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: "...it 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.
BEWARE THE WHEELERS...