Grade: C-/?
Entire family: No
2018, 75 min., Color
Animation
Not rated (would be PG for violence)
Cinedigm
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

The Steam Engines of Oz is billed as a “steampunk” version of the L. Frank Baum classic, making it one of the more interesting revisionist updates to come out since The Wiz. But what is “steampunk,” and how does it play out in an adaptation of a beloved film classic?

As a subgenre of science fiction, “steampunk” is a blend of technology and Victorian images that fuses a cyberpunk sensibility with a celebration of vintage Industrial Age images and plots. After that, it’s anybody’s guess, as the term has morphed into a confusing number of mutations. But the bottom line is that it’s all about gears and goggles.

The bigger question is, Who is the audience for a steampunk version of The Wizard of Oz?

Since Oz is run by a sinister Tin Man, the lions are anything but cowardly, the munchkins look like Uzi-toting bikers, and at least one of the main characters from the children’s book has limbs cut off, it’s not exactly for small children.

Yet, small children would be the most forgiving of an animated style that’s inconsistently disappointing. Sometimes the animation flattens out into 2D, other times it has the same 3D CGI look of the Barbie franchise films, and still other times the action looks like a phone app version of a video game. The latter is the style that’s predominant throughout this wacky 79-minute animated adventure, which seems longer than that—never a good sign.

Call it The Wizard of Oz meets Mad Max and Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, only instead of a naïve Dorothy visiting Oz it’s an underground dweller named Victoria who is tasked with keeping the underground machinery running that powers Oz. But this Oz is no Technicolor paradise. It has more factions than a political party, and Victoria (voiced by Julianne Hough) is recruited to help stop the Tin Man from destroying all the natural resources in his pursuit of profit and expansion. Yes, you can read this as an indictment of whatever government fits the bill, but it’s a film that needs a tighter focus and more quality control over the animation. What’s more, the narrative is as uneven as the animation.

Sometimes the film seems plodding, while at other times the action is quick-cut so that it takes a while to figure things out. Why, for example, are some of the lions walking on four legs and others dressed and walking on two? And what’s the deal with the Tin Man’s heart? Mostly, though, while other animated features hold viewers’ attention during such confusing periods because of the artwork and animation, there’s nothing here to visually delight. It’s all pretty mundane, and pretty crudely and cheaply done. Ron Perlman and William Shatner also provide voices, but they’re not given much to work with.

Though The Steam Engines of Oz isn’t rated, it would probably merit a PG for the adult elements I’ve mentioned. But fans of the original Wizard of Oz won’t find this as interesting as it sounds. In fact, it’s a little sad that what might have been a fun steampunk version turns out to be more pedestrianpunk . . . unless you’re high and making jokes as you watch this in a group. And let’s hope there aren’t a whole lot of families that fit that category.

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