We all know there’s a world of animated Wizard of Oz knock-offs, remakes, sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and reimaginings. Of course, there is. Pretty much everyone is familiar with the characters and basic plot -plus there’s a lot of material to work with. And it’s in the public domain…as long as you aren’t basing it off of the 1939 Disney version.
This is why the characters vary a lot in appearance – and many recent adaptations feature Dorothy Prime’s daughter or granddaughter and a new set of companions. Most of them…are mediocre and others are impressively terrible. I mean when you’re making a public domain adaptation…you’re not doing it because you care about the material or making a good movie. You’re doing it for the money.
Fantastic Journey to Oz is a Russian animated adaptation – (which I watched in English) based on a Russian novel called Urfin Jus and His Wooden Soldiers. I didn’t find that out until after watching, which explains some of the weird plot and dialogue. I honestly did not think it was going to be good – I was expecting poor animation, awkward dialogue, and terrible pacing… But honestly, most of it was pretty competent.
This particular film follows Dorothy Prime’s granddaughter – also Dorothy – after she accidentally ends up in Oz (or Magic Land in this translation.) And she couldn’t have come at a better time.
The wicked Urfin raised an army of wooden soldiers, had taken over the Emerald City, and imprisoned the Scarecrow. And now, Dorothy must figure out how to stop Urfin and how to get her magic silver slippers working again, so she can go home. And since she’s not the ‘real Dorothy’ she also has no idea – how to deal with all of Oz’s crazy happenings.
In more capable hands, this could have been an entertaining film -with a lot less wandering and a lot more character – because some of these characters are pretty interesting. And by some, I basically mean Urfin.
Unnecessary Stops…. Terrible pacing
So much of this movie could have been trimmed down or cut out completely. The opening sequence – which involves Urfin moping, then creating some dancing plants, burning down the plants, finding their glittery ashes brings inanimate objects to life, and then deciding to assemble an army to take over Munchkinland —takes over 10 minutes. The whole thing could have been established in a much shorter time – as with the creation of his two lackeys; a bear rug and a toy clown…the latter of which I figured was going to play a much larger role.
And this means Dorothy has about a minute of screentime before she is transported to Oz. So we don’t learn much about her – except that she’s a bland, sweet, cookie-cutter girl from Kansas who lives with her parents and grandma. And it remains that way for the rest of the film.
This Dorothy is even stupider than her grandmother – because at least she has the advantage of knowing about Oz from stories. Yet, this girl decides that it’s a brilliant idea to follow a sign that basically says “Free Wishes,” in a dark, mysterious forest.
Brilliant, Dorothy. This leads to a very long sequence with an ogre planning to eat her and the Cowardly Lion trying to find her that does nothing to move the plot along or become relevant later on, nor does it build the characters’ personalities or anything.
The pacing makes this movie painful to sit through — it’s hard to be worried about the characters’ plan to come together when the movie doesn’t have a good sense of timing or ticking clock to make you worry about her getting it done in time.
Especially since throughout this whole adventure Dorothy is pretty much being dragged along by the other [male] characters who figure everything out and do everything for her -all she does is provide them with inspiration and the silver slippers.
Drab Drab Dorothy
Dorothy doesn’t have a personality. She doesn’t do anything. She just kind of exists… Fucking Toto Jr. does more – even though he’s a DOG. She doesn’t even have any kind of external motivation driving her – and the “lesson” she learns at the end – that the people of Magic Land are real people – was never a lesson she needed to learn.
It was Toto who kept treating it as a game. Dorothy never learns anything because she’s never given a character least of all some type of character flaw. Sure, she’s just oblivious but that doesn’t really count when it never actually harms her.
Why is it that so many films, when placing a girl as a protagonist, end up not playing a legitimate role in their own stories? Hell – the Scarecrow clone who is maybe in the movie for a total of 10 minutes has a more compelling character and arc than the main fucking character.
I can’t tell you one significant thing about her. Is she a good student? I don’t know. I know nothing about her values, her likes, her dislikes, whether she’s a team player. She’s more of a slate than Bella Swan. At least, she had some type of motivation.
It feels like they could have done something with her character – maybe when she goes to Oz she feels like she can’t live up to her grandmother’s legacy, or maybe she actually treats it as a game. Maybe, she actually doesn’t realize the people in Oz are real, so at first, she’s pretty careless and just wants to have fun.
That could be interesting,
Seriously. Anything would have been better than what we got.
So Many Characters, So Little Development
Part of what contributes to utterly weird pacing and the milquetoast main character is that — there are so many other characters introduced. And…it never really does much with their characters either – they don’t complete anything.
Let’s take Clowny. He’s a toy that got bought to life by Urfin’s magic, and he’s pretty much the brains of the operation. He’s the one who convinces Urfin to take over the emerald city, to make the wooden soldiers…and I kept expecting him to turn against Urfin and the others, and use the army for himself to take over.
But that never happens. Not even when it’s clear that his side is going lose, he doesn’t escape… It just didn’t feel right. Like something was missing. Like he was originally meant to be the real villain and so having his arc end so abruptly is just weird.
