From former Asylum director Leigh Scott, TV miniseries "The Witches of Oz" is now available on Blu-ray from Image Entertainment. Also released for a limited theatrical run earlier this year, the surreal and ostentatious modern fantasy epic is packed to the gills with flying cars, giant monsters, electricity-spurting magic wand duels, and drag-queenish witchly infighting.
Despite the dogged fanboy inclusion of obscure characters from L. Frank Baum’s original book series, plus a supporting cast of genre favorites that includes Billy Boyd, Sean Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Lance Henrikson, and Christopher Lloyd, the movie’s convoluted storytelling and operatic visuals fail to gel, making its nearly three-hour runtime feel like an unnecessary slog.
In Leigh’s modern update of the Oz mythos, Dorothy Gale (Paulie Rojas) is a real-life Kansas farmgirl and part-time store clerk, who along with her friend and co-worker Allen (Ari Zagaris) has created a series of illustrated fantasy books for children about an 11-year-old girl, also named Dorothy, who finds herself trapped in a magical alternate universe called Oz. The real-life Dorothy is shocked and elated one morning when she receives a letter from the glamorous head of a Manhattan publishing firm, offering both Dorothy and Allen an all-expense-paid trip to New York, plus a full contract.
Hoping the money from the books’ publication will help her Uncle Henry (Henrikson) to rescue his farm from foreclosure, Dorothy travels to New York with Allen and Billie Westbrooke (Eliza Swenson, who also co-wrote and composed the score), a chic and enigmatic publishing agent who sets Dorothy up in her own apartment, buys her a new wardrobe, and starts introducing her around to the members of the city’s elite.
Following her arrival in New York, Dorothy begins to discover that all is not as it seems – the characters and stories she thought she had imagined are actually a mish-mash of magically suppressed memories from her own early childhood. Following an apocalyptic battle between the allied forces of the evil Witches of Oz and the munchkin hoards, Dorothy was sent back to Kansas with a magical key, which, as long as it remains concealed from the witches, will prevent their planned overthrow of Oz’s benevolent leadership.
Out for revenge and bent on inter-dimensional world domination, the Witches have transported themselves to modern New York, disguised as regular citizens, and intent on discovering the key’s whereabouts. Dorothy, however, has no direct memory of the key or of Oz, and as the increasingly large-scale destruction of the city unleashed by the Witches’ anger and impatience continues to mount, she must strive to recall its whereabouts and significance before time runs out, and both worlds are plunged into eternal, malevolent darkness.
Scott describes "The Witches of Oz" in the disc’s special features as a “passion project,” and that’s clearly what it was. Many members of the cast and crew took on multiple jobs during the production, stretching their resources to the absolute maximum extent possible. Maybe the project was too ambitious for their budget, maybe they didn’t have enough time, or maybe it was just mishandled, but alas, it is with a truly heavy heart that I must declare this movie/miniseries/thing to be really just sort of okay, I guess.
If its runtime had been cut in half, its noisy, disorganized and flamboyant silliness might be more endearing, but any movie that runs upward of two-and-a-half hours risks becoming monotonous, even if it’s chopped up into two separate installments, and a project this unfocused just can’t stand up to that challenge. Despite its epic runtime, "The Witches of Oz" doesn’t play like an epic fantasy at all – instead, nearly the first 90 minutes consists of non-fantastical set-up, peppered with vague flashbacks, character backstories, and a pointless romantic subplot, which is followed by a single bombastic fantasy battle, and then a conclusion.
"The Witches of Oz" does have its bright spots – the cast, for example, is very solid, and Christopher Lloyd in particular makes a great (if underutilized) Wizard of Oz. It’s also, arguably, a movie primarily for kids, which makes its uneven pacing and weird plot holes slightly more forgivable, but the painstakingly assembled nerd cast and subtle references to Baum’s novels imply that the filmmakers were aiming for a mixed-age demographic rather than a strictly pre-adolescent one, and on that front, it unfortunately fails.
Die-hard Oz fans may find it at least worth a look, but post-pubescent fantasy junkies of a more general stripe are unlikely to find themselves deeply enchanted.