Muppet Heresy: In Defense of Muppets’ Wizard of Oz

 

A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that Kermit the Frog will be performing the title role in a live stage production of The Wizard of Oz which, as I’m sure we can all agree, seems really weird and random. Why that production? Why that role? Why just Kermit and not the whole Muppet troupe? It sounds to me like somebody in a decision-making role with the Muppets has a friend who called in a favor. But I digress.

Predictably, some of the reactions to the news involved some variation on the extremely witty comment, “I hope this production is better than Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, because that really sucked!”

I’ve never understood the hatred that people level against Muppets’ Wizard of Oz. Admittedly, it’s not the best thing that the Muppets have ever done, but it’s not the worst thing either, and there’s a lot of fun to be had with it, especially if–like me–you’re primarily familiar with the story from the original novel rather than the 1939 film adaptation.

Granted, it does have flaws. It was written by a bunch of writers for which this was their first and (so far) only Muppet writing credit (the exception is Tom Martin, who also has a writing credit on It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, which admittedly doesn’t do much to recommend him). There were a lot of miscalculations in terms of hiring human actors; Queen Latifah and David Alan Grier were great, but what the hell was Quentin Tarantino doing there? Seriously, what was he doing? That scene makes no sense whatsoever (BLAM). The infamous nipple joke probably should have been given a second thought and, in what is a far more egregious film sin to me, the special paints an unrealistic picture of the way that people would/should react in the face of an oncoming tornado (as everyone who grew up in Tornado Alley knows, you don’t stop and have a heart-to-heart conversation when one is bearing down on you). 

However, as I have established previously, I have a soft spot in my heart for Muppet literary adaptations; they are pretty much my favorite thing on the planet, so much so that I’ll forgive a lot of minor flaws and faux pas. And the thing that I really love about Muppets’ Wizard of Oz is that, unlike most Oz adaptations, it draws more from the original source material than retreading the territory already covered in the Judy Garland movie and its derivatives. 

I think the fact that it was based more on the book than the movie also goes a long way towards answering the criticisms that people have about MWoO. Disturbed by the way the Flying Monkeys rip apart the Scarecrow and the Tin Thing? Take it up with L. Frank Baum, because that’s in the book. Offended by the Wizard appearing to the Tin Thing as a comely female? That’s in the book too, although she actually appeared to the Scarecrow and her outfit seemed to be a bit more demure, judging from the illustrations. Think the Wizard filling the Scarecrow’s head with bran flakes was just an excuse for a cheap potty joke? Think again; that’s also in the book:

“So the Wizard unfastened [the Scarecrow’s] head and emptied out the straw. Then he entered the back room and took up a measure of bran, which he mixed with a great many pins and needles. Having shaken them together thoroughly, he filled the top of the Scarecrow’s head with the mixture and stuffed the rest of the space with straw, to hold it in place. When he had fastened the Scarecrow’s head on his body again he said to him, ‘Hereafter you will be a great man, for I have given you a lot of bran-new brains.'”
                –L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

For the most part, the casting of the Muppets as characters in the story is exactly the way that I would have cast them. There are a few exceptions; I would never in a million years have thought of having Pepé play Toto, but he’s hilarious, as always. I may or may not have thought of having the rats play Munchkins, with Rizzo as the mayor of Munchkin City, but I’m glad that somebody did because it allows Rizzo to stretch a bit as a character and show a less self-centered, more heroic side.

Apparently, some people objected to Kermit playing the Scarecrow, to which I respond with a paraphrase of the words the Talking Food used about the Swedish Chef in Muppet Treasure Island, “How else do you think they were going to get him in this movie?” To be fair, I could see Kermit and Gonzo in the opposite roles, with Gonzo as the Scarecrow, but “Tin Frog” isn’t as funny as “Tin Thing,” and I like Gonzo best when he gets sad and wistful, so the Tin Thing seems like a better fit for him to me.

The objection to Kermit playing the Scarecrow seems to be that it made him dumb. This despite the fact that it was implied in the book, and made explicit in this special, that Dorothy’s friends were never lacking intelligence, compassion, or courage; all they were really lacking was confidence in themselves. Kermit’s Scarecrow is admittedly a bit ditzy, but he’s not dumb. And even if he is, so what? Kermit’s playing a character distinct from himself; if anything, it’s the Scarecrow that’s dumb, not Kermit. 

I would have thought that there would be more objection to Fozzie Bear playing the Cowardly Lion, seeing as it involved a change of his species. To be fair, though, there were previous Muppet precedents for Fozzie in the role, so maybe people were mollified by the fact that Jim Henson had signed off on it in the past. 

