“The story of ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.” – L. Frank Baum.
This is a quote from Frank Baum, the author of the Oz books. It reveals a key aspect of what made the books so enjoyable to read for children. They were fun and imaginative adventures with clever, colorful characters and a surprising amount of wit. It was never intended to frighten its audience, but entertain them. Their popularity has spawned dozens of different adaptations, the most famous of which is the 1939 musical version, “The Wizard of Oz”. It was not the first movie adaptation of the books, nor would it be the last. “Return to Oz” is sort of a sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, basing its story off of the second and third books in the series, The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz.
Before I get too into the plot, it needs to be said that this is a dark movie. Every child fondly remembers watching “The Wizard of Oz”. It’s a musical classic that hasn’t lost its sense of fun and adventure over the years. Those same children also probably remember being afraid of the Wicked Witch of the West and her army of blue-faced flying monkeys. Remember the scene where the monkeys ambush Dorothy and her friends in the haunted forest and we get to watch the dismemberment of the Scarecrow? Even though he’s made of straw, the idea that’s he’s torn in half and had his insides scattered all around is a bit off putting to a kid watching it. Why bring this up? I chose to reference this scene as a comparison for the tone that’s generally established for the entirety of “Return to Oz”.
The film begins roughly six months after the events of the first movie. Make that the first book. I’m honestly not too sure which we’re supposed to associate this movie with. On the one hand, characters like the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion, as well as familiar locations like the Emerald City, have all been drastically redesigned for this story. On the other hand, Disney went to great (and likely expensive) lengths to be able to use the iconic Ruby Slippers of the musical instead of just using some silver ones (as they’re described in the book).
Anyway, apparently six months after Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) returned from Oz she hasn’t shut up about her adventures. This turns out to be something of a cause for alarm with her Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark), who decide to sign her up for a new medical treatment. What follows is director and writer Walter Murch’s best attempt to make sure anyone expecting this movie to be remotely like the musical is disturbed beyond belief. Dorothy’s kept overnight in a dank, shadowy hospital (where screams can be heard through the walls) so she may be cured of her delusions with electroshock therapy. That’s some messed up stuff.
It makes you wonder what Aunt Em and Uncle Henry would have done if this didn’t work? Called an exorcist? This opening scene introduces the audience to a very twisted version of the Frank Baum fairy tales, implying that perhaps little Dorothy Gale is mentally unbalanced. Yet for all its dark tone, this opening comes across as forced. The movie follows the same basic format as the musical, using the real world as bookends for the fantasy adventure. There are items or people that will have parallels in Oz, for instance Jean Marsh plays the head nurse at the hospital as well as the evil witch, Mombi.
I would argue that making this opening so dark was unnecessary, especially since, like in the classic musical, the events in the real world don’t really matter or get resolved. Do you remember what the original conflict was in “The Wizard of Oz”? Almira Gulch, played by Margaret Hamilton, was going to have Toto taken away and put down for biting her. This led to Dorothy running away and eventually going back home to get trapped in her house during a tornado. Hamilton also played the Wicked Witch of the West, so when she dies as the Witch, people forget that her real world counterpart didn’t. When Dorothy gets back home, one must assume that Toto is still going to be taken away. It’s a similar state of affairs in this movie. Concerns about the insanity that may or may not be plaguing Dorothy’s troubled mind are all but forgotten so we can hurry along and enjoy the end credits. In the end it just doesn’t need to be there and Dorothy’s adventure in Oz is strange enough without it, which brings me to the next part of the story: Dorothy in Oz.
While she was away, Oz underwent some rough times. A being known as the Nome King (Nicol Williamson) has conquered all of Oz, turning most of the inhabitants to stone. Dorothy and her hen, Billina (Denise Bryer), go about restoring everything to the way it was by defeating the Nome King with the help of Tik Tok (Sean Barrett), a machine man, Jack Pumpkinhead (Brian Henson), and the Gump (Lyle Conway), who’s a bizarre abomination made up of furniture brought to life. The special effects are amazing and unbelievably creative in this film, especially given the time. There’s an abundance of large and bizarre sets, as well as a reliance on puppetry, animatronics, and elaborate costumes for the characters. These changes go a long way in distancing the look of this movie from the musical. Instead of obviously human actors wearing make-up, these characters come across as incredibly non-human, which I enjoyed seeing very much.
The movements of Jack Pumpkinhead and Tik-tok for instance, are pretty great to watch as they truly look like Frank Baum’s creations come to life. That’s not to say that there aren’t any animated effects however. The Nome King and his minions are all strange clay-animated stop motion creatures; though I have to say it’s probably some of the best uses of this kind of animation mixed with live action that I’ve seen. The Nome King, when he’s not in his human form, is amazingly emotive and uses a lot of nuanced facial expressions to go along with his charismatic voice. Other effects aren’t as great, such as in obvious blue screen scenes where Dorothy or any character is falling through the air.
There are some plot elements that are somewhat vague or quickly thrown in as part of a dialogue instead of being shown, but what hurts the movie the most is its somewhat inconsistent tone. At times it feels like it wants to be a magical adventure made for children while at others it’s doing its best to scare the living hell out them. This is made obvious with the villains, many of whom represent fairly gruesome deaths. The Wheelers are a maniacal group of oddly proportioned psychos that work for Mombi and want nothing more than to kill little Dorothy and her chicken. Mombi herself has a room full of extra heads and wants to remove Dorothy’s so she can add it to her own collection. Dorothy walking around that room with the eyes of all the different heads following her every move is certainly creepy.
There’s also not a clear “lesson to be learned” this time around. Dorothy is pretty experienced from her adventures at this point and is able to save the day once again. The journey served no purpose in terms of her learning anything specific, at least as far as I could tell. Instead, the point of the journey seemed to be for the sake of the bizarre adventure itself; being merely an excuse to show off the familiar characters and locations in a way that had never been done before. In this, it actually matches the fun and quirky style of the old Baum stories.
While “Return to Oz” is by no means a bad movie (in fact, I enjoyed watching it), it’s definitely an odd one. It feels so far removed from other interpretations of the stories, but I think that was very much intended. Walter Murch wanted to take the classic fun of Frank Baum’s characters and warp them into something dark and truly different. The sense of danger that goes along with Dorothy on her quest is taken so seriously that it’s hard to imagine why she’d ever want to return to this place. Granted, if electroshock therapy is waiting for her back home I suppose it’s a tough call.