The Two Jakes

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  • Year: 1990
  • Director: Jack Nicholson
  • Starring: Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Meg Tilly

Oh 1990, the year when the two greatest films of 1974 both got sequels. However, while we are still talking about The Godfather Part III to this day (not usually for good reasons), The Two Jakes has fallen off the radar a bit. Many people’s reactions are along the lines of “There’s a sequel to Chinatown?” So why has it been somewhat forgotten?

Well, for one, it’s not called Chinatown II. Since the Los Angeles Chinatown isn’t relevant plot-wise or even thematically, calling it Chinatown II would be like Troll 2 (which features no trolls except the screenwriter) or Taken 3 (where nothing or no one gets taken, barring the audience’s suspension of disbelief). In addition to the artistic integrity in giving the film an entirely different title, we have Jack Nicholson reprising a role. He’s only done this twice, and not only was this his first time doing it, it remains the only time he’s reprised a leading role. J.J. “Jake” Gittes is obviously a character he cares about.

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Interestingly, screenwriter Robert Towne envisioned Chinatown as a trilogy viewed from the perspective of Gittes, but ultimately being about the development of Los Angeles. The first is about water, The Two Jakes is about oil, and the third which would have involved either land or transportation (reports vary). After a long and stressful development process, writer and director Robert Towne left production of The Two Jakes and Nicholson himself took over.

Because of this long production process, The Two Jakes is set in 1948, eleven years after the original, but was made sixteen years after the original. Los Angeles is enjoying the post-war boom, and Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is doing his best to enjoy his own personal success. He now runs Gittes Investigations, a two-story upgrade from his small office in the first. He has a membership at the local country club, he’s engaged, and he’s clearly put on some weight since the events of the first.

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Gittes has been hired by Julius “Jake” Berman (Harvey Keitel) to follow his wife to verify that she’s cheating on him. Gittes helps set Berman up for confronting his wife Kitty (Meg Tilly) in the middle of her afternoon tryst. Gittes listens and records from a neighboring hotel room as Berman confronts his wife and proceeds to murder her lover. He runs in, but it’s too late and Berman is taken in for the murder.

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Matters are complicated a bit, when it is revealed that the man Berman murdered was his own real estate business partner, Mark Bodine, who we learn had been blackmailing him. Gittes didn’t know this, but it doesn’t look good, as it appears he could have helped pre-meditate the murder. More complications come to light when Gittes listens to the wire recording and hears Bodine and Kitty discussing Katherine Mulwray, the daughter of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway’s character in the original). Since the events of the first, Gittes obviously feels responsible for Katherine’s safety, although he is not sure where exactly she has gotten to. He knows she has escaped the clutches of her now-dead incestuous father/grandfather Noah Cross, but he’s lost track after that.

The ending of Chinatown is such a gut-punch that it could be very easy to do a sequel wrong. There’s obviously a temptation to show that Katherine got to a better place almost immediately, but that would undo the nihilism that the ending of the first brought about. Jake Gittes blames himself for the events of the first, and even as the years have gone by, his anger and disappointment have not gone away. Nothing really makes him happy, successful as he may be. Honestly, this is exactly where this character would be eleven years later. It’s a totally believable character development, which puts The Two Jakes off to a promising start.

Gittes comes across a huge cast of new characters including Berman’s lawyer Cotton Weinberger (Eli Wallach), his mob connection Michael “Mickey Nice” Weisskopf (Ruben Blades), Bodine’s widow Lillian (Madeline Stowe) and her lawyer Chuck Newty (Frederic Forest). Everyone wants the wire recording of the confrontation, and they all have their ways of trying to get it. Lillian seduces Gittes, and while he accepts her advances, he still doesn’t let her have the recording. It’s a bit of a shame to see such a standard femme fatale character here, while the original went to hell-and-back to deconstruct that archetype. Madeline Stowe is a fantastic actress, and she still manages to be memorable, but this is a bit of a misstep writing-wise.

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In addition, Gittes still has to deal with his past in the form of some returning characters. Perry Lopez reprises his role as police captain Lou Escobar, who lost a leg in the war and has a slightly better working relationship with Gittes than he did in the first, although they still don’t particularly care for each other. Also working with the police is the younger Detective Loach (David Keith), the son of Loach from the first film. The senior Loach didn’t exactly have a large role in Chinatown, but he was the one who shot the fatal bullet at Evelyn Mulwray. In a tense scene, Jake shoves his gun down Loach’s throat after he makes some incest jokes about Noah Cross. What’s interesting here is that Loach’s connection to the first film is his major role in this one, but someone who only saw Chinatown once in 1974 probably won’t remember the senior Loach. Since Chinatown is one of my favorite films of all time, I’ve seen it over-and-over and made the connection here, but I’m a little split on having the son of such a minor character being integral to Jake’s arc. On one hand, the film respects its audience by not explaining who Loach was. On the other, even someone who likes the film might not remember that was his name.

Gittes’ associate Lawrence Walsh (Joe Mantell) is still working for him as well, and we feel the close working relationship between the men in their scenes. Walsh was of course the one who uttered the famous “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown” line at the end of the first. For some reason, there’s one other character who returns, and it’s the smug “This is not a lending library” guy (Allan Warnick) from the hall of records. Again, he only appears in one scene, now as a notary who’s had his teeth kicked in by Mickey Nice for giving out too much information. I suppose this is karmic punishment for him being a pain to Gittes in the first film? The only thing is he never is given a name in the first film, so instead of feeling like a role reprisal, it will probably just leave viewers wondering if this was supposed to be the same guy or not.

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You’ll note that most of my issues with this film are nitpicks, because there honestly aren’t any major problems with The Two Jakes. It occasionally drags, especially in the middle parts as it just feels like character-after-character wanting the wire recording, but we never lose interest. It’s not the perfect, tense and building slow burn of the first film, but it’s quite good.

