Return to Oz (1985): Looking back at Disney’s dark classic

Return to Oz (1985)

Return to Oz is a title that comes with a lot of baggage. Frightening childhood memories, a confused critical reaction and a now adult cult following it’s a film that’s been different things at different times, to different people.

If it’s been a few years, or decades, since you last saw Return, there’s no time like the present to get re-acquainted with this oft-misunderstood film. And if this is your first time down the yellow brick road… put on your ruby slippers, click your heels three times, and watch out for Wheelers. You’re not in Kansas anymore.

The film reunites audiences with Dorothy Gale, six months after her original adventure in the Land of Oz. Her family is on hard times, stretched for cash and without a permanent home with the harsh Kansas winter fast approaching.

Dorothy hasn’t slept a full night since the tornado hit. She lies awake, dreaming of Oz and living in a fantasy world her caregivers are getting fed up with. When her aunt and uncle borrow enough money to send her to a new-age “electro-therapy” clinic (where a quack doctor uses electrocution as a cure-all), she finds herself back in her beloved Oz – only this time, something is wrong.

The yellow brick road is a rotting ruin, the Emerald City a crumbling husk, and the Land of Oz itself deserted – the populace either turned to stone, or missing altogether.

It’s up to Dorothy and a new group of friends – including a clockwork soldier, a scarecrow with a pumpkin for a head, and talking hen – to find out what’s become of her old friends and their world.

Return to Oz (1985)

While the original Wizard of Oz film feels like a mostly benevolent fantasy (aside from the whole flying monkeys thing), Return to Oz is more like an acid trip gone slightly awry.

Walter Murch’s Oz is a dark fantasy in the same vein as The Never Ending Story, Labyrinth and Ridley Scott’s Legend. There are no musical numbers this time around, and the rainbow-bright happiness of the Judy Garland days have become tarnished, and just a little tragic. Murch, a sound designer and film editor by trade, creates a rich, otherworldly atmosphere that more often than not borders on horror rather than whimsy.

In fact, the bad guys in Return are the stuff children’s nightmares are made of.

Return to Oz (1985)

The wheelers – lanky nightmares on wheels – are at least as creepy as the original flying monkeys. They cruise around the ruins of the Emerald City laughing manically and wearing grotesque face masks, but it’s their inhuman, Freddy Krueger-esque proportions that make them so unpleasant.

Then there’s Princess Mombi, a dark queen who doesn’t change her gown – but her head – depending on the occasion. And of course, the Nome King – a molten monarch who rules a stony underground kingdom, trying to reclaim all those precious emeralds the capital city of Oz stole from his domain long ago.

All told, it’s a mostly unnerving, if not scary, experience for a child. It’s no wonder then, that Return to Oz did not exactly perform as hoped at the box office.

The film came out to mixed reviews (the major complaint being, of course, the bleak mood and creepy characters), and lost at the box office. With a whopping $25 M budget, it grossed just over $11 M domestically. It’s since developed quite a cult following.

Return to Oz (1985)

L. Frank Baum’s original books provide such a rich source material to draw on, I would have liked to see the film run even longer, and bore and little deeper into the backstory of Oz and the new characters. But at one hour and 45 minutes, Disney was no doubt already pushing their limits of how long a children’s film could  and should run.

Drawing on both The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, the plot tends to move along at a pretty fast clip. Nothing essential (save for the unmentioned fate of Glinda, the Good Witch) is left out, but it does leave you wanting more in the way of lore exposition.

The single failure of this film, if you ask me, is the portrayal of the original Scarecrow. Though he only makes an appearance toward the end of the film, it’s a disappointing one. They give him a kind of static, grotesquely happy cartoon face that doesn’t really move when he speaks. The camera does its best to avoid his face, but sometimes it can’t be helped.

When you think about it, it makes sense that a scarecrow would have a drawn-on, overly expressive but unmoving face. After all, his head is simply burlap sack with some features pasted on. But the original film did the character so brilliantly, it’s nearly impossible to get Ray Bolger’s face out of your head while you watch. In the end, he comes off as just another frightening, weirded-out element of Return to Oz.

