I was never that comforted by Oz. It didn't seem so much a land of whimsy and magic as a place of capricious death and a “kill-or-be-killed” ethos, where you could be trapped forever if you didn't please the right people. In one book, “The Marvelous Land of Oz,” after using “The Power of Life” to animate imaginary friends, a boy learns he isn't real. Rather, he's simply the shell carrier for the more important Ozma, and must be erased because his usefulness is over. Needless to say, I never again picked up on Oz book after reading this at age seven. Perhaps it appeals to the childhood fantasy that we're secretly royalty or aliens, somehow greater and more special than our humdrum lives suggest, but that book would take weeks of Freudian analysis to unpack.
While the MGM Wizard of Oz has charmed for generations, no other crack at the books has been that successful. The Witches of Oz, like some adaptations, turns on the tempting idea of revisiting OZ with a grown-up Dorothy. Usually, she's offered as a sexed up version, a concept skewered here to nice effect. This SyFy miniseries prefers to ask “what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”
Opening with a prologue crammed with more back-story than the opening to The Fellowship of the Ring, it establishes a familiar group as amnesiac cast-outs, now being hunted by an Oz that wouldn't mind moving into Manhattan. We then follow a revised walk down the yellow brick road as Dorothy again collects her long-lost friends, though it's only the most inattentive who'll be surprised by the character reveals.
The Witches of Oz is a competent, comfortable Sunday afternoon entertainment. It's high-concept reach exceeds its grasp. They cram a lot into a little TV box and the budgetary limitations show as good costumes and effects are overshadowed by poor ones. A leaner story with fewer characters would make for better flow but events are easy to follow, including the refreshingly cruel plot pivot in the middle. The second half though is filled with muddled action sequences and rough effects, but you'll admire the “go for broke” attitude on display here. On a notable downside, there is also a astonishingly wrong-headed and racist caricature of a cabdriver and some awful munchkin sword-fights that are downright difficult to watch.
The cast is a mixed bag. Paulie Rojas plays Dorothy with just a hint of “manic pixie dreamgirl.” She lacks authority, but makes for a genuinely likeable center to build this Oz around. Christopher Lloyd and Lance Henriksen are their dependable selves. As Billie, Eliza Swenson is a nice surprise, but some of her best moments are overshadowed by Mia Sara. Gleefully chewing scenery in a too-limited appearance, she knocks it out of the park. Sara may play truly unpredictable madness better than any actress today (seriously, check her out in the short-lived TV series “Birds of Prey”), and delivers here in fine, playful form. She more than makes up for the annoying, alienating comic-relief elves played by Ethan Embry and Sean Astin.
All that said, The Witches of Oz is fun to watch. Too busy and scary for the little ones, it remains family-friendly to older kids on up. Even with some neon-lit foreshadowing, I genuinely enjoyed watching this, charmed by the ambitious storytelling. Even if you're not that fond of Oz, it's a rollicking entertainment. (However, ripping off the melody of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” without springing for the rights for the real song remains unforgivable.) This is also the full 167 minute mini-series version. A 101 minute edit titled Dorothy and the Witches of Oz is available with redone effects and 15 minutes of different footage. I haven't seen it to compare, but this version is a nice time spent with some revised old friends.
Dorothy Gale (Paulie Rojas) is a simple girl in rural Kansas who writes children's (sic) books based on the land of Oz created by her grandfather. Her mundane life is turned upside down when she receives an offer from a big New York agency to represent her books. In New York, Dorothy soon realizes her books, and her grandfather's stories, are based in reality. The magical world of Oz and all of its inhabitants are very real and they are coming to New York City! Dorothy and her friends are the only ones who can stop the evil Wicked Witch of the West and her plans for global domination. Also starring Billy Boyd, Sean Astin, Ethan Embry, Mia Sara, Lance Henriksen and Christopher Lloyd.
While presented widescreen and with Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround English audio, this TV production only sports English SDH and Spanish subtitles along with a trailer and a disappointing behind-the-scenes featurette that runs under 3 minutes.
Come for the Oz, stay to watch Mia Sara delivery the crazy. Family-friendly, occasionally slow, and too caught up in its' own mythology, The Witches of Oz is an ambitious take on an old chestnut. Perfect for a rainy Sunday and more entertaining that you expect.