Clues keep pointing to the oil business of Earl Rawley (Richard Farnsworth), who Gittes believes is drilling under the new homes that Jake Berman is building. Cigarette lighters have his business logo on them, and worst of all, Gittes suffered a head injury when he lit a cigarette at Berman’s housing community, which led to an explosion. This character obviously resembles Noah Cross (John Huston) in the first, but only in his business life. Rawley is in fact drilling under the homes, but we have no hints he is the depraved rapist that Cross was. It’s interesting that both Cross and Rawley refer to Gittes by a name no one else does. Cross constantly referred to him as “Mr. Gitts,” even when corrected, to assert dominance and make Gittes feel small and worthless. Rawley refers to him as John (Presumably what one of the J’s stands for), but it’s in hopes of creating a phony sense of friendship with him. Also, while he appears in a few other scenes, Rawley really only has the one big scene with Gittes. He’s dishonest with him about the drilling, Gittes sees right through it, and that’s all the more he needs to know.

The closest thing I have to a major issue with the film (and it’s still not a deal breaker) is the reveal of Katherine Mulwray. We know she has a part to play somehow, but the clues really aren’t that subtle. Here’s a reminder of what a young Katherine looked like in the first film.

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And here is our first real look at Jake Berman’s wife Kitty.

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Obviously, they want her to look like the actress from the original, because it’s the same character. Of course the look will be similar, but I wish it wasn’t so obvious that they were trying to hide her face in her early appearances, plus the fact that her name is Kitty, short for Katherine. Wouldn’t it be interesting if this wasn’t Katherine Mulwray, but Gittes kept seeing her in every case duet to his PTSD? I understand that would be an entirely different movie, but it would have been a unique way to go. However, if that’s my biggest issue with The Two Jakes, it’s on a good track. Meg Tilly is phenomenal in the role, playing someone who is both a child of incest and a victim herself. We do believe this is the same character, which is great once the “mystery” is revealed.

Bizarrely, the film also constantly hides the face of Gittes’ fiancee Linda until she breaks things off with him. I think the film is trying to tease the fact that maybe he’s engaged to Katherine Mulwray, but anyone who knows the character knows he would never do this. It’s a strange stylistic choice that wasn’t really necessary.

Up until the final scenes, The Two Jakes is a good film, but the final scenes really elevate it. Gittes discovers that Berman is dying of cancer and organized the whole scheme to protect Katherine after his death. Katherine knew nothing of the illness, a fact Gittes learns from their honest conversations. Having promised to always protect Katherine, Gittes alters the wire recording so it shows no evidence of murder or of the involvement of Katherine Mulwray, and the case is thrown out due to lack of evidence.

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It is here where we start to see that the titular two Jakes really are reflections of each other. Sure, there are comparisons made in the opening scenes, but we’re unsure if they are authentic, or it’s just Jake Berman trying to force a connection with Gittes. Now we know that both Jakes feel they have to protect Katherine Mulwray, even if they have different ways of going about it. Berman will do anything it takes, even murder, to make sure she is safe. Gittes tried to protect the Mulwrays legally in Chinatown, only to find out he couldn’t, so here he, at first reluctantly, tampers with evidence to make sure Katherine is protected. Again, I applaud the filmmakers for not calling this film Chinatown II, because The Two Jakes really is a perfect title.

The final scene between the two Jakes is not only the best scene in the film, but it’s the closest this film comes to the perfection of the first. Berman reveals that he hid the disease from his wife, even sleeping in a different bed, which drove her into the arms of his business associate, who was also unaware of the disease. Mark Bodine’s blackmailing was only ever about the identity of Katherine Mulwray. Murder was the only way Berman would have assured Katherine’s money and identity were protected. Harvey Keitel’s breakdown in this scene is truly something to behold, transforming the murderer into a layered, sympathetic character in a matter of minutes. It’s some of Keitel’s best work. However, we still see that Berman isn’t entirely sympathetic, when he reveals that he also was happy to kill Bodine for sleeping with his wife. He’s a complex and caring character, yes, but he is still a villain.

The oil starts flowing into the model home due to an earthquake, and Berman insists that Gittes and Mickey Nice (who now doesn’t seem all that threatening) leave. He says he’ll stay and “have a smoke,” knowing an autopsy would begin to uncover the whole plot. Mickey and Gittes get out, leaving Berman to blow up in the home and the scheme to stay under wraps.

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The film’s epilogue is uncomfortable, to say the least. At Gittes’ office, Katherine is played a recording of Berman explaining what happened. She asks Gittes if the past ever goes away, and he says she’ll have to work on it. She kisses him, but he stops her twice. On first viewing, I thought my discomfort with this scene was a sign of poor writing, but I was wrong. Katherine is a victim of years of incest, and we are supposed to be incredibly uncomfortable with her making this move on Gittes. If he had responded to it with any hint of wanting it, it would ruin the movie, but the fact that he tells her she doesn’t know what she wants, while still caring for her, makes it work. Both Chinatown films end on extreme feelings of discomfort, and in both cases, that’s the intended feeling. As Katherine leaves and tells Gittes to think of her “from time to time,” Jake tells her “It never goes away.” It perhaps is trying a bit too hard to replicate the punch of “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” but it’s still a relatively poignant ending.

The Two Jakes has a convoluted plot, and I didn’t even get to all the side characters and minor subplots. It’s perhaps a little too convoluted, but with the conclusion it leads to, so be it. It’s not the flawless screenplay of the first, but if you can put that aside, there is a lot to glean from The Two Jakes. In addition to the fantastic performances and smart writing, the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. Like the first film (and unlike most classic noirs), the gorgeous Californian scenery is conflicted with the dark and gritty subject matter. The music doesn’t stand out as much as Jerry Goldsmith’s classic score, but Van Dyke Parks does a good job at creating a mellow and moody score that complements the scenes nicely. If you like Chinatown, give The Two Jakes a watch, or even better, give it the two watches it deserves to truly get what it’s going for. Let’s check out the final score.

