As far as scary kids movies from the 1980s go, RETURN TO OZ is one of
the absolute best. It’s also one of the most underrated. As the title
promises, it’s a sequel to THE WIZARD OF OZ, and in my view everything
that film should have been!
RETURN TO OZ is one of the great kids’ films of the
eighties, superior to all the live action fantasy extravaganzas that
unfairly eclipsed it (THE DARK CRYSTAL, LEGEND, LABYRINTH, WILLOW). As
one who was a kid when RETURN TO OZ was released in the summer of 1985,
I can attest that all the blather by critics about it being “too scary”
for children was just that. I had to be dragged to see it, admittedly (I
was never too impressed with THE WIZARD OF OZ), and LOVED every minute.
Apparently I was in the minority, as the film was a massive flop that
ended the directorial career of its first (and only) time director
RETURN TO OZ had a lively history. It was in the works
for several years with Murch, a decorated editor, at the helm of this
big budget epic packed with state of the art special effects. Murch
reportedly had a nervous breakdown five weeks into the shoot, but the
production was saved by the intervention of one of Murch’s high profile
friends: George Lucas. Lucas helped Murch get back on track, and was
joined in that chore by Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, two
of Murch’s other big shot pals. The results of their labor are evident
in the brilliance of the finished film, even if it was poorly received.
Following her adventures in the land of Oz,
eight-year-old Dorothy finds herself stuck back in Kansas. Her Aunt Em
and Uncle Henry, concerned about Dorothy’s nutty stories, take her to a
local doctor for a dose of electro-shock therapy. But the doctor’s
building is struck by lightning and loses power before the shock can be
administered. Dorothy escapes and ends up caught in a raging river that
deposits her back in Oz.
Together with Bellina, a talking chicken, Dorothy
discovers that the yellow brick road from THE WIZARD OF OZ is in
tatters, and the emerald city a ruined shadow of itself packed with
headless statues. Those statues are actually citizens of Oz who’ve been
turned to stone by the evil Princess Mombi, who’s also stolen their
heads for her own use. A further outrage has been perpetrated by a band
of freaks terrorizing the area called Wheelers, who have wheels in place
of hands and feet.
Dorothy and Bellina are assisted by Tik-Tok, a
mechanical man who has to be wound up in order to think and move.
Unfortunately all three end up in Princess Mombi’s clutches, imprisoned
in her palace containing a hall packed with women’s heads Mombi likes to
use in place of her own. Dorothy and friends escape by sprinkling
Mombi’s powder of life on a moose head they lash to a winged couch. On
this they fly out, together with Jack, a pumpkin headed stick man also
held captive by Mombi.
They end up in the rocky abode of the Gnome King. He
forces Dorothy and her friends to pick out instruments in his instrument
hall that if chosen correctly will turn into Dorothy’s friends from THE
WIZARD OF OZ…but if Dorothy and co. choose incorrectly then they
themselves are turned into ornaments. And then there’s the matter of the
ruby slippers that got Dorothy back home in part one, which are now worn
by the Gnome King…
This was the only film directed by Walter Murch, but in
terms of pacing, camera placement and the handling of actors he took to
the job like a natural (with help, of course, from his more experienced
colleagues George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola).
Murch has a distinct but unshowy style, with the special effects
integrated impressively yet unobtrusively into the action. Regarding
those special effects, for the most part they seem quaint by today’s
standards; special mention, however, must be made of the claymation by
Will Vinton studios, which is sublime.
The film’s major flaws, I feel, are conceptual. Unlike
what the title promises, this is not a proper sequel to THE
WIZARD OF OZ. Rather, it’s a remaining of the land of Oz as envisioned
by L. Frank Baum, whose Dorothy was a little girl and whose characters
didn’t sing. Murch and co-screenwriter Gill Dennis adapted Baum’s novels
THE LAND OF OZ and OZMA OF OZ with an eye to what made them interesting
(Baum’s books were enchanting, yes, but also scary and disturbing), yet
insist on recycling elements unique to the WIZARD OZ movie (which
classic or not was a bastardization of its source). These include the
ruby slippers (in place of the books’ silver shoes) and the framing of
the whole thing as a dream populated by people from Dorothy’s waking
Yet despite all that RETURN TO OZ works, and one of its
chief assets is the lead performance of 9-year-old Fairuza Balk as
Dorothy. Balk has gone on to become a prolific film actress, but has
never matched the natural grace and conviction she demonstrated here.
Her Dorothy is a winsome, wistful little girl played with a total
absence of cuteness or mugging. The same, of course, can be said for the
film overall, which, like it or not, is dark and scary. Get over it!
RETURN TO OZ
Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Walter Murch
Producer: Paul Maslansky
Screenplay: Walter Murch, Gill Dennis
(Based on the novels THE LAND OF OZ and OZMA OF OZ by L. Frank Baum)
Cinematography: David Watkin
Editing: Leslie Hodgson
Cast: Fairuza Balk, Nicole Williamson, Piper Laurie, Jean Marsh, Matt
Clark, Michael Sundin, Tim Rose, Sean Barrett, Mak Wilson, Denise Bryer,
Brian Henson, Stewart Larange, Lyle Conway, Steohen Norrington, Emma