May 30, 2008

Underrated MOTM: Return to Oz (1985)

I should tread lightly with May's Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) because I know it has a cult following. Or I guess I should say, I've just learned it has a cult following. Hopefully I don't get too much wrong here. It was simply a weird, dreamy movie from my childhood, but I've realized that I haven't heard about it in years. It's not as good as The Neverending Story, which came out the year prior and completely overshadowed it, but it occupies a similar place in my memory. Of course, your reaction to it will depend on your age at first viewing.

My memories of Return to Oz are haunting and fascinating - everything a movie should be when you're a kid. I actually went back and forth with which poster to use. The cute theatrical sheet features great art but I chose this teaser poster because it better captures the message of the film: Oz is no magical wonderland, it's the hellish place where your nightmares live.

Devoted fans of The Wizard of Oz will know that the 1939 film was based on the first installment in a series of books by L. Frank Baum, all of which had lost their licensing rights by 1980, when Academy Award-winning editor and sound designer Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now) began adapting two of the later books for his planned sequel. Murch, whose work on Return to Oz would be his first and last stint as a director, fought for years to get his picture greenlit. Disney finally took the bait, but his problems continued when production was temporarily shut down due to a ballooning budget and child labor regulations, since Fairuza Balk (Almost Famous, American History X), playing Dorothy in her film debut, was only nine years old.

Return to Oz was eventually released in 1985 with the ringing endorsements of Murch's friends, who just happened to be George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Philip Kaufman. It premiered at Radio Music City Hall and went on to gross...$11 million, thanks in large part to crabby critics (no doubt nostalgic for the 1939 Oz) who apparently could come up with no other word to describe it than "bleak." Siskel & Ebert famously gave it a "thumbs down". Time Magazine's Richard Shickel: " would defy the gifts of an Olivier to find interesting, amusing life in a context as charmless and joyless (and songless) as the one Murch and his design team have concocted." The Boston Globe's Jay Carr: "...when it isn't a grim downer, it's largely inert." The Los Angeles Times' Sheila Benson: "...the framework surrounding Return to Oz is dark and, I suspect, terribly frightening for very young children." And the New York Times' Janet Maslin: " Children are sure to be startled by the new film's bleakness....Oz itself, formerly a never-neverland existing somewhere in Dorothy's and the audience's shared imagination, now resembles any old extraterrestrial setting. It couldn't be further away." (I also have to share this now-amusing bit of Maslin's: "Claymation, a new stop-motion animation technique that allows rocks to speak, wink and develop faces whenever they feel like it, is used to remarkable effect here." Wow.)

It also didn't help that Return to Oz was rated PG. That's right, PG instead of G. This was before PG-13, remember, and anything with that "P" in it was a signal to parents everywhere that a film was in fact inappropriate for kids. I'm more than disturbed at where we've ended up with MPAA ratings in 2008, but that's another thought for another time.

The fact is, Return to Oz actually was pretty scary, and some of its more disturbing scenes were cut when it aired on the Disney channel. Soon after her original adventure, Dorothy escapes from a mental hospital after being submitted to electro-shock therapy. Her cell mate apparently drowns during the escape, and Dorothy wakes up in Oz, where the yellow brick road has been destroyed. The Tin Man and Cowardly Lion have been turned to stone, and the Scarecrow has been kidnapped by the evil Nome King and transformed into an ornament. Oz is policed by Wheelers, some of the freakiest things my young eyes had ever seen (turn up the volume...). Dorothy gets locked up again by the evil Princess Mombi, who had a gallery of 31 interchangeable heads that scared me for years. As you can see, this has turned out to be a horror show. We have a brief respite of light fun when Dorothy meets Jack Pumpkinhead (a stick man...with a pumpkin for head), who helps her fashion some kind of flying couch, but then it's back to life-or-death in a final showdown with the Nome King. You have three guesses to figure out which ornament was formerly the Scarecrow, Dorothy, or you die and become an ornament yourself - for eternity.

So the story was a little dark. That aside, the special effects were good enough to earn an Academy Award nomination and, well, that was really it. Although Walter Murch still works as an editor and sound designer (Youth Without Youth, Jarhead, Cold Mountain), he never wrote or directed another film. Fairuza Balk's career evidently peaked in the late 90's, and even Piper Laurie (as Aunt Em), who would receive her third and last Oscar nomination the following year for Children of a Lesser God, hasn't received much attention since then.

Despite all of this, the film lives on for one simple reason: it's a mysterious, provocative reimagining of that special place called Oz, and its characters are, let's face it, a lot more interesting than lions and scarecrows. I haven't read any of Baum's books, but there are those who will argue that his original idea of Oz was closer to Walter Murch's than it was to Victor Fleming's. Obviously that will be hard to accept for fans of The Wizard of Oz, but I think it's kind of funny. We always think these children's stories are supposed to be pure and innocent, when in fact they're also kind of trippy and subversive. Have you ever sat back and thought about a Roald Dahl book?

I don't think I've seen Return to Oz since I pushed it on my friends at some point in college, but there are several parts of it that I'll never forget, and its technical influence on later fantasy films is too often overlooked.



  1. I haven't seen this movie in a loooooong time, but it definitely one of those movies from my childhood that left a semi-dreamlike impression on me.

    Like Naussica: The Valley of the Wind and Dark Crystal.

    I think I may have to check it out again.

  2. This one came out at an age where I was too old for a 'kids' movie but I was still too young to appreciate who Walter Murch was.

    The upshot: I've never seen it, but your review makes me very very curious.

    It sounds like critics and audiences were expecting a fruity musical Wizard of Oz...and when they got something altogether darker, they rejected it, having no knowledge of the original source material.

    It sounds interesting though.

  3. I saw this film for the first time at the age of 52 (my current age). I LOVED it! It has been a favorite of the hubby's for a long time.