The Muppets aren’t just about humor; they’re also about heart, and there’s a really nice example of this in which Tin Thing Gonzo helps Cowardly Lion Fozzie over the Kalidah Bridge (which is actually just a fallen tree). Between his fear of heights and the vicious heckling of the Kalidah Critics (Statler and Waldorf), Fozzie becomes frozen with fear halfway across the bridge. Gonzo speaks words of encouragement to him and, when that doesn’t work, goes to him on the bridge and offers him his hand to help him across. Nothing I can say about this scene can do it justice; just watch:

Did you cry a little watching that? I certainly did.

I occasionally listen to Tough Pigs’ “Movin’ Right Along” podcast, and this scene answers their repeated question of whether Fozzie and Gonzo are really friends with each other or if they hang out together by default because they both happen to be friends with Kermit.

Choosing Piggy to play all four witches was inspired; I couldn’t have cast it better myself. It allows Piggy to showcase all the various aspects of her personality; she gets to be caring and sweet as Tattypoo and Glinda, and then lets her bitch flag fly at full mast as the otherwise unnamed Wicked Witch of the West. Plus, I very much enjoy seeing her paired with Johnny Fiama. Is this a relationship that we can explore further, please? I find it very intriguing. 

OTP?

 

Another thing that I appreciate about this special as an adaptation is that it returns the normal contingent of four witches to Oz. In the original novel, as in MWoO, Glinda was the Good Witch of the South, and the Good Witch of the North was an entirely separate character (she wasn’t given a name in the original novel, but apparently the name Tattypoo, among others, was used in the sequels). In the 1939 movie, however, Glinda and the Witch of the North get conflated into a single character, and the entire movie becomes a wild goose chase because Glinda knew all along that the shoes could take Dorothy home but refused to tell her, for whatever reason, which is amusingly called out in MWoO.

Notice that Tattypoo’s hairstyle (in the bottom right-hand corner) is an homage to the pigtails Judy Garland wore as Dorothy in the 1939 movie. Nice touch.

Some people seem to think that Piggy should have played Dorothy. I think that would have been a really dumb idea. Having Piggy play Dorothy would have have robbed us of the tour de force performance of Piggy as the four witches. Dorothy is an ingenue, and arguably lacking dimension; Piggy would have been wasted in the role. Furthermore, for better or worse, virtually every major Muppet production between 1992 and 2014 has had a human actor in a protagonist role to anchor the story: Caine, Bishop, Segel, and in this case, Ashanti. I wonder if the people who complain about Piggy not playing Dorothy are the same people who don’t like The Dark Crystal because there are no human actors in it. 

As for Ashanti, I think when they cast her as Dorothy, they overestimated her appeal and staying power; she seemed to fall almost completely off the radar after this special. Also, I think the filmmakers were perhaps a little too enamored with her in a sense; there’s a scene at the beginning where she gives Kermit her demo CD, and the camera remains on her even when Kermit is talking, which seems to reveal where their priorities were. However, Ashanti does an acceptable job. At the very least, she’s more likable and has more personality than Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth, which admittedly isn’t saying much. But still, Ashanti seems to enjoy the Muppets and works reasonably well with them. And in fairness, I don’t recognize half the human actors making appearances in Muppets Take Manhattan either; estimating staying power is a tricky business.

Needless to say, the songs from the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie are iconic; there was no way that the songs in this Muppet special were going to compete. So they didn’t try, instead coming up with songs that were entirely different, yet catchy and fun for the most part. There were perhaps fewer songs than you would expect from a Muppet production, but that may be a good thing as they don’t overstay their welcome. My favorite song from the special is “I’m With You,” which they sing just after meeting the Cowardly Lion and decide to all travel to Oz together.

The Wicked Witch of the West’s villain song, “The Witch Is in the House,” is also pretty good, and again, I can’t get over this pairing of Piggy and Johnny Fiama. More, please!

You can see from that clip that in this iteration, the Flying Monkeys are not literal flying monkeys (except for Sal); rather, “Flying Monkeys” is the name of their motorcycle club, which saved JHC from having to build a lot of new monkey puppets. I think I first saw this special in 2012 or 2013. On first viewing the special, I was touched when Dorothy gave the magical motorcycle cap to Sal (performed by Brian Henson), making him the leader of the Flying Monkeys. The passage of time, as well as relatively recent events, has changed my perspective; now I can only respond with sardonic comments about how the power is going to go to his head and he’s going to start backstabbing his underlings, etc. It really makes me sad, because Sal was pretty much my favorite character to come out of Muppets Tonight!, but now I can barely stand to look at him. 

In spite of its flaws, however, I’ve always liked Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, and having watched it again for this review, I like it more and more. While it’s a mediocre Muppet production, it may well be my favorite Wizard of Oz parody/adaptation because of the way it takes its cues from the book rather than from the famous film version, which makes for a refreshing change.

Steve and Dave’s cameo

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