Story (22/30 Points)

There are flaws along the way, but it leads to an amazing conclusion. It’s a film that cares about its plot points and its characters.

Returning Characters (13/15 Points)

Nicholson returns to the role of Gittes, and we believe we’re watching the same character eleven years later. He doesn’t ham it up or do a lot of the typical Nicholson-isms (love them as we may). There are occasional moments where he might be a bit too Jack, but again, these are nitpicks. Meg Tilly’s performance as Katherine Mulwray is brilliantly tragic, and it’s nice to see Walsh return. I also love seeing the Escobar character come back, as we’d wonder where the relationship between he and Gittes is now.

New Characters (9/15 Points)

Harvey Keitel is the stand-out as Jake Berman, but there are a few too many new characters that do too little. It’s a bummer to see such a standard femme fatale in the character of Lillian Bodine, but at least she doesn’t factor too much into the film. The film manages to mostly waste Madeline Stowe, Frederic Forest and Eli Wallach, which is a shame.

Experience (17/20 Points)

It’s a beautiful film to look at, in both the day and night scenes. It’s influenced by the first without trying to copy it. The music is fine, but it doesn’t leave the impression the original did.

Originality (18/20 Points)

It tells a new story, while keeping the themes of the original. The characters have developed to a believable place, and the film never feels like it’s trying to capitalize on the first one to make more money.

FINAL SCORE: 79%

Ultimately, I quite like The Two Jakes. However, if Chinatown isn’t a film you’ve watched and re-watched, it probably won’t be your thing. It has a fairly narrow target audience. It’s just one I happen to be in.

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Happily Ever After

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  • Year: 1990
  • Director: John Howley
  • Starring: Irene Cara, Malcolm McDowell, Ed Asner

Sometimes you come across a sequel so bizarre, the idea of which is so beyond the realm of comprehension, that the only thing you can think to ask is what were they thinking? Today’s film is one of those. That’s why it’s time to play the all-new game show…

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Today’s contestant is an animation studio that was born in 1962, famous for works such as Fat Albert and the Cosby KidsHe-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and so much more. Would you please welcome Filmation studios?

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Now, Filmation released their first theatrical film Journey Back to Oz (another Oz sequel, because public domain) in 1974, but today we will be talking exclusively about their 1990 sequel to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs entitled Happily Ever After. If Filmation can get through four rounds of questions regarding this film, they will get to play the bonus round where they can spin our wheel for some wonderful prizes! Let’s begin with ROUND 1 of What Were THEY Thinking? This round involves production.

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Three of Filmation’s theatrical releases were sequels to classic films, two of them Disney classics. Happily Ever After picks up right after Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, showing what happened after their happy ending… even though it’s not really a happy ending if there’s more conflict immediately. Filmation believed that Happily Ever After would be “one of the biggest hits of the year,” (yes that’s a direct quote) and that leads us to our first question. Sometimes, when films bomb at the box office, the marketing team decides that perhaps the title is to blame…

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Yes, seriously, three of these are alternate titles. It’s like K. Gordon Murray produced this film. The first one obviously was a real title, and I guess I can forgive the “Land of Doom” title, as I suppose there is technically a land of doom in this film However, it’s just the area surrounding the castle, even though no one had any issue coming or going in the first film. Believe it or not, this film at one point dared to call itself Snow White’s Greatest Adventure. It’s basically just shouting at the audience: THIS ONE IS BETTER! Even though the title would be accurate, the film never did call itself Snow White and the Prince Ride Again.

Who knows? Maybe this film will be original and entirely void of cliches. Yeah right.

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That’s right! It’s all of the above. This movie features Dom Deluise, Phyllis Diller, Carol Channing, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Ed Asner… and they’re all wasted. The Magic Mirror had a booming voice in the Disney film, but Dom Deluise makes him sound like a bored Alec Baldwin. The others all play memorable characters, but not in a good way, and trust me, we’ll get there.

In the first scene of the film, the Evil Queen’s minions are all celebrating because she’s dead, and their party involves throwing pies at each other.

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How little do you trust your own audience to stay invested? Oh we’re two minutes in, I bet those kids are falling asleep already. I think it’s time to throw a pie at someone!

Soon their party is interrupted by the most annoying sequel cliche of all—The brother of the villain from the first film is in town, and he wants revenge.

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Meet Lord Maliss, the Evil Queen’s even-more-obviously-evil brother. Seriously? A wispy mustache, a cape and a widow’s peak? He should just wear a shirt saying “Hello, I’m the villain.” Also, what’s with the spelling? Obviously his name sounds just like “malice,” but since we never see it in writing, what’s the point of having the official spelling be any different? Maliss just comes in and decides the castle is his, because royal lineage doesn’t really matter in a kids’ film. Most surprisingly of all, he’s voiced by Malcolm McDowell! That leads to our next question…

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Well he had just been through his divorce with Mary Steenburgen, so who knows? Nicolas Cage wasn’t doing his every-movie-offered-to-me-thing yet in 1990, so I hate to suggest that it might be the final option. We’ll leave this one open-ended, so everyone can make their own minds up. (Hint: I’m pretty sure it’s the fourth option. I mean, look at his full filmography sometime.)

That said, McDowell does manage to create a somewhat memorable performance. The guy must have broken his voice playing this character. He’s so over-the-top that I’m not sure if it’s technically a good performance, but it’s definitely enjoyable.

We’ve made it through round 1. Round 2 is called Phone-a-Friend… oh no we can’t do that? OK Round 2 is called Call-Up-A-Disgruntled-Co-Star.

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All of the questions in this round will involve the bizarre and ultimately-pretty-pointless character Scowl the Owl, voiced by Ed Asner.

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Scowl is an ineffective minion who is constantly obsessed with being bad, and his assistant Batso (Frank Welker) is constantly confused as to whether he wants to be good at being bad or bad at being bad. It’s really not funny.

Let’s get Ed on the line now.

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Alright, here comes the first question involving Scowl the Owl.

