Awakening in tornado ravaged Kansas young Dorothy Gale (voiced by Lea Michele) struggles to save her family farm from a greedy property developer. Meanwhile the land of Oz is threatened by a new villain, the malevolent Jester (Martin Short) who seizes the magic broom that once belonged to his late sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, and sets about transforming various dignitaries of Oz into powerless wooden puppets including Glinda the Good (Bernadette Peters). Only Dorothy can stop him. So the Scarecrow (Dan Aykroyd), Tin Man (Kelsey Grammar) and Cowardly Lion (Jim Belushi) bring Dorothy and her faithful little dog Toto back to Oz by means of a computer-controlled transdimensional rainbow. With her friends subsequently imprisoned, Dorothy embarks on a perilous journey with a new set of allies to defeat the wicked Jester, save the land of Oz and maybe her home too.
At one stage John Boorman, whose films are riddled with Oz references, was set to remake The Wizard of Oz as a computer-animated feature. That project seemingly faltered in the wake of Sam Raimi's prequel Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) and instead we have Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return, a surprisingly spirited musical fantasy more charming than cynics might expect not least given the controversy surrounding its financiers and lacklustre box-office. Produced by American indie outfit Summertime Entertainment, the film was animated in India and rather than draw from the original Oz books by L. Frank Baum takes its story from "Dorothy of Oz", the 1989 novel penned by his grandson Roger S. Baum. It is faster paced to keep up with today's less patient young viewers and controversially relocates the story to the present day yet does so with skill and without recourse to crass modernization, retaining the timeless appeal of the Oz stories.
In fact the witty script written by Randi Barnes, with additional input from among others co-directors Will Finn and Daniel St. Pierre, does a neat job of rearranging key motifs not just from Baum's text but the classic 1939 film and drawing subtle parallels between Depression era angst and the economic anxieties America faces in the present day. Interwoven throughout the plot is the heartening theme of disparate peoples with conflicting attitudes drawn together (by Dorothy of course) to rebuild not just Oz but America, of which Baum himself would no doubt approve. Each of the principal characters has a well defined arc and much like the 1939 classic embodies a specific neurosis. Wiser the overweight owl (Oliver Platt) is a blabbermouth intellectual who masks his insecurities behind a stream of chatter, the Dainty China Princess (Megan Hilty) is spoiled and shallow yet cares deeply about her subject while Marshal Mallow (Hugh Dancy) struggles to think for himself when he would much rather follow orders. The film wisely retains some of the creepiness present in both the 1939 film and Walter Murch's much underrated Return to Oz (1985). Oz fans will welcome the return of those scary talking trees who actually remember Dorothy from the last time, although Patrick Stewart adds pathos as an elderly tree who joins her cause because he wants to contribute something of worth to the world in his lifetime. It is also often genuinely funny without sacrificing any of the inherent magic for the sake of a snide wisecrack. Certain sequences even broach satire such as when Dorothy is put on trial for scoffing too many sweeties in the Candy Kingdom, which features the unmistakeable booming tones of Brian Blessed.
Animation-wise the characters may be a notch below the standards of Pixar or Blue Sky but the candy-coloured production design is vibrant and appealing while Finn and St. Pierre pull off an array of eye-popping set-pieces. Legends of Oz also has the benefit of a classy voice cast. Okay, maybe not Jim Belushi. Curiously, Broadway veterans Bernadette Peters and Kelsey Grammar are given no opportunity to sing, but Martin Short rises to the occasion magnificently plus the filmmakers scored a major casting coup with Glee star Lea Michele and fellow musical theatre legend Megan Hilty. Listening to these two powerhouse vocalists proves the aural equivalent of warm honey. More surprising perhaps is that Hugh Dancy not only pulls off the most endearing characterization but proves to have a lovely singing voice. Who knew? Although unlikely to supplant "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in public affection, the musical numbers including several composed by Bryan Adams (yes, that Bryan Adams) are actually pretty darn good. The rousing "Work With Me" and "Even Then", a delightful three-way duet between Michele, Hilty and Dancy are particular highlights.