Retro Review: ‘Return to Oz’

In 1939, the classic works of L. Frank Baum were  brought to the big screen in the timeless masterpiece The Wizard of Oz. In the ensuing decades this film has stood the test of time for generations as a landmark of cinema. However, fans of the source materials have pointed out that while the film deserves all the accolades it has received it lacked the strange and often nightmarish spirit of Baum’s literary Oz series. As one of the major forces in family-centric entertainment, Walt Disney Studios hoped to one day create a follow up to The Wizard of Oz and as such bought the rights to the remaining books in the series. In the 1980’s Walter Murch, an editor who had worked on such films as: The Godfather, Touch of Evil, Apocalypse Now and other masterpieces met with Disney he saw the chance to tackle the Land of Oz. Through much behind the scenes turmoil and controversy in 1985 he gave the audiences of 1985 his directorial debut, Return to Oz a dark fantasy pseudo-sequel to the Wizard of Oz.

Following her adventures in Oz, Dorothy has begun to worry her Auntie Em with her tales of fantastical world. Fearing the worst she sends her niece to an asylum in the hopes that electrotherapy will “cure” her. Luckily a storm strikes this horrific place, allowing Dorothy to escape and return to Oz. What she finds is the once wonderous realm of yellow brick roads, Munchkins, and an Emerald City has fallen to ruin. The once bright and colorful world has fallen to the sinister Nome King. Thrown once more into the role of the hero of Oz, Dorothy joins forces with: robotic Tik-Tok, talking chicken Billina and sensitive Jack Pumpkinhead. Together they must confront a series of terrifying challenges in order to save the land.

As mentioned before there was plenty of turmoil behind the scenes of Return to Oz. Studio bosses were changed out, the budget was cut, at one point Walter Murch was replaced in the director’s chair only to return after a while. Luckily Murch had the support of his powerful Hollywood friends like Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas who backed his struggles against Walt Disney Studios. His vision for adapting the books The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz for a darker film was unconventional but the first-time director believed in it. He knew that the Wizard of Oz books was America’s equivalent to the classic fairy tales of Europe and like those tales there was an undercurrent of fantastical menace needing to break free. Indeed as the stories progressed L. Frank Baum made the concerted effort to bring a darker and scarier tone, not only because his audience was growing more mature but because it reflected the world he saw. These terrors of the real world make themselves abundantly present in the first act of Return to Oz as Dorothy must endure the horrors of a turn of the century mental hospital complete with a Expressionistic design and sociopathic staff members.

Those expecting the bright colors and joyous singing of the 1939 original were no doubt jarred by what they got from Return to Oz. The Emerald City is in ruins, the Yellow Brick Road is broken to bits, the terrifying Wheelers are running amok, there is a princess with a severed head collection and the familiar faces Dorothy originally relied on are gone. This is an Oz with no Dorothy, no Wizard, and no Scarecrow, Tin Man or Cowardly Lion. Without its heroes, the Land of Oz now belongs to the terrifying stone Nome King. To many, her new friends Tik-Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead can feel like second rate versions of the Scarecrow and Tin Man, and I always felt this was intentional. Things have fallen into such despair Dorothy has to rely on the B-team if you will. That being said the puppetry behind these characters, especially Tik-Tok, is top notch. It is a shame that the emotive headpiece intended for Jack was sacrificed as the budget was cut. They are perfect proof of what one of my friends dubbed the Law of Henson, this states that the coolest CGI and special fx will probably look like crap in a few years, but a brilliantly designed puppet remains a brilliantly designed puppet forever. The incredible production design extends throughout the film as everything from the sets to the costumes are visually stunning.

To an entire generation who caught this film during Disney Channel screenings, Return to Oz was pure nightmare-fuel. But a fresh screening with older eyes will prove that this picture is far better than they possibly remember. It is a fun, scary, and wonderous flick which truly deserves a revival in interest. It remains true to the original source material and is a solid companion piece to the original Wizard of Oz, giving audiences a brand new perspective on this fantastical place.