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Once Lord Maliss arrives, turns into a dragon and flies out of the castle, some music begins. It seems like just background music, and then a drum beat kicks in. I wondered what the point of this all was as Scowl choked on his cigar smoke, but then, out of nowhere, he started rapping. I was so flabbergasted that I couldn’t even laugh. It is just so random. Who thought this was a good idea? You’re making a sequel to one of the most timeless and beloved films ever, and you immediately date it by having a character rap! The song is also just about how bad he is and how it’s no fun to be good. Most of the lines are tepid and uninspired, but that leads me to the next question.

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Ugh does it even matter? The fact that any of these features in the lyrics means that the movie is over before it starts. We STILL haven’t met Snow White at this point, outside of hearing about her from the Magic Mirror. Apparently it’s more important to have a rap number about a minion “being bad” in the first ten minutes than it is to actually meet our main character. As much as I hate to say it, it’s the “Dirty Birdy” line. Yes, someone wrote that.

For the whole film, Scowl just fails over-and-over at being evil, until the very end where he begins working for the good guys, leading me to the final question of the round.

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After his cigar is taken away, Scowl is sad for a split-second, before celebrating the fact that he can now breathe fresh air and smell. Really Filmation? Really? An Anti-Smoking PSA in a Snow White film? Even worse, that’s all his scenes added up to.

Alright Filmation, you’ve painfully made it through two rounds, but we still have two to go before you can play the bonus. Let’s move onto Round 3.

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This round is the 50:50 round, where we talk about all the times the film’s budget was cut in half.

After the miserable rap number, we finally meet Snow White (Irene Cara) and the Prince (Michael Horton). The design of the returning characters in this film (there are only three) leads me to my first question.

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The Magic Mirror has gone from a full-body mirror to merely a wall-hanging, and the Prince now looks like He-Man (Filmation made He-Man and the Masters of the Universe as well, which is surely a coincidence). However, Snow White looks as close to her Disney counterpart as is legally possible. Since the character is described as having black hair and white skin in every version of the fairy tale (It kind of leads to the name and all), her described appearance is in the public domain. I’m just imagining a team of animators and lawyers sitting around seeing how close they could come to Disney’s version of the character without getting sued. Don’t you just love films made by committee?

Eventually, Lord Maliss kidnaps the Prince, seemingly killing him, and Snow White gets lost in the forest… again. There is also a jungle snake in the forest now for some reason.

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Even more surprisingly, their Jungle Book sequel was set to have dwarfs.

Beyond this one random scare, the forest scene mainly just consists of darkness and lightning strikes, even though there’s no rain. Snow White soon realizes she is right back at the cottage of the seven dwarfs, except something has changed.

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Instead of the seven dwarfs, Snow White meets the seven dwarfelles, who explain that their cousins the dwarfs moved to a different country. Again, this has to be a budget thing, as the Disney dwarfs are licensed characters, but featuring the dwarfs in any other fashion would just confuse kids. Instead, the film just hand-waves it and says that these are the cousins of the nameless-dwarfs. Also, why isn’t it dwarfettes? The Dwarfelles sounds more like a Phil Spector-produced girl group from the early ’60s.

The seven dwarfelles all have different powers given to them by their mother, Mother Nature. THE DWARFS WERE RELATED TO MOTHER NATURE? Do you realize the plot holes you’re creating? Alright, here comes your next question…

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For some reason, we go from dwarfs with definable characteristics like Sleepy and Dopey to “Controls the Whole Earth-y” and “Can Make the Sun Go Away with a Word-y.” Unfortunately, yes Thunderella is also a character, and before we even get her name, she breaks into a Cyndi Lauper-esque song about not being able to use her powers well. No, that will never date this movie. Sadly, this does mean that Lucifera is not a character in this film.

The dwarfelles take Snow White to Mother Nature (Phyllis Diller), who is about to take Thunderella’s powers away, right when Lord Maliss comes to threaten Snow White. He says that if she wants her prince back, she’ll have to cross the Land of Doom, which now lies immediately outside the castle (because magic and stuff).

The Land of Doom is made up of such vicious creatures as the same clip of wolves looped over-and-over.

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Yeah, that’s really about it. I mean, there are cliffs and rivers and stuff, but there isn’t really all that much doom beyond that. Along the way, they are assisted by the mysterious Shadow Man. Since you’re just dying to know, it’s time to ask…

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Why did Lord Maliss turn the Prince into this character? If he wants revenge, why doesn’t he just kill him? Why doesn’t he make him look actually evil so Snow White tries to kill him? Maliss can clearly do whatever he wants magically, so what’s the point here? Part of his evil plan is turning the prince into a weird looking creature and putting him the Land of Doom where everyone else will think he’s evil?

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With the help of this obvious prince, Snow White eventually makes it through the Land of Doom and to the castle. That means it’s time for our fourth round, Ask-the-Target-Audience.

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For every question in this round, we will be polling an audience of five-to-ten year-olds to see if Filmation really understands what kids want.

When Snow White finally arrives at the castle, she meets up with “the Prince,” who doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he’s Lord Maliss undercover. However, for some reason, Snow White just wonders why he’s acting funny and continues to follow him. It is then revealed that “the Prince” was Lord Maliss trying to lead Snow White to her death. Who would have guessed it? Let’s find out.

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I bet those 7% weren’t really paying attention anyway.

It turns out that Lord Maliss intends to turn Snow White and the Prince into stone, which he can do with his magic cape. Again, what’s the purpose of his revenge? The Queen, his sister, was killed after being knocked off a precipice that was struck by lightning. Snow White had nothing to do with it, and while he could perhaps have blamed the dwarfs who were chasing her, oh wait, they aren’t in this film.

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Maliss believes he has turned the seven dwarfelles into stone, even bragging about his “seven new statues,” even though there are clearly only six. Thunderella instead has finally honed her powers at a plot-relevant time and uses a bolt of lightning to bring Maliss down. He turns into a dragon and begins to turn to stone, but for some reason his head turns back as his body remains animal.

