In 1985 Walt Disney Pictures released Return to Oz, a film that was, as the title suggests, a continuation of L. Frank Baum’s tale of Dorothy Gale and her friends in that magical land over the rainbow. It was developed during a period of great turmoil within the company, when corporate raiders were trying to buy the house of mouse, sell off its lucrative theme park division and movie library then shut down the production end entirely.
When the film was released, Michael Eisner, Frank Welles and Jeffery Katzenberg had taken over Disney and would completely turn the studio around, leading to one of the great corporate re-births of our time. Unfortunately, Return to Oz withered and died at the box office, along with the studios incredibly ambitious animated film The Black Cauldron. The film was dismissed by critics as being too frightening for children. How quickly they forget that many children were frightened by the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys in the original. Truth is, just about any timeless classic for children, be it Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or E.T. The Extra Terrestrial has had something in it that has frightened or disturbed children. The best stories for children are wonderous, but they are also not afraid of the dark.
I for one did go to see Return to Oz when it came out. I was just a little six-year old and was taken by my grandmother. I loved it then and I love it now!
Perhaps the problem was that in almost every press release the film was described as being a sequel to The Wizard of Oz, as in the classic MGM musical. It was actually a sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as in Baum’s original book. He wrote more than a dozen sequels to the first installment. Return to Oz drew on three of them – The Marvelous Land of Oz, Ozma of Oz and Tik-Tok of Oz. The director was Walter Murch, one of Hollywood’s premiere sound and film editors whose list of credits include American Graffiti, The Conversation, Julia, Apocalypse Now, Ghost, The English Patient, Cold Mountain and many others. The fact that this is not a sequel to the Judy Garland movie is clear from the very first frame because it’s not shot in sepia tone but rather in color. The girl playing Dorothy, Fairuza Balk (later to be seen in such films as The Craft and American History X) looks much more like the Dorothy from W.W. Denslow’s illustrations and is much more age appropriate than Ms. Garland, who was already turning into a young woman when the film was made.
This film is set in 1899, one year before the original Oz was published. Dorothy has become sullen, can’t sleep, and talks constantly about her friends in Oz. This starts to worry Auntie Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark), so they decide to take Dorothy to a psychiatric hospital run by a highly advanced therapist named Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson). Before going to the hospital, Dorothy discovers a key in the straw outside of the chicken coup. The key has the letters O and Z on top of it. Dorothy saw a shooting star the night before. Could her friends be trying to contact her?
Dorothy and Auntie Em arrive at the hospital (Toto had to stay home for this adventure). Dr. Worley seems to be a kind doctor and is fascinated with Dorothy’s tales about the Scarecrow, Tin-Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion. He shows her a new electronic machine that he says can help her to “forget” these fantasies. Dorothy is then taken to her room by Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh) who doesn’t seem terribly friendly. Indeed, the entire hospital seems to be a cold and scary place (well, it is a mental hospital). Dorothy meets another young girl (Emma Ridley) who warns that some of Dr. Worley’s experiments have gone awry and that there are girls in the basement who are much worse off then when they came in.
That night, Dorothy is prepared to receive her first round of what is quite obviously electro shock therapy. Thankfully, a thunderstorm knocks out the electricity. Dorothy and the mysterious girl escape. Dorothy grabs onto an abandon chicken coup which she uses as a raft. By morning the flooded waters take her to you-know-where.
She’s not alone. Billina, a hen from her farm back in Kansas, has somehow shown up. Not only that, she can speak! (Funny that Toto couldn’t in the first adventure. He seemed like a pretty smart little pup. A lot smarter than a chicken, that’s for sure)
Dorothy comes across her old house, the one that landed on the Wicked Witch of the East. But there’s not a Munchkin to be found. She finds the Yellow Brick Road, but it’s been reduced to rubble. She runs along the road and finds herself back at the Emerald City. Problem is it’s been stripped of all it’s green gems and the entire place looks as if it’s been abandoned for decades. There are no people to be found, only statues. They include statues of the Tin Man and the Lion. But where is the Scarecrow?
Soon Dorothy is in peril. She’s chased by these strange creatures called Wheelers, humans with long limbs and wheels where their hands and feet should be. They dress in a kind of punk rock attire that you’d probably see kids around St. Marks Place wearing at the time of the movie’s release.