Return to Oz (1985)

Speaking of actors, it has to be said that Return’s cast (don’t hate me for this) are the equal of their 1939 counterparts in performance. The voice acting from Sean Barrett and Brian Hensonand – who played Tik Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead, is excellent. The physical actors portraying and puppeteering them should also be praised.

Jean Marsh and Nicol Williamson as Mombi and the Nome King, respectively, are wonderfully creepy villains perhaps even on par with Margaret Hamilton’s original performance as the Wicked Witch of the West. And Denise Bryer as Bilina the talking hen provides some desperately needed and genuinely funny  dry wit. Quite an improvement over her canine predecessor. No offence, Toto.

Finally, the always alluring Fairuza Balk is oddly entrancing in her debut feature film performance as Dorothy. Imagine the task before her in 1985 – following Judy Garland’s legendary performance, 40 years later. In this writer’s opinion, she does Garland proud by making the character all her own.

Return to Oz (1985)

The special effects and cinematography are surprisingly ageless. Murch and Disney’s combination of rich costuming, some green-screen here and there, and those unforgettable Claymation effects, have managed to stand the test of time.

All told, there have been 24 film adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books over the last 100 years. From the first silent era productions to the recent Oz the Great and Powerful, none have captured the dark oddity of the source material quite like Walter Much’s film.

And though it may have been a commercial failure in its own time, 30 years later it has blossomed into something special. Watch it as a timeless dark fantasy, watch it as the Edgar Allen Poe remix to the 1931 Wizard of Oz, or watch it as an oddly macabre blip on the Disney radar — just watch it.





Akira (1988): Revisiting the classic anime 26 years later

Akira (1988)

In 1988, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira hit cinema screens across the world, challenging North American ideas about what a ‘cartoon’ could and should be, and becoming the vanguard for anime as a mainstream medium in the West.

Twenty-six years later, the landmark science fiction film has well and truly been canonized as a classic. It’s a movie that, as The Guardian’s Phelim O’Neill puts it, “refuses to become dated.”

And if you still haven’t seen it… where have you been?

The film follows Tetsuo and Kaneda – two biker punks in the William Gibson-inspired city of Neo Tokyo, in the year 2019. Not yet out of their teenage years, the boys’ lives are already a premature conclusion – die at the hands of some rival biker gang and become another anonymous stain on the road – or end up in jail. That is, until a chance encounter with a being beyond human.

His run-in with a grotesquely mutated child on a lonely stretch of dead highway leads Testuo to develop radically powerful telekinetic abilities. With his own insanity growing in tandem with his power, Tetsuo cuts a swathe through anything and everything that tries to stop his destructive advance through Neo Tokyo.

What is he so desperately trying to get to? To the voice in his head that calls him day and night, to the pain in his mind that won’t go away – to Akira.

Akira (1988)

Re-watching Akira

With Akira, you get two narrative styles in one. A grounded, plot-driven Cyberpunk adventure and an Evangelion-style philoso-dream.

The film starts off a coming of age story with a hard science fiction backdrop. The first half is all about Kaneda and Testuo’s friendship, their gang, their bikes, and their girls. It’s a violent tale of troubled youth, punctured by a little humour, an apocalypse story, and the creeping tendrils of the film’s own brand of techno-mysticism.

It’s that mysticism, that Cyberpunk philosophy, that envelopes the second half. Toward the final act, the previously hard plotlines of Kaneda’s girl-chasing adventures in domestic terrorism, Testuo’s jealousy issues and the dystopian government’s psychic child experiments begin to drift away. They eventually give way entirely to a metaphor filled, dream-like treatise on … the end of the world? Man as God? Technology vs spirit? Who knows really.

You can interpret the ending (which I won’t give away here) in any way you choose – it’s certainly vague enough. You could even decide to switch your brain off and simply enjoy all those cool laser bazookas and Dragonball Z style power fights. There’s no wrong way to watch it.

However you choose to experience Akira, there’s one thing I’m certain of — your first time watching will not be your last.