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I guess it looks better for the statue. Mother Nature comes back now and turns the Shadow Man back into the Prince, and they promise to live happily ever after until the next shoehorned sequel.

Well, the target audience is getting restless, so we have just one more question for them.

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Ugh, there’s one in every crowd. Get those kids out of here. We get the point.

Well Filmation, you’ve survived four rounds of revealing and embarrassing questions, so it’s time for the Bonus Round.

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 Since you’ve made it to the bonus round, it’s time to bring out our Big Wheel!

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There are wonderful prizes, including the rights to make Peter Pan 2, Snow White 3 and much more, all the way up to the Grand Prize of ONE MILLION DOLLARS. However, the better prize on there might be “Destroy This Episode.” Filmation, you’ve earned it, go ahead and spin the wheel.

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Oh no, you’ve gone bankrupt. I’m sorry, but you’ve landed on bankrupt and by the rules of our game, your studio has to file Chapter 11.

Yes, that’s right, Happily Ever After was such a disaster that it forced Filmation to go bankrupt. I suppose it wasn’t “one of the biggest hits of the year” after all.

I’d say “Join us next time on What Were THEY Thinking,” but it looks like Disney is suing me for totally ripping off one of their properties.

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Maybe Filmation can give me some advice on what not to do next. Let’s just get to the final score.

Story (8/30 Points)

It’s a sequel to a very simple story, and it still manages to screw it up. The villain wants revenge by drawing the people he blames for the death of his sister to his castle to turn them into stone? Why would he want statues of them in his castle forever? Why doesn’t he just kill them? Why does the Ed Asner owl get a story entirely divorced from the rest of the thing?

Returning Characters (4/15 Points)

Snow White is utterly bland, which is a downgrade, and the Prince is boring, meaning nothing has changed. He still doesn’t even get a name! The Magic Mirror is voiced by an utterly wasted Dom Deluise, and the scene where he flirts with one of the dwarfelles is just awkward.

New Characters (6/15 Points)

Malcolm McDowell is actually memorable as a hilariously over-the-top villain, and I guess Phyllis Diller isn’t awful as Mother Nature.

Experience (7/20 Points)

The background animations aren’t terrible, and there is at least some creativity in them. (Director John Howley is a painter after all.) However, it’s obvious when stock footage is being repeated over and over, and then there are the musical numbers. Scowl the Owl, Thunderella, and Mother Nature all get random musical numbers out of nowhere, and the rap one in particular is hilariously painful.

Originality (8/20 Points)

Hey, it’s not just the plot of the first one again. Not everything original is good, but at least it’s not just a rehash.

FINAL SCORE: 35%

This is kind of a bizarre one to score, because this film is so hilarious that it almost has to be seen to be believed. Seriously, I recommend watching this film for its ridiculous plot, pointless songs, and forced message. At least it’s short.

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High Noon, Part II: The Return of Will Kane

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  • Year: 1980
  • Director: Jerry Jameson
  • Starring: Lee Majors, David Carradine, Pernell Roberts

Anyone who has seen the original High Noon has to do a double take at the title of this one. The Return of Will Kane? The dramatic crux of the original film was not Gary Cooper’s serious-minded hero gunning down his enemies (with the help of his new wife) but rather him throwing down his marshal’s star immediately after and leaving the town in disgust. Without careful care and attention, this one could fall apart before it even gets going.

High Noon is often considered one of the greatest westerns of all time, and while western is not a genre I usually find myself drawn to, I definitely get the appeal of this one. Instead of gunfights and light moments of comedy, High Noon focuses on Will Kane realizing he might be living the last minutes of his life. He can’t run away from the outlaw who wants him dead, and no one will back him up. We constantly see clocks counting down the minutes, and while we see the villains loading up their weapons, we see our hero writing his last will and testament. It’s arguably as much a psychological drama as it is a western, and Gary Cooper offers a stellar performance as the stoic but distressed hero.

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High Noon II (I’m not repeating that ridiculous title every time) came out in 1980, so unsurprisingly none of the original actors (or cast… or crew… or fans) returned. It’s also a TV movie, so they rounded up the best they could get, including Lee Majors, David Carradine, Katherine Cannon and Pernell Roberts. However, my hopes went up a bit when I saw the thing was written by Elmore Leonard, an actually well-known and competent writer. Maybe there was hope for this thing after all.

The film starts with Will Kane (Lee Majors) and his wife Amy (Katherine Cannon) returning to the town of Hadleyville, a year after the events of the original. Upon returning, Kane discovers that the town is now in the hands of a new corrupt and trigger-happy marshal J.D. Ward (Pernell Roberts).

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So he’s returning because there’s trouble right? NOPE. He just comes back to the town to run a horse ranch on a whim I suppose, and then he discovers that the town is corrupt.

The set-up for a believable plot is staring you in the face! What if an old acquaintance contacted Will and explained what was going on? At first he would have no interest in returning after what they did to him, but in time he would come around. Maybe he would find out later that the marshal had killed someone, and Amy would have to be the one to convince him to return. You’d have to keep the character a bit cynical after his development in the first, but I think you could make a believable (If not groundbreaking) sequel without sacrificing most of what made the first so great.

Instead, Will just rolls into town, and the ending of the first film is just waved off as old business. When he first gets to town, he meets up with his old buddy Virgil (Britt Leach).

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Why, you remember Virgil from the first film right? OK, you know where this joke is going. There was no Virgil in the first film, yet these two chat like old friends, and Virgil talks about how bad he and everyone else feel about abandoning Will the last time. There were a lot of characters in the original High Noon! Why couldn’t this just be Lloyd Bridges’ character, or at least somebody who was actually in the thing? Did they not have the rights to all the characters from the original?