Fortunately, Dorothy discovers Tik-Tok – The Army of Oz. This “army” is a stout little wind-up automaton who looks like a cross between Teddy Roosevelt and the Monopoly Man. He tells Dorothy that the emeralds were taken by the evil Nome King and that he turned the denizens of Oz into stone (though we never really learn what happened to the Munchkins). After subduing the Wheelers, Tik-Tok takes one prisoner and interrogates him as to the whereabouts of the Scarecrow. He doesn’t know. The only one who knows is Mombi.
And who is Mombi? She’s a wicked queen with a collection of disembodied but animated human heads which she alternates depending on her cosmetic whims. Dorothy, Belinda and Tik-Tok are taken to Mombi by the Wheeler. She proves to be most uncooperative. Instead of helping Dorothy she decides to lock her up in her palace tower so that when Dorothy is old enough her head can be added to Mombi’s collection.
While locked in the tower Dorothy meets a new friend, Jack Pumpkin Head. He’s another living Scarecrow, but not one made out of straw. He’s made out of brittle tree limbs and has a Jack-O-Lantern for a head. A wonderfully endearing creature, Jack was performed by Brian Henson, the son of Jim Henson who took over the family business following his fathers death. For the most part Jack is a simple marionette. His lips and triangular eyes don’t move, though his head does occasionally stretch and contort depending on his emotions.
Jack, who affectionately calls Dorothy Mom, was brought to life by a magical powder that Mombi keeps in a cabinet with her original head. Dorothy hatches a plan that involves the magical powder. Problem is she wakes up Mobi’s head when she retrieves it. One of the ingenious things that the original Wizard of Oz film did was having several of the same actors actors who appear in Kansas – such as Mrs. Gulch, The Amazing Marvel and the farm hands – also appear as characters in Oz. Children often cast people from their own lives in their fantasies and in this instance Nurse Wilson is also Mobi’s original head.
Fortunately the powder works. The Gump head comes to life and he’s able to take flight. They escape Mobi and begin flying to the Nome King’s mountain.
And who is the Nome King? He’s some kind of geological being embedded into the mountain granite and looks a great deal like Dr. Worley and is also voiced by Nicol Williamson. These were the days before CGI so the special effects to bring the Nome King to life were handled via stop-motion animation. It sure does the trick.
We learn that the Nome King took back the emeralds from the city because they were originally his. In other words, he resented people digging up the earths surface to harvest its minerals. He later appears to be somewhat contrite and comforting of Dorothy and he proposes a “game”. He has turned the Scarecrow into an ornament which he plans on using in his palace one day. Dorothy and each of her friends may enter the room where he keeps these knickknacks (and there are plenty of them) and try to guess which one is the Scarecrow. They do this by placing their hands on the object and saying “Oz”. Each of them gets three guesses. The Nome King neglects to tell Dorothy that if they guess incorrectly after the third try that they will be turned into ornaments themselves. For each character that’s transformed there’s one less creature who remembers Oz. Once all memory of the land is wiped out, the Nome King will become completely human. The final showdown with the king is a true tour-du-force of stop-motion animation.
There’s no way that Return to Oz could possibly create the same sense of magic and wonder that the 1939 film did. Instead this film created a different kind of magic. No, it’s not as light and fun or colorful and certainly not as tuneful as the Garland film. But it is quite entrancing, the performances, particularly young Fairuza Balk are all quite excellent. So are the characters and the voice-over actors. I especially liked Bilina, who seems to have a clucking crack for every situation, and the Gump, who complains that he’d rather just be a head.
Was Return to Oz too depressing/scary for children? Well, as I said before, I saw it as a kid and I loved it. I was also something of a timid child. A year later I went to see Little Shop of Horrors, a movie that scared me to death but is now one of my all-time favorite movies. It should be noted that one of the main puppeteers on Return to Oz was Lyle Conway, who would later go on to create the carnivorous plant Audrey II for Little Shop.
In the end, I don’t know if it’s “appropriate” for children. I’m never a good judge of such things. But I do think it’s a film that is appropriate for lovers of fantasy films as well as people who love the Oz stories. In 2013 Disney itself returned to Oz for Oz the Great and Powerful, a cinematic prequel directed by Sam Rami. It was a hit! And then of course there’s the astronomically successful Broadway musical Wicked which will doubtlessly be turned into a movie some day. If you enjoyed either of these tales then you really should check out Return to Oz. Just don’t expect any flying monkeys or the Lollipop Guild to greet you.