This movie has gained most of its notoriety less from its obviously low quality, and more from its questionable methods of securing its funding. Essentially, this was a real-life example of a ‘Springtime For Hitler’ scheme—raise a lot of money by fraudulent means, create a low-budget failure and abscond with the difference.
But just for the record, ‘Springtime For Hitler’ schemes are not particularly rare in the real world—Mel Brooks himself may have been inspired by the Broadway cult flop Oh, Captain, which was actually a pretty decent show, but is rumored to have closed before its time because one of the producers was selling phony shares of the show and pocketing the resulting cash.
And even if you analyze this movie purely from an artistic perspective, it isn’t exactly a new thing. There was a Seventies b-list animated film called Journey Back To Oz based on almost exactly the same concept, and it suffered many of the same flaws, such as an uninspired retread of the original Wizard of Oz plot, exaggerating the characteristics of the companions from the first movie, and some exceptionally weak musical numbers.
That said, at least Journey Back To Oz drew its inspiration from the later books in L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, which, as strange as they would become in the later installments, still had genuine creativity and the stamp of authentic Baum. Legends of Oz, on the other hand, is based on the work of Roger S. Baum, a great-grandson of the elder Baum who tried to cash in on his connection to a great author by writing a series of subpar children’s novels based on the Oz franchise that would have gone completely unnoticed had they not been written by someone bearing the Baum name.
I’ve read the novel that inspired this film, Dorothy of Oz, and it’s arguably even worse than the movie itself. The plot is just an uninspired retread of Baum’s original storytelling style, and the prose is not only written in an extremely simple, juvenile style designed to pander to young children (who never seemed to have a problem comprehending the elder Baum’s more sophisticated prose), but is flat and lifeless even by the standards of books aimed at the beginning reader set.
The movie took the book’s uncreative retread of the original story, and added a good deal of weak humor, particularly for the film’s embarrassing attempt at a comic villain, the Jester (who manages to be off-puttingly humorless and impossible to take seriously at the same time), and some of the weakest songs heard in a theatrical movie musical in some time. The score is largely by Bryan Adams, whose last attempt at scoring an animated film, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, featured some of the best work of his career, but here he puts as little effort into his work as anyone else involved in the project. While instrumental film music is certainly a legitimate genre, in a vocal musical it’s generally considered a bad sign when the instrumental title sequence is the best music in the film.
Apart from one mildly enjoyable operetta pastiche for the China Princess, the songs are pretty dire, from the utterly underwhelming attempt at an “Over the Rainbow”-style wanting song for Dorothy, “One Day”, to the grotesque pseudo-psychedelia of “Candy, Candy”, to the soppy ballad “Even Then”, to the Jester’s tuneless villain song, to “Work With Me”, which is a blatant rip-off of “Happy Working Song” from Enchanted, a song that was already a pastiche of a well-worn genre cliché to begin with.
The one thing that indicates some hint of an actual budget is a collection of slightly-less-than-A-list celebrity voices, and they provide the closest thing the movie has to a redeeming feature: while most of the performers are either phoning it in or hamming it up (with Kelsey Grammer and Martin Short making particularly memorable asses of themselves), Bernadette Peters as Glinda, Megan Hilty as the China Princess, and Lea Michele as Dorothy really seem to be trying, and do as well as can be expected with this material (Michele apparently took the part because she had always dreamed of playing Dorothy, which is kind of sad if you think about it).
The secret to successfully pulling off a ‘Springtime For Hitler’ scheme in real life is to aim for forgettable mediocrity rather than legendary awfulness, thus not drawing attention to your crimes and avoiding the pitfalls portrayed in The Producers— and indeed, while it is totally without merit, this movie is by no means as unbearable as the absolute worst of the Disney DTV sequels. Don’t get me wrong, it’s bad, but it’s not really memorably bad. Still, this is one film where not only is the end result a soulless piece of sellout product with no actual artistic merit, but we actually have fairly clear confirmation that this was the creators’ intent from the very beginning, so the special outrage it seems to draw is perfectly understandable.