If you’re watching the opening scenes of The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz on DVD, you might think you’ve made the wrong selection on the menu because you’re immediately confronted with a music video of Ashanti singing about how “Sometimes You Can’t Get Out of Kansas.” But this isn’t a special feature, nor could you have seen The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz in any other way than on the small screen, and yes, this is how the movie opens. Made for TV in 2005, The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz is easily the most derided and worst of the Muppet films. It’s so disliked that I bet most fans of the Muppets would probably like to forget it in the same way Trekkies want to (unfairly) erase Enterprise from history.
But this is where Muppet-love gets a little too scared for my tastes, because The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz is a fantastic kid’s movie and much cleverer than it might seem.
Unlike Muppet Christmas Carol, this movie is exclusively aimed at small children, specifically children who watch the Disney Channel, and as such, would have been aware of who Ashanti was in 2005. This bit of casting, along with Queen Latifah as Aunt M, has already not aged well, but in the grand scheme of the movie it’s not that big of a deal. When I first watched The Muppet’s Wizard of Oz it was with twin seven-year-olds I was babysitting, and and one of them pointed out pointed out that Ashanti’s Dorothy was sort of “like Luke at the begining of Star Wars.” Truly wonderful, the mind of a child! Queen Latifah wasn’t playing a hip and modern 21st century Auntie Em; she was playing a Muppet version of Uncle Owen. When you look at it this way, it helps you get into the movie.
Dorothy is planning to go to the Toche Station to audition for a big Muppet variety show in the capacity of a singer. Because Aunt Em has her working long hours at the local diner, Dorothy just misses the Muppet’s bus as Kermit bemoans that the search for an “All-American girl” is not going well. There’s an absolutely terrible and embarrassing reference to Girls Gone Wild here, which also doesn’t seem fitting of the Muppets. However, there’s something accidentally meta going on here in the way the Muppets are portrayed in this specific movie universe.
Throughout the Muppet films, there’s a meta-fictional conceit that they are indeed a troupe of working actors. If this is true, then this is the Muppet’s sell-out phase, a time in which Miss Piggy was treating fans even more poorly than usual, and Kermit probably had a coke problem. The point is, prior to all the Oz stuff, the movie is so laden with terrible pop-culture pandering (not dissimilar to the opening of Muppets From Space) that it’s almost excusable. The Muppets needed the money, okay?
When the action does shift to Oz things start to look up, because the Muppets start playing their parts. Throughout Muppet Week, many writers on Tor.com have alluded to the literary mutability of the Muppets. They can fill a variety of archetypal roles, none of which surprise an audience member when they see the Muppets in said roles and in The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz they do it brilliantly. Kermit plays the Scarecrow pretty much as Kermit with no real changes to his character, which suits the Scarecrow just fine. Fozzie Bear is the Cowardly Lion, who instead of being afraid of fighting creatures has a case of stage fright. Just like our Fozzie, this version is a stand-up comedian. Gonzo is the “Tin-Thing” further perpetuating the joke of his questionable taxonomy. Making Gonzo an alien in Muppets from Space might have been controversial, similar to the assertion in Highlander 2 that all immortal were aliens. In this way, the classification of Gonzo in this movie as a “thing” is sort of a bit of retcon which might appease certain fans. After all, the don’t call him the “Tin-Alien.”
Miss Piggy plays all four of the Witches of Oz, with the Wicked Witch of the West being the absolutely best. This Wicked Witch is a full-on biker, complete with a leather jacket and a fleet of flying motorcycles. She’s also rocking an eyepatch here, which sort of makes her look like the most recent Doctor Who villain Madame Kovarian, meaning if they ever do a Muppet Doctor Who, they’d already have one of the costumes ready to go. The Toto casting is probably the most genius of all, with Pepe the Prawn filling the role. At the beginning of the movie, Dorothy has a real pet prawn named Toto, which transformers into Pepe once they arrive in Oz. This decision alone is charmingly strange and a perfect synecdoche for what The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz is all about: strange decisions that are just creative enough to cause you to smile. Having a re-imagined Toto be a prawn is actually pretty funny abstractly, but going the extra mile with it being Pepe is downright brilliant. Further, Fozzie as the Cowardly Comedian is uniquely touching, insofar as everyone has some form of stage fright.
In what is maybe the best scene in the movie, Fozzie has to cross a chasm while telling jokes and dodging insults from troll-like versions of Statler and Waldorf. This is wonderful for obvious reasons, but the real great thing here is the notion that a performer plying his trade is transported into an adventure/fantasy narrative. It also helps to reemphasize the meta-fictional aspects of the Muppets as performers. In this particular universe the “real” Muppets are doing great financially, but here in Oz, with the Cowardly Comedian, one Muppet is still struggling to make it as a working artist. This alone is worth sitting through the movie. (There’s also a meta-fictional cameo from Quentin Tarantino which is awesome.)
Are these turns of genius and self-reflection most likely accidents? Maybe, maybe not. But it doesn’t detract from the really enjoyable aspects of this fun little movie. In a world of terrible kid’s movies (like Cars) a reimagined Wizard of Oz with a non-white Dorothy, a prawn instead of a puppy, and a lion who is a comedian, this movie comes across as fairly non-offensive. In fact, when you put all the elements together in your head, and shake off its pop-panderings, it might even be a little bit progressive.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. He thinks there’s a major flaw in the screenplay of the original Wizard of Oz film and gets into weird conversations about it too often.