Akira (1988)

Visually speaking

Akira was made during what I’d consider the pinnacle of cell animation in Japan – the late 1980s and early 1990s. With the exception of a few specific studios and animators (Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, for example), animation in Japan would never again reach the same levels of detail, fluidity, skill and beauty it did in that decade before the millennium.

To that point, the violence in the rated-R Akira is unnervingly visceral, and stunningly animated.

The scenes of mass protests, shootings and biker fights are bloody enough, but it’s the “body-horror” (to borrow a phrase from David Cronenberg) that really makes you cringe. I’m talking of course about Testuo’s horrific transformation near the finale of the film.

When his powers outstrip his own ability to control them, Tetsuo explodes into an enormous mass of flesh in parody of human form. If you haven’t seen the film, it’s something like you’d find in John Cartpenter’s The Thing, or any David Cronenberg movie from the ’80s, just on a grand scale.

What begins as an artificial arm he – somehow – materializes from the inanimate metal junk lying at his feet, Tetsuo’s body creates limbs of its own and rebels against him, shooting out toward friend and foe alike, growing rapidly and swallowing human beings whole inside it.

It is perhaps the unforgettable scene in the film, and the effect has never been perfectly replicated, before or since, in animation or live action.

Akira (1988)

The sound of violence

One spends so much of the film in awe of Akira’s visuals, it would be too easy to overlook the soundtrack, which itself is an understated coup of atmosphere.

The backing music is a combination of organic sounding xylophone percussion, 1980s style drum snares and those unmistakable “DUMM” hits. It makes for a film that feels very 1980s and somehow timeless, all at once.

Have a listen blow for an example:

Those aforementioned thunderous “DUMM” hits, often timed to be in sync with the action, conjure up an aura of celestial dread that fits Tetsuo’s violent ascent to godhood like a glove. It’s a soundtrack that would not be out of place in a production like Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Character driven

Bad science fiction has a tendency to lean on visuals or techno jargon to cover up poor writing. This is not the case with Akira, where the characters are interesting, the plot engrossing, and the storytelling (at least for the first 3/4 of the film) fast-paced.

If I had one criticism of the script, it would be its total refusal to give Tetsuo any empathetic qualities and make him the anti-hero he could be, instead of the villain he is.

We should be feel conflicted about him — and at some point we should even be rooting for him.  After all, what is Tetsuo really but a troubled soul, an underdog, who succumbed to the abyss of power via his own personal insecurities and inferiority complexes? Instead, Akira plays it pretty black and white, with Tetsuo possessing few if any redeeming qualities and Kaneda picking up the anti-hero slack.

We can probably chalk much of the script’s success (as well as its shortcomings) up to the source material, the Akira manga. And bringing an eight-year, six-volume serialized comic to life in a two hour anime format is no small task. Especially when said comic wasn’t even finished when production on Akira began.

Akira (1988)

Dub vs. dub

The 25th anniversary DVD/Blu-ray isn’t the definitive Akira release it could have been, but it does include three versions of the film: the original remastered Japanese audio, 1988 English dub from Streamline Pictures, and the 2011 English re-dub from Pioneer. The re-dub is, as you’d expect, the superior version. The audio quality is much higher, the voice acting improved and the translation tweaked.

That original Streamline dub has a tendency to botch the pronunciation of Japanese phrases and names, especially “Kaneda”, and you can really hear the difference in production quality when you watch each version side by side.

There is something endearing about the cheesy acting and badly delivered lines in the ’88 version though, and the physic children’s voices are played more sinister, which I like.

It’s also worth noting that through slightly altered dialogue, Streamline seems to consciously paint the Tetsuo character in a more sympathetic light than Pioneer. This, all while using the exact same source material and a largely similar translation.

Click here for an eye-opening comparison of the two productions, where audio from one dub is inserted into a scene from the other.

Akira (1988)

It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 25 years since Akira first raced into theatres. A lot can change in a quarter century, but this is one thing that hasn’t. Katsuhiro Otomo’s entrancing masterpiece is still as thrilling as I remember it, and