Last week, in the first of this of this series where I revisit beloved films from my childhood to see how they play now that my skull has fully hardened, I covered Megaforce, a film that has aged like a fine milk. Hal Needham’s ode to sequined spandex manliness can really only be enjoyed now as a combination of camp and nostalgia. Thankfully, this week’s entry, Return to Oz, is a much better film. But a psychotic one in many ways.
This one opened in the summer of 1985, and I was 10 years old. It was one of my two most eagerly anticipated films for the summer, with the other also being a Disney film, The Black Cauldron. Of course my favorite film of the summer turned out to be the same as everyone else’s, Back to the Future. But I didn’t even know that one existed until shortly before it opened, and Return to Oz and Black Cauldron had been getting hyped on the Disney Channel in various forms for quite some time, and were featured prominently in Muppet Magazine, then one of my prinicipal sources for movie news. This was during the 1980’s era when Disney had lost much if its luster, and both of these films were examples of the Mouse House’s desperate efforts to create its own Star Wars or Indiana Jones franchise (I often wonder how the Disney executives of that time would feel to know their company would one day own Star Wars, long after they’d all been fired, died or been sold to China.). Return to Oz director/-co-writer Walter Murch (a legendary editor and sound designer) must have seemed like a perfect choice to make such a film for Disney, as he was a respected friend and colleague of George Lucas. In fact, Murch was responsible for the word “wookie” and the name RD-D2, and recently deceased Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz (he wasn’t recently deceased at the time, just to be clear) would be producing. Hey, Lucas and Spielberg’s friends must have the same magic touch they did, right? Sure, the same line of thinking had caused Disney to take a bath on Matthew Robbins’ Dragonslayer (which we’ll cover in a future installmnet) four years previously, but come on, nothing starring Peter MacNichol was ever going to be a hit.
I loved this movie when it was released, even if I was a bit weirded out by the Kansas stuff at the begining. But I vividly remember how difficult a time my Mom and my aunt who came with us to the Redwood Drive-In had with how badly this clashed with the classic MGM musical (at least, my aunt thought that during the times she actually watched the film instead of turning to look one of the other screens to ogle a shirtless Sylvester Stallone in Rambo: First Blood Part II.). Most critics of the time had the same problem (the comparsion to the MGM version that is, not the Stallone distraction.). Where The Wizard of Oz is a magical, musical, sentimental and happy spectacle, Return to OZ is considerably darker. Some of the darkness is because it’s in many respects more faithful to world of author L. Frank Baum, whose work was quite a bit more bizarre than what we saw in Victor Fleming’s classic film. And some of that is because Murch and co-writer Gil Dennis had an idea for a wraparound that must have come from either intoxication or losing a bet: Six months after the events of the original film, Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) has become a chronic insomniac who seems obsessed with what Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (The Wake Up Juice Guy from Back to the Future Part III) believe was some sort of dream or halluciation. Em and Henry are having problems themselves, with Henry seemingly chronically depressed since the tornado destroyed their home and caused him to break his leg, and Em seeming bitter and resentful, implying to Dorothy that she believes Henry’s leg is fine and she’s angry at him for sitting around and not working, which would be a little bit dismal and depressing for an episode of Little House On The Prairie but is just lovely for a sequel to a movie that featured a song called “We Represent The Lollipop Guild”.
So the worried and depressed adults decide to take Dorothy to a nearby insane 9asylum where a quack doctor claims he can cure the delusions through electro-shock therapy, and the mysterious young girl who befriends Dorothy tells her that the screams they can hear at night are from hidden patients who were damaged by the machine. Right now half of you reading this have decided I’m making this up, and the other half know I’m not. I cannot fathom what Murch was thinking when he developed this premise. Was he trying to think what would really happen if a young girl who hit her head after a tornado started going on about a magical kindgom of witches and munchkins? Was he trying to immediately establish he was going for something much different with his take on Oz? My money is still on the “drunk or lost a bet” hypothesis.
