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RETURN TO OZ

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!

The Package
     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 Walter Murch.
     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.

The Story
     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…

The Direction
     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 life.
     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!
 

Vital Statistics

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 Ridley
 

     

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