Dorothy, a twenty-four-year-old kindergarten teacher born, raised, and still working in Harlem, is celebrating Thanksgiving with her extended family, but she doesn't seem to be thankful for much in life. She lives a self-imposed sheltered life; she is shy and unfulfilled. Things change for her when she is caught in a snowstorm while chasing after her dog, Toto. They are transported to the mysterious Land of Oz, where she is informed that the only possible way to find her way back home is through the assistance of the powerful wizard in the Emerald City. As she goes searching for him, she befriends some creatures who are facing problems in life just like her. In their quest to find and get help from the wizard, they also face Evillene, the equally evil sister of Evermean, the wicked witch whom Dorothy inadvertently killed when she arrived in Oz, and who may be their biggest obstacle in achieving their goals. Written by
A good artist knows the ins and outs of his genre and creates works that clearly belong with others of the same type. A great artist knows more than one genre, crosses their boundaries and unites things that aren't supposed to belong together, creating a new genre of his own. In this film, director Sidney Lumet - who has proved himself as a good director with his mastery of gritty realism - tries to cross those boundaries and unite his gritty style with the film musical. He pours his ingredients into the wicked witch's cauldron, mixes them together... and sadly creates a hotpot of sloppy seconds.
The first point of contention has to be the grossly mis-cast Diana Ross as Dorothy. I have read in various places that she gained the part from playing personal politics and schmoozing with the honchos at Universal. As this game has no honour whatsoever, I see no reason to be diplomatic when talking about how damn awful she was at this part. Not only was she too old to be a convincing Dorothy, but she just could not act to save herself. Her squealing ham of a performance does nothing for movie, and when the movie cuts to one of her "emotional" close-ups, you can just picture the few seconds beforehand when Lumet must have said, "OK, Diana, it's time to do your scared/sad/excited/confused face... ACTION!", and the camera proceeds to film a few seconds of overacting that could fit into a song about feelings by Barney the dinosaur. Granted, her singing in the movie is mature and soulful, but this only makes the acting seem even more awkward and out-of-place in comparison.
Combine this with Lumet's tendency to stage scenes with a master shot with so few cutaways, close-ups or focus on the finer details of choreography or design. Then notice a lack of flow from once scene to another, and everything seems so out of place that by the time the characters arrive at the Emerald City, it's VERY hard to be interested in the movie. The later highlights such as Mabel King's performance as Evillene and Lena Horne's performance as Glinda fade into the obscurity that the film has inflicted upon itself.
Michael Jackson and Nipsey Russell give credible performances as the Scarecrow and Tin Man. It's equally heartening to see Jackson in the days before he became a living tabloid headline/punchline and disturbing to think that while he shines in this role, his performance as a stumbling, confused character on a quest to find himself became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like or hate the music, but the material and the performances could have been much better served by a script that didn't scream out its point at every opportunity and direction that occasionally inter-cut some of the finer details with the 'big picture'
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