The thing is, in its own weird way, this section of the film at the mental institution kind of plays. It’s creepy and atmospheric, feeling sort of like a victorian gothic horror film that happens to be set in Kansas, and it must be said that Murch’s direction is very solid. His shot selection, camera movement and pacing are all very good, and he definitely builds the feeling of eerie confusion and dread he’s going for. It’s just a question of why he’s going for it. I know people who adore the subversive creepiness of this section of the film, but it’s baffling and distubing to many others. I’m somewhere in between. As a 10 year old I was pretty willing to go with it, and it creeped me out to just the right degree to be enjoyable without necessarily being enough to give me nightmares (my night terrors were still largely dominated by Mola Ram ripping hearts out form the year before.). These days, above all I wonder how Murch talked Dsiney into going along with “I’m going to start the movie with a kind of ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest as written by Stephen King’ vibe.” Nicol Williamson (who you may know as Merlin in Excalibur) is the friendly but vaguely creepy “Doctor” Worley, and Jean Marsh (if you don’t know her as Bavmorda from Willow I really don’t think you’d get into this article and you probably stopped reading two paragaphs ago) is Nurse Ratched without the warm tender side.
Dorothy eventually escapes the mental institution during a lightning storm and ends up back in Oz (which ranks right up there with “Garfield guts Odie like a fish and wears his skin as a disguise” on the scale of weird sentences to write), which has become, in a refreshing change of pace to lighten up what has so far been a bleak film, an utterly miserable place. The Yellow Brick Road has been smashed, and the Emerald City is in ruin and overrun by the evil Wheelers, a group of guys who dress and act like Joel Schumacher got picked to direct a Mad Max sequel and roll around on all fours (I realize the structure of that sentence made it unclear whether the Wheelers or Joel Schumacher were rolling on all fours, and then decided I liked it that way.). You know that section of the book The Return of the King where Sarumon has sacked the Shire? The part that one friend you don’t really like but for some reason talk to anyway still says should have been in the movie but everybody else is glad it wasn’t? It’s a lot like that, only with a talking chicken named Billina whose dialogue seems to have been written by Buddy Sorrell.
Soon Dorothy and her various companions are captured by the evil Princess Mombi, who starts out as the beautiful Sophie Ward from Young Sherlock Holmes and then takes off her head and replaces it with the head of Jean Marsh (“And you were there, and you were there . . .”. ) Mombi tells Dorothy that she’s going to lock her in the tower and age her until she’s old enough to join her extensive collection from the Head of the Month Club, staring at Dorothy and saying “You’ll never be beautiful, you understand, but you’ll have a certain” and then to the surprise of anyone who saw The Craft or American History X finishes with “Prettiness” instead of “trashy goth chick thing that some guys really go for.” Dorothy escapes with her friends and heads off to save the Scarecrow from the Gnome King (also played by Nicol Williamson.).
Fairuza Balk is very good as Dorothy, though a much younger version of the character than Judy Garland portrayed, which is a bit confusing as the film seems torn on whether it’s a sequel to Baum’s novel or Fleming’s film, using elements of the movie like the Ruby Slippers that weren’t in the book (they were silver shoes.). Her companions are endearing, with Brian Henson very likable as the voice of Jack Pumpkinhead (I found it distracting and disappointing this time through that Jack’s mouth didn’t move.). My favorite was always the Gump, a creature made from the head of a moose-like creature called a Gump, two couches, some palm branches for wings, and a magic “Powder of Life”.
Fun Fact #1: The Gump was pupeteered by Stephen Norrington, who would later direct The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and clash so badly with Sean Connery that the latter retired from acting to devote his full energy to giving unsatisfactory explainations for why he said it was okay to hit women. Anyway, the OZ section of the film is fun and inventive, if still surpringly intense and creepy at times.
Fun Fact #2: The Scarecrow was played by an actor named (seriously) Justin Case, who of course was best known for his celebrated work with Seymour Butts and I.P. Freeley.
All in all, I found myself happy to discover that Return to Oz is still a movie with a lot going for it, one that I can respect for its creativity and craftsmanship even when it’s not entirely working. Most of the effects and design are very good, though as big a fan as I am of Will Vinton’s Claymation, those effects for the Gnome King and his ilk clashed badly with the more ILM type look of the other effects. Billina is actually the most impressive effect to me, as they had to make a talking puppet look like a real chicken, and they did. As I said before, Murch is a genuine directing talent, and it saddens me that the commerical failure and mixed reception of the film kept him from ever helming another movie. As for the much debated question of whether it’s suitable for kids . . . It really depends on the kids. I wasn’t traumatized by it, but my parents had already let me see Poltergeist, Temple of Doom and Gremlins. As I’m already dealing with the fact that my wife probably won’t let me show our dinosaur loving 2 year old son Jurassic Park until he’s at least 12, I’m not sure at what age I’d let him watch this one.