Honestly, we’re at the 9 minute mark and this point, and I don’t care one iota about what’s going to happen in the rest of the movie. By bringing Will Kane back to the town for no reason, especially when a reason could easily have been written into the plot, they have effectively undone everything great about the original. Instead of continuing the bittersweet note the original film ended on, we are back to square one character-wise (not plot-wise, as there is still a new marshal).

I don’t care. Really, honestly, I don’t care what happens. This is a slap in the face to the original film. If the movie had something involving the above hypothetical plot, it would still not likely come near the moral complexities of the first, and that’s fine. It could still be competent, and it wouldn’t undo everything in a matter of minutes.

So is there an interesting plot that at least somewhat gets my mind off this insult? I think you know by the way I’m asking this question that there isn’t. In fact, it may very well be the most boring thing I have watched for this blog.

The new marshal J.D. Ward is a bounty hunter who will do anything to get his prey, including kill cattle. Ben Irons (David Carradine), a wanted criminal who’s actually innocent, comes into town and Ward tries to kill him, even though he knows the truth.

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After a shootout twenty minutes into the film (even though the original saved its only gunfight for the end), Ward pursues Irons out of town. Kane teams up with Irons after barely deliberating at all, but Ward shoots Irons, and he dies of the wound back in town.

Ward obviously has the same plans for Kane, but upon discovering that Ward knew Irons was innocent, the town’s court instead puts out a warrant for Ward’s arrest. Kane puts his marshal’s star back on, and in a final shootout (at like 8 AM because who cares at this point?), Kane kills Ward. It’s done under the ruse of pulling out a search warrant, but of course he knew that Ward was about to pull his gun, so he shoots first.

It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill western plot, but if the characters were more interesting, we wouldn’t have as big of an issue. There were times David Carradine or Pernell Roberts threaten to give an inspired performance, but they never follow through, and Lee Majors… ugh, Lee Majors is just boring. As I said above, Gary Cooper did try to remain calm, collected and stoic in the original, but we saw the struggle play out on his face, especially in his scenes where he was alone. Here, there’s no struggle and Majors just doesn’t care.

Not for one moment does this feel like it’s set any time other than 1980. Sure, it takes place just a year after the first, but no one here is even trying. I mean, Lee Majors has multiple shit buttons undone to display his chest hair… in the 19th century!

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Keeping with the whole laziness theme, I have a hard time believing Elmore Leonard wrote these lines. At one particularly low moment, David Carradine’s character tells his associate “You’re just gonna show what a booger you are all by yourself.” Blazing Saddles had more period-authentic dialogue!

There’s a whole subplot involving a black deputy working for the overtly-racist marshal. If this was handled subtly, it could be interesting, but instead the marshal just says the n-word over and over, and we wonder why the deputy doesn’t just quit right away.

The music switches from barely-there to hilariously overblown. There’s one scene where we get a whole suite of spy music, something out of a romantic drama, western standoff music, and a Wizard of Oz-sounding swell all in about 30 seconds. The original film overused “The Ballad of High Noon” a bit, but it was still poignant. This is just ridiculous.

Let’s check out the final score. This isn’t worth saying much more about.

Story (6/30 Points)

It has the bare-bones structure of a typical western. I’ll give it a few points for that, but it is absolutely insulting to the story and characters of the original classic.

Returning Characters (2/15 Points)

Will Kane shows absolutely no emotion throughout, and he loses any development he gained in the first. His wife Amy has gone from saving the day in the first to being simply a neutral character with no purpose. It seems like the hotel manager is supposed to be the same character as in the first, but that’s about it for returning characters.

New Characters (5/15 Points)

I think David Carradine and Pernell Roberts are trying, because there are moments where it feels like they are about to become interesting characters. However, they never really do and just remain bland ones who feel right out of 1980.

Experience (3/20 Points)

High Noon II boasts awful music, no atmosphere, and it never feels like it’s set in the Old West. At least the sets of the town kind of feel like the original… a bit.

Originality (4/20 Points)

It tells a different story than the original. I guess that’s something.

FINAL SCORE: 20%

It comes 28 years after the original, re-casts its hero terribly, and insults the legacy of the first. The best thing about it is that it made me appreciate the original more.

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Return to Oz

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  • Year: 1985
  • Director: Walter Murch
  • Starring: Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh

The existence of Return to Oz seems incredibly bizarre, yet still makes a lot of sense. Sure, 1939’s The Wizard of Oz is one of the greatest and most important films of all time, but L. Frank Baum wrote a whole bunch of sequels to The Wonderful Wizard of OzReturn to Oz is based on the second and third books in the series—The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz.

Return to Oz is trying to at once be a more faithful adaptation of Baum’s work than the 1939 film (at least thematically), while still acting as a quasi-sequel to that film. This, needless to say (but heck I’ll say it anyway because pointing out issues is fun), causes some issues with the storytelling.

We start in Kansas, which apparently got a magical colorized makeover since the last film.

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Speaking of makeovers, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry look about 20 years younger than the previous film.

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Maybe the tornado swept years off of their lives. They aren’t the only ones though, as Dorothy is much younger than Judy Garland’s portrayal.

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I know these aren’t really issues that affect storytelling, but there are certain expectations when you call a film Return to Oz. While I’m glad that Fairuza Balk isn’t just doing a Judy Garland impression, it’s distracting how much younger her character is, even if it’s closer to the age of Dorothy in the book.

Uncle Henry and Aunt Em are worried that Dorothy is constantly caught up in her Oz fantasies and can’t focus on the real world. Fairuza Balk was ten at the time of filming, and we can assume the character is around the same age. If this is the case, why are they so concerned? A nine or ten-year-old having fantasies where she plays in a magical world isn’t all that odd, especially in a bland place like turn-of-the-century Kansas. If this was someone the age of Judy Garland’s character in the original film, I could see the concern. Instead, we get Aunt Em and Uncle Henry taking Dorothy to a doctor for a progressive new treatment—electroshock therapy. Not kidding.

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Well, I guess some people prefer the sequel.

