudfoot Brown arrives and snaps at Tyrone that he’s become a miserable old man since his wife died. Embarrassed, Tyrone asks how he can redeem himself, but Mudfoot simply tells him he wouldn’t know how to do a good deed. At the clubhouse, Marshall overhears his father say he’s afraid he can’t even afford to feed his first child, let alone the second, and Marshall decides to run away. When the gang returns with the promise of a doctor, they realize Marshall is missing and set out to look for him just as Mrs. Franklin begins to deliver. They find Marshall down at the docks, and the boy is trapped on an ice floe when he tries to flee. Fat Albert and the others manage to save him, but he slips away again. When they return to the clubhouse the baby has arrived. Mr. Franklin asks where Marshall is, but before Fat Albert can answer, Mr. Tyrone arrives – with Marshall. Hearing the Franklins’ story, he offers Mr. Franklin a job and says he can no longer tear down the clubhouse, since it’s a “landmark.” The gang and Tyrone give the Franklins a merry Christmas, and Tyrone looks to the sky to ask his wife how he’s doing now.

Thoughts: By 1977, we had reached the point where a Christmas episode of a popular cartoon wasn’t enough. We needed a full-blown Christmas special, and Bill Cosby and company delivered here. Although Tyrone definitely has a dash of Scrooge about him, the story isn’t just another Dickens rehash. If anything, the plot is more intent on echoing the nativity story, with a pregnant woman who has nowhere to go.

The plot is nicely layered, with the story of the Franklin family colliding with the Cosby Kids’ problem with Mr. Franklin. Not too many children’s cartoons today would have the wherewithal to take two entirely unrelated problems and intertwine them this way. The kids’ problem, furthermore, makes the Franklins’ dilemma even more dire. Sure, Mrs. Franklin is safe from the cold, but the viewer legitimately wonders if Mr. Tyrone will get over his anger long enough to realize there’s a pregnant woman inside the clubhouse, or if that would even matter to him before he demolishes it. Marshall has a pretty standard waif reaction to the situation – he’s causing a problem for his parents, so he decides to run away. Rather than one huge, overriding issue like a lot of these cartoons deal with, The Fat Albert Christmas Special deals with a lot of little things, and is the better for it.

Mr. Tyrone is an interesting villain. Like I said, he has elements of Scrooge, but not all of his actions make as much logical sense as Ebenezer’s. Evidently, the presence of a clubhouse somehow decreases the value of a junkyard. I know. I don’t get it either.

Like many of the half-hour Christmas specials, especially the ones that have a real villain, the climax seems to come a little too easily. It’s a bit more forgivable in this case, though… I’m not really sure where else they could have taken Mr. Tyrone’s story without dovetailing into a straight-up Dickens parody. As it is, Mudfoot plays the role of Jacob Marley and all three ghosts, delivering in 30 seconds the sort of realization that takes most films 90 minutes to do. I think it actually helps that we don’t see a traditional “moment of redemption” here. Tyrone’s change of heart happens largely off-camera, helping to drive in the idea that he isn’t really a bad man, just one who’s sad and angry, and who tries to make amends when he’s called on being sad and angry.

It’s hard to believe this cartoon is as old as I am. The story ages very well, the ideas are timeless and the backdrop is sadly relevant to modern times. Really, the only point that’s not completely current is the notion of kids playing in a clubhouse they made themselves, rather than sitting around with X-Box controllers. One can only hope, were the Franklins to break down today, they could still find a Fat Albert to bring them a little hope.