The story of The Wizard of Oz goes in a unique direction with The Wiz. Dorothy Gayle (Diana Ross) is a kindergarten teacher in New York City, who lives in an apartment with her Uncle Henry (Stanley Greene) and Aunt Em (Theresa Merritt, who I remember best as Juanita the maid from Billy Madison). Aunt Em wants Dorothy to teach at a high school further into town because it pays more and she can get her own place, but Dorothy is too scared to leave home.
Dorothy’s life soon changes when a blizzard hits and she gets caught in the thick of it, no thanks to her dog Toto for running away. Then suddenly, Dorothy and Toto end up in the Land of Oz, which is more like an urban jungle instead of a magical fantasy world. That gives the story a real creative touch by using big city elements in place of enchanted forests.
Upon arriving, Dorothy unknowingly kills the wicked Witch of the East. (No, not with the apartment building.) Suddenly, she’s greeted by the grateful Munchkins, which are graffiti drawings come to life, and Miss One (Thelma Carpenter), the good Witch of the North, arrives. It turns out that she loves numbers more than the Count from Sesame Street. You can only imagine if they got together.
Miss One gives Dorothy the witch’s silver slippers and sends her to find the Wiz in order to get back home. Of course, all Dorothy has to do is follow the yellow brick road, but no one shows her where it is. I guess the Munchkins were too busy celebrating to point it out. However, Miss One did specifically tell Dorothy to never take the silver slippers off while she was in Oz. So if Dorothy has to walk for the entire journey, I can only imagine the blisters she will have later on.
The running gag in this film is the taxicabs that are found all over Oz. Every time Dorothy tries to hail a cab it’s automatically off duty, even the broken down cabs. What’s up with that?
While searching for the yellow brick road, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow (Michael Jackson), who is being intimidated by a group of crows at a small cornfield in an alley. All the Scarecrow wanted was to get off the pole he’s on and walk around, but since he has no brain, those mean crows easily convince him that he can’t walk at all. Scarecrow also bases his principles on pieces of paper that he finds in his straw body. Did those come from fortune cookies, or something?
After Dorothy saves Scarecrow, they find the yellow brick road together and follow it. Along the way, they end up at an abandoned amusement park, where they find the Tin Man (Nipsey Russell). He’s a robot that has no feelings. Tin Man’s creator forgot to give him a heart, even though he does have a sharp wit and an amazing dancing skill.
Then Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Tin Man find the Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross) in a lion statue in front of the public library. He talks tough, but turns out to be a coward that was exiled from the jungle. Lion eventually calms down and joins the group. I’m surprised that Toto kept up the whole time without a leash.
Down in the subway terminal, the group encounters some cheesy but creative enemies. They include monstrous marionettes, trashcans with teeth, snaky wires in a circuit box, and tiled posts that can walk. Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion escape only to wind up at the Poppy Love Perfume Factory that doubles as a nightclub, which represents the Poppy Fields.
The group soon makes it to the Emerald City, which is set up like a disco tech, and they go see the Wiz (Richard Pryor). However, the only way the Wiz will grant their wishes is that they must kill Evillene (Mabel King) the wicked Witch of the West. She’s a strict slave driver, who runs a sweatshop. Can you believe it?
This was a good movie based on the Broadway musical. I should inform you that none of the songs in this film are from the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie, but that’s part of what makes it so unique.