After a quick meeting with the seemingly affable Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson), Aunt Em just leaves Dorothy there for the night, and for a few minutes the movie becomes the kids version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I only call it the kids version, because it’s a children’s hospital—it’s no less horrifying. We even get a Nurse Ratched knock-off in the nurse played by Jean Marsh. In fact, the original choice for the part was Louise Fletcher, because why should a talented Oscar-winning actress ever do anything but rehash the part she is best known for?

Return to Oz is famous for being especially terrifying for a kids film, but most of the scary stuff has a reason for existing. Baum’s books did feature frightening imagery, although he often presented it in a fairly lighthearted manner. The Oz scenes here definitely have their scary moments, but this shock therapy stuff is easily the scariest thing in the movie, and I’d even argue it goes too far. Sure, Dorothy never gets the shock therapy, as a lightning storm causes her to escape the operating table, run out of the hospital and transport to Oz, but this was never even in the books. In Ozma of Oz, a storm hits Uncle Henry and Dorothy’s boat, causing her to be separated and end up somewhere near Oz. Here, it makes Dorothy’s Uncle and Aunt far too unsympathetic, and it just goes on a bit too long with its excessive darkness. If you want Oz to be darker this time around, I’m all for it, but the “real” world needs to be lighter to contrast this, right?

Perhaps the issue is simpler than I’m making it out to be. I mean, the original Oz had darkness too, not this much, but it was there. The difference was that the 1939 film had memorable songs to offset everything, while the songs here aren’t memorable at all… mainly because there aren’t any. Maybe that’s the only problem, this movie just needs some songs.

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Well alright, I’ll try my best.

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Somewhere over the ray bow, mem’ries fade

I’ll keep working on that. Anyway, Dorothy escapes the asylum with the help of another girl (Emma Ridley), gets on a crate rolling down the river and falls asleep. When she wakes up, she is accompanied by Billina, a chicken from her farm back in Kansas who had issues laying eggs.

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Now, Billina can suddenly talk, which leads Dorothy to believe they’re now in Oz. Huh? Yes, there were talking animals in Oz, but if animals can suddenly talk when they arrive in Oz, why couldn’t Toto talk? It’s not just a book vs. movie thing either—Toto didn’t talk in Baum’s novel or the 1939 film. Don’t give me the “It’s a dream” thing either, because even if it is, Dorothy believes it is real and is going off her previous experience.

Even worse, Billina has one of the most annoying voices in film history. She sounds like Jimmy Stewart doing an impression of Dustin Hoffman playing a woman in Tootsie. Trust me, that sounds funny on paper, but it’s annoying at first and truly grating by the end.

The special effects in this movie are mostly well-handled, but right when they arrive, Dorothy stares at this frozen painting for a solid five seconds.

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Shouldn’t there be some kind of wonder in seeing Oz again? Some of these set pieces are gorgeous, and even though Dorothy’s been there before, she’s been told over and over that Oz isn’t real. Where’s the awe in the performance?

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This could entertain for hours

If the acting was less dour

If this only had a heart.

Dorothy walks through the desert that surround Oz and soon arrives at Munchkinland, where she comes across her old house.

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She also realizes the Yellow-Brick Road has been unpaved, so she makes her way to the Emerald City IN A MATTER OF MINUTES. In both book and movie, it took days to get from one to the other, but now she just travels there in the same day. When she gets to the Emerald City, she realizes it isn’t green like she remembered. Now, in the book the Emerald City is only green when you wear special glasses, but nope, someone just stole the emeralds here. Is this movie a sequel to a Disney version of Oz that was never made? I’m starting to get really confused about the intelligence of this screenplay.

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These scenes could be engaging

Instead of just enraging

If they only had a brain

The Emerald City has changed in more than just color, though, as it’s almost completely desolate. The inhabitants (including the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion) have been turned into statues, with some people having even lost their heads, and the only living creatures are the Wheelers, evil creatures who have wheels for hands and feet.

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Oh alright, that’s actually a pretty creepy design.

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And they’re only masks. Now it’s just unsexy roller derby. Maybe this is the point of the Wheelers, as they ultimately turn out to do nothing besides snarl, and are easily defeated by Dorothy’s new companion Tik-Tok. A few also simply die just by walking onto the sand of the Deadly Desert. That said, it’s a cool design that’s ruined almost immediately.

Tik-Tok, however, is easily the best character in Return to Oz. Baum’s Tik-Tok was actually one of the very first robots in fiction, and he’s easily one of the most enjoyable in movie history.

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I just love everything about him, from his goofy walk and look to his offbeat line delivery. At first he does serve as an expository character, existing to explain the changes to Oz and how the Nome King has captured the Scarecrow, but he’s the example of one done right. Much like the rings in The Time Machine, we’re enjoying the scene so much that we don’t mind the exposition dump.

Dorothy, Tik-Tok and that annoying-as-all-get-out chicken visit Princess Mombi (Jean Marsh and other actresses) to see if she can help them get the Scarecrow free. However, it turns out she is an evil witch who has a room full of heads she wears, and she puts Dorothy in prison until she is old enough to take hers.

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In prison, Dorothy meets Jack Pumpkinhead, a jack-o-lantern brought to life by Mombi’s magic powder…

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And then uses that same powder to create the Gump, a sort of mix-and-match creature with a moose head, sofa body, and more, who ultimately helps them escape.

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Hey, at least the extras from George Harrison music videos didn’t get typecast.

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The Mombi scenes are visually gorgeous to look at, especially the lavish palace…

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But ultimately, what does the plot so far remind you of? Dorothy is taken from Kansas to a land entirely foreign to her, with an animal companion by her side. Along the way she meets a harvest-themed creature, a metallic man, and a talking animal. She is imprisoned in the castle of a wicked witch but eventually makes her escape.

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Follow the plot of the first

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Follow the plot of the first

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Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow the plot of the first

You’re off to be the wizard, the exact same Wizard of Oz

When they arrive at the Nome King’s mountain, the Nome King (Nicol Williamson) brings them to his underground palace.