    I can understand why the critics would give it a "no go". They write for many readers who have children and need to make them aware of whether the film would be appropriate or not. A similar situation arose with Babe: Pig in the City, a brilliant but uncuddly sequel to the extremely G Babe. I hope Ebert reevaluates his rating soon.

  4. Seriously, what was with those weird 80's fantasy movies, DCGirl? The cold war was imprisoning our minds. I wonder if they've subconsciously influenced us in some way.

    That's pretty much exactly what happened, Craig. Everybody was hoping for another munchkin musical. Apparently Murch's original draft was a lot darker, but he had to tone it down to get Disney behind it.

    I kind of figured you and other, ahem, mature readers may have been too old for this one, which is why I had to mention the viewing age. I didn't see it in the theater but I'm pretty sure I was younger than Dorothy when I saw it. Man, those screaming heads freaked me out.

  5. Aha! Thanks, Marilyn. So it can be appreciated outside of childhood. I'm glad. I kind of thought those who hadn't seen it would watch it as adults and wonder what the big deal was.

    Hmm, interesting about Babe and its sequel. I didn't see City but I do remember some hubbub upon its release. I guess most sequels are usually darker, but not like this.

    Oh, and you're husband has distinguished taste in film. :-)

  6. Joe Valdez has an interesting review/history of Babe: Pig in the City over at This Distracted Globe. I'd point you there for more on the hubbub.

    FYI - Gene Siskel named this film the best of the year on his Top 10 list, showing that intelligent, imaginative kids' films can stand with the best of 'em.

  7. Thanks, Marilyn. I'll check out Joe's take. I always enjoy the production/ background/ critical reception summaries he provides.

    You threw me off for a second with Siskel - I thought you were talking about Oz and not City.

    Since I just found them, here's an excerpt of his review of Oz: "The Nome King looks like a moveable Mt. St. Helens and he alone is magical. In fact, he blows Dorothy and her tacky-looking friends off the screen. So we end up liking the Nome King and hating Dorothy and her crowd, which I doubt was the intention of the L. Frank Baum series."

  8. We saw this at the drive-in movie when I was six.

    The Wheelers scared the crap out of me... and it was extra fun for us because Wheeler was my family name growing up.

    Nice, nostalgic review.

  9. I love kids movies as long as they're not aimed at the brainless ones. In this case though, I was at the perilous age of 16 and probably far too cool for such a thing. I've matured since then...I hope.

    Speaking of kids movies. I'm totally jazzed for WALL-E.

    Also, for the record I think this is my favorite feature of yours, Daniel.

  10. Are you kidding me, Nayana!?! Did you have a "BEWARE THE WHEELERS" sign posted in your front yard or painted on your garage? Did you dress up as a Wheeler for Halloween? Man, the fun you could have had.

    But yeah, they really were scary to most children. I guess there's enough real stuff to freak kids out these days. That and they have access to a lot more disturbing stuff.

    *shakes head in disgust*

    Thanks, Craig. I've been planning on some other regular features, but this is a fun one that I'll continue.

    No chance I would have found this interesting as 16 year-old, but as Marilyn notes, it can be enjoyed by adults who are interested in the Oz series and/or the genre. Or those who appreciate special effects before CGI took over and made everything look ridiculous. Incidentally, Return to Oz lost out in the Oscar voting to Cocoon, another movie I haven't heard about in years.

  11. I haven't seen this in ages but I definitely have fond memories of it from my childhood. You've made me really want to see it again.

  12. Daniel - I just saw your comment about my husband's film tastes. Distinguished? Well, that's one way to put it. For our 2-week vacation, he brought nothing but horror films, only one of which I would recommend (Targets). I insisted on bringing a Polanski set of early shorts, which we never watched.

  13. Thanks, Matthew. It's a blast from the past.

    What can I say, Marilyn - at least you both share a passion for film! Sadly, I doubt most married couples can say the same.

  14. Daniel - Film brought us together. We met on a film discussion board--he in Savannah and me in Chicago--and met after two years!

  15. VERY cool, Marilyn. Sounds like something out of a movie...

  16. Wow - another great article Daniel. I agree with Craig that the excellent quality of these MOTMs make them an essential feature to Getafilm. Lots of fascinating new info here to chew on, but as a child all I knew from the first time I saw it in the theater was that this was an amazing fantasy voyage that I was thrilled to throw myself into.

    Also, I really adored all of the mechanical wizardry in this film. The only other film to fill me with a similar mech-wonder as a child was *batteries not included. But thanks again for writing about Return to Oz; I have re-watched enough times to not have forgotten about it, but it's still exciting to read the post here and all of the enthusiastic comments - kudos!

  17. I didn't know you saw this in the theater. I didn't, did I?

    Yes, the effects of Tik-Tok and Jack Pumpkin head were pretty amazing with what they had to work with. Really a lot of it was, even if it looks bad now.

    Wow, *batteries not included! That might make its way on here in the future. I need to see it again though...

  18. By the time Return To Oz was set to be released, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg had taken over Disney. This film broke three cardinal rules that would define their regime: it was expensive, it was dark, and it didn't feature songs.

    It's for those reasons that I think the film stands out today - head and shoulders above most of the fantasy films that have come along in the past 20 years, including the Harry Potter and Narnia series, which are mostly consumer entertainment product or theme park rides as opposed to what an imaginative movie can be.

    Good flashback review, Daniel.

  19. It's true, Joe, though I would offer that Potter and Narnia are held hostage by their fans, meaning there may not be as much room to be imaginative. Somehow Murch got away with combining Oz books and creating his own interpretation. In any case you're right - we don't see much of this anymore at all.

    Thanks for the comment - your great work raises the bar for any of these old movies that I look back on.


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