Plopped down in the land of Oz, Dorothy wonders where she's landed. But we know: she's finally gone beyond 125th Street. The film's central gimmick is that Ox is but a stylized New York City, with refurbished, exaggerated Big Apple locations, flattened against unnaturally bright skies. The Munchkins emerge from the graffiti in a playground at Flushing Meadow; Dorothy meets the Scarecrow (Michael Jackson of the Jackson Five) near a burnt-out Harlem tenement and the Tine Many (Nipsey Russell) at the Coney Island roller coaster; the Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross) bursts from one of the statues on the steps of the 42nd Street Library. The yellow brick road, made out of cheap linoleum that looks like the stuff in the men's room at Howard Johnson's, stretches across the Brooklyn Bridge (past a marvelous skyline full of Chrysler buildings) to the plaza of the World Trade Center, which is decked out like a disco. New Yorkers will marvel, no doubt, at the spectacle of a Gotham without pollution and pooper-scoopers, but the sets will probably just puzzle most of the rest of the world. How many moviegoers in Des Moines know what the 42nd Street Library looks like? This must be the most expensive in-joke in the history of movies.
Joel Schumacher's puerile script makes us think that Dorothy's visit to Oz will draw her out of her shell, but all Dorothy can do is wail about going home to Aunt Em. And in the stridently joyous ending, she scampers through Em's doorway, from which, one presumes, she may never emerge again When Baum's eight-year-old Dorothy dipped a toe into the world of fantasy only to scurry back to her family, that was just fine. But when this movie's reclusive, adult Dorothy high-tails it home, you feel a little sick. Forget the Wiz; what this woman needs is a good psychiatrist.
In fact, there's something revolting about watching glamorous, sexy Diana Ross wandering around in a high-necked birthday dress, cowering at Munchkins and smooching with her doggie. Straining for a naïve, troubled look, Ross squelches her real assets: the tremulous, hungry smile; the hot, flashing eyes; the brittle sensuality. Here she tries for awkward-age timidity, hunching her shoulders and pulling her limbs in tight until she looks about as supple as a pencil. And where is all her usual, alluring incandescence? Here her eyes are so pale and puffy that she looks like Mia Farrow on a crying jag.
But The Wiz is not without redeeming performances. Michael Jackson, as the Scarecrow may be insufferably sweet, but his agile soprano is the most soulful sound in the whole movie. And if Nipsey Russell can't sing at all, he brings warmth and a sure sense of showmanship to the role of the Tin Man. Best of all is Mabel King's wicked with Evillene, who wears rows of pimples and a costume that looks like the leavings from an anarchic lobster banquet. King delivers the film's best song, the howling anti-gospel "No Bad News" with enough verve to vault the movie, momentarily over the rainbow.