And then there’s this one character, whose name I’m not sure of, who is a bird – who helps the protagonists by relaying messages or by picking up necessary items. I also expected her to betray the protagonists because that’s how it felt like it was all set up.
It just felt like an odd choice. Maybe it was the dub and the character came off differently in the Russian version – but still – that’s a pretty drastic change and the company that produced it.
I don’t know what the people here were thinking when they wrote these characters – both of whom seemed like they fit into these character types – but don’t – but it’s not subversive – it just feels like bad writing.
It just doesn’t work.
And even though these are well-known tropes, they’re well-known because they tend to work. I know that these tropes come up and what to expect because I watch way too much TV and way too many movies. I love studying them – sometimes these tropes are used well and appear almost unexpected, sometimes they’re expected, and then when they don’t happen even with all the foreshadowing and character personalities, it just seems….wrong.
Like we could have done away with some of these characters – at least the bird and Scarecrow’s advisor – to develop these other characters more and use the film’s brief running time far more effectively.
But at least they avoid the worse issues with Urfin himself.
The Mysterious Urfin
Urfin — is a fucking weirdly written villain. He starts as ineffectual – and cranky. He’s just annoyed by the jingling of the munchkins and then two minutes he’s like, “Yeah, clown dude, taking over Magic Land sounds like an excellent idea.” And the thing is…he almost succeeds.
His army – despite being full of soldiers who were created like the day before – and thus lack a lot of knowledge about the world, including the idea that fire is dangerous (but they also don’t understand pain) and are just all-around, pretty stupid- are effective at taking over.
Though he has no actual magical abilities, people fear him and he even gets one of Scarecrow’s most trusted advisors to switch sides (and he doesn’t get a lot of foreshadowing), though he’s not good at the job.
But as I mentioned, Urfin is pretty smart, particularly for a kids’ villain, so I was actually invested quite a bit – but even with that, and him being unsure whether he wants power – when in actuality what he wants is people to acknowledge him.
This could have been interesting – if they had spent more time on it – but it’s not apparent. And the only time it’s getting hinted at is towards the end when he’s talking to the magic book and when Dorthy receives a gift to give to him from a Munchkin girl.
Again, you would THINK this would play a bigger role – but it doesn’t. Dorothy completely forgets about it until the end of the film and when she does give it – it’s a very anti-climatic moment.
It’s also pretty weird that Urfin and Dorothy don’t really interact until the end. I know that’s not an uncommon choice – but the two don’t have any real contempt or personal grudges . It makes it harder for the conflict to feel like it has any real stakes, especially since the Dorothy on this adventure isn’t the original.
It was just a weird choice… I don’t get it. Maybe it’s a Russian film thing? Maybe it’s something that got lost in translation or maybe it was just poor writing. I honestly have no idea.
There’s many other aspects of the film that I think could have been incorporated better…like picking a rhyme other than “Eenie Meenie Miney Mo,” for the maximum friendship power to give it more weight and find a better way to explain how changing the soldiers’ frowns to smiles makes them good…and how the general changed sides.
It just all seems kind of…random? I mean, I’m sure some of it is straight from the source material…but still.
I also didn’t love the animation – it was jerky, and obviously, they could have done better matching the dub up to the voice flaps. The transitions aren’t great and it’s still unclear to me if that was in the original cut, which might have had voice-overs at times or not.
But it’s also the studio’s first computer animated film – a bit odd for 2017, especially for the country’s largest studio – but it’s certainly not the worse I’ve seen. The designs of the background characters are boring and the Lion and Tin Man’s designs to me are pretty generic, but I don’t mind the scarecrow’s and I do like his gregarious personality and how they didn’t go crazy with the “too smart” thing…. He’s got a good personality.
Urfin’s design isn’t bad – but I wish they had gone with something a little less anti-Semitic?
At the end: So — I didn’t find this out until I was writing my review, but there is apparently a sequel to this movie -which deals with the aftermath, and Urfin seeking revenge – which I suppose mitigates some of my issues with how his character arc was resolved…but I can’t assume there’s gonna be a sequel.
And yes, I am going to try and find it.
Hopefully, they have a subtitled version – because I don’t speak a lick of Russian, and I doubt there’s an English dub out yet.
And that’s the scoop!
Year of release: 2017 (Russia), 2020 (English dub)
Length: 75 minutes
Directors: Vladimir Toropchin, Feodor Dmitriev, Darina Schmidt
Producers: Sergei Selyanov, Anton Zlatopolskiy, Aleksander Boyarskiy
Screenplay: Aleksander Boyarskiy, Darina Schimdt
English cast: Marc Thompson, Alyson Leigh Rosenfeld, Eddy Lee, Tom Wayland, H.D. Quinn, Erica Schroeder, Haven Paschall, Mike Pollock, Billy Bob Thompson, Ryan Andes, Brittany Pressley, Laurie Hymes
If you liked this review, read: The importance of timing; a review and thoughts on Mamoru Hosoda’s “Mirai.”