- 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 Oz. Return 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.
Speaking of makeovers, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry look about 20 years younger than the previous film.
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.
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.
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.
Well alright, I’ll try my best.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Oh alright, that’s actually a pretty creepy design.
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.
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.
In prison, Dorothy meets Jack Pumpkinhead, a jack-o-lantern brought to life by Mombi’s magic powder…
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.
Hey, at least the extras from George Harrison music videos didn’t get typecast.
The Mombi scenes are visually gorgeous to look at, especially the lavish palace…
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.
Follow the plot of the first
Follow the plot of the first
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.
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.
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).
When only Dorothy remains, the Nome King reveals that he has the Ruby Slippers.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.