When “Oz the Great and Powerful” came out last year there was no mistaking the critical apathy — and, some might argue, the cultural shrug — flashy highlights and healthy grosses notwithstanding. And that was with Disney and Sam Raimi behind it. Now, barely a year later, a generic film consortium brings us “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return,” a 3-D animated musical sequel to “The Wizard of Oz.” It’s based on a book by “Oz” creator L. Frank Baum’s great-grandson, with songs by Bryan Adams. (Nostalgia for Judy Garland show tunes, ’80s guitar ballads . . . same diff, right?) The enterprise, while gently reverent, looks and feels as shaky as it sounds, tonally as flat as Kansas farmland. This is mythology that’s famously transportive in every sense, but the animators struggle to take us anywhere truly captivating, or even clearly defined.
The story casually shifts the action to the present, with Dorothy (Lea Michele, “Glee”) waking from her “Wizard of Oz” adventure and taking stock of her tornado-devastated home. Enter a hustling appraiser (Martin Short, frenetically working his undercooked Margaret Hamilton gig), who’s convolutedly condemning farmhouses all over town. (A claim-denying insurance weasel might have made more sense.) No time to dwell on evictions, though, because trouble is brewing back in the Emerald City for Scarecrow (Dan Aykroyd), Tin Man (Kelsey Grammer), and Lion (Jim Belushi). Employing his newfound braininess, Scarecrow dispatches a niftily rendered, rainbow-style tractor beam to whisk Dorothy back for help.
From here, it’s narrative gibberish. Dorothy’s pals and Glinda (Bernadette Peters) fear the Wicked Witch’s brother, the Jester (Short), who’s got designs on — well, it’s hard to say. When the rainbow-mover strands Dorothy, she’s got to find her way to the Emerald City — except that’s not really where she needs to go. Again, muddled — but it does give Dorothy a handy structural excuse for making new friends. There’s Wiser (Oliver Platt), a chatty owl, and Marshal Mallow (Hugh Dancy, TV’s “Hannibal”), whose Candy Land province might dazzle more if “Wreck-It Ralph” and Katy Perry hadn’t been there, done that. The movie’s most inspired element, visually and musically, is China Princess (Megan Hilty, “Smash”), whose Versailles-in-porcelain kingdom and operatic hauteur are a diversion from the busy meandering.
It’s important to remember, for all of the original classic’s Americana quaintness, it’s also a pretty shrewd study in the fundamentals of cinematic artistry. The characters’ motivations couldn’t be clearer: They want a brain, a heart, courage, spangly shoes, a ticket home. One of their biggest goals is even laid out right there in song: “We’re Off to See the Wizard.” Here, it’s mostly just aimlessness.Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.