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For once, it finally feels like we’re watching an original and engaging movie. The Nome King is the first villain in either Oz film who isn’t just blatantly evil from the get-go. He may have turned the Scarecrow into an ornament, sure, but he claims to have good reason for it. Also, he’s very soft spoken and even comforts a crying Dorothy, offering that she and her friends play a game to get Scarecrow back. If they can identify which of his ornaments he turned the Scarecrow into, they’ll win him back. However, if someone fails after three tries, they will also be turned into an ornament.

The Gump goes first, saying “I should have quit while I was a head,” which is easily the funniest line in the film. As he fails and is turned into an ornament, the Nome King becomes more human. He also reveals himself to be more malicious, as he threatens to throw the remaining guests into a furnace if they don’t continue to play the game.

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After both Jack Pumpkinhead and Tik-Tok fail, the Nome King begins to look more and more like Santa Claus (finally explaining why he wants all those ornaments).

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When only Dorothy remains, the Nome King reveals that he has the Ruby Slippers.

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It looks absolutely ridiculous that this evil giant is wearing the Ruby Slippers, and yet it’s somehow effective how he tempts Dorothy with the option to go home right now.

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With a ho ho ho and muahaha, he’s evil Santa Claus

And he brought his bizarre fashion sense to the merry old land of Oz

Of course, Dorothy decides to go in and figure out which of the ornaments is her old friend Scarecrow.

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She sees that Tik-Tok has tricked the Nome King, and has one guess left too. He volunteers to let Dorothy see what he’s turned into should he guess wrong. He fails and Dorothy cannot see what he turns into, smart plan as it may have been. She eventually deduces that Scarecrow is the green one, because emeralds I suppose. The Scarecrow is brought back to life…

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I’m glad he’s in this film minimally, because he keeps that stupid frozen look on his face the whole time. He’s no Ray Bolger.

Meanwhile, Mombi has arrived at the Nome King’s palace. When the Nome King realizes Dorothy is turning her friends back, he reveals his true form… or the only form he can take now that they’re restored… or something. Either way, it’s this monstrous rock creature that understandably frightened a lot of children.

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As he prepares to eat Dorothy and her friends whole, Billina lays an egg in him, and since of course eggs are fatal to Nomes, it kills the Nome King. Now, to be fair, this has been foreshadowed up until this point, since the writers knew it was just as big of a deus ex machina as the Wicked Witch being allergic to water, but it’s been very shoehorned into dialogue, so the death is still a bit frustrating. Still, it’s no dumber than the villain’s defeat in the classic film, so I guess I can’t be too upset.

It is revealed that Mombi has been holding the true heir of Oz, Princess Ozma (Emma Ridley) captive, so she is returned to power and the Emerald City is restored. A parade takes place through the streets of the capital, with Mombi held captive in a wagon.

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Dorothy still wants to go home for… some reason. Look, I get why in the first one she wanted to return home, because her family was actually made up of good people, but what is she going back to here? An uncle who’s just a bum and an aunt who thinks she needs electroshock therapy? Come on, stay in Oz.

When she gets back to Kansas, she finds that Dr. Worley has died trying to save his medical equipment, and the evil nurse has been arrested for some reason, mainly just because Mombi was in Oz. It’s kind of left ambiguous as to whether Oz is a real place as in Baum’s book or a dream as in the MGM film, but it leans towards the former, as Dorothy smiles at Ozma in her mirror at the end of the film.

It has a really slow start, but ultimately, Return to Oz has a lot going for it. Most of all, it’s a wonderful experience visually. The few bad shots and effects aside, the stop motion in the Nome King’s palace is really wonderful to look at, often beautiful, often haunting, and the sets are just breathtaking.

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The design of the Nome King especially is really effective, while still allowing for Nicol Williamson to give a truly commanding performance. I just really love the look of Oz in this film, especially after the Emerald City is restored. It actually makes me wish the creative team behind this had attacked the original story as well (with perhaps a different actress playing Dorothy), because I want to see more of this Oz. David Shire’s musical score is also quite grand, always lending the right music to the scenes. It’s big without being overbearing, and it blends in to the feel of the film perfectly.

I mocked the early scenes for not really having a heart or a brain, but the later scenes do at least have heart. It’s still not that smart of a screenplay, but everything else makes up for it. If nothing else, it sure has courage, unafraid to throw scary things on screen at every turn. Besides the whole shock therapy stuff, which goes on way too long, and is too realistically scary for a kids movie, it really works well. Let’s check out the final score.

Story (13/30 Points)

It’s the weakest factor in the whole film. The prologue in Kansas goes too long and too dark, and the early Oz scenes just feel like the first film. Once they get to the Nome King’s palace, it gets interesting, but it’s halfway through by that point.

Returning Characters (6/15 Points)

Fairuza Balk isn’t great as Dorothy, especially in comparison to Judy Garland, but she does carry the movie adequately. Aunt Em and Uncle Henry apparently became horrible people since the last film, and we see very little of any other character from the original.

New Characters (10/15 Points)

Tik-Tok is hilarious and entirely lovable, and the Nome King is coolly threatening, until becomingly terrifyingly threatening. Most of the others are just kinda meh from Jack Pumpkinhead to Mombi, but Billina the chicken is absolutely grating to listen to.

Experience (18/20 Points)

It’s a gorgeous film to look at, with wonderful musical scores and unique effects that mostly all hold up. I love the Oz it creates.

Originality (12/20 Points)

In some ways, it’s a very original film in comparison to the classic. In others, it’s definitely trying to be the 1939 film over again. By the end, it’s become its own beast, but it takes time.

FINAL SCORE: 59%

Return to Oz is a major cult classic today, and I understand why. It trusts the children in the audience with darker material, and it has a lot of unique features while still feeling like an Oz story. I don’t love it, but if you don’t expect the first film again, there are things you’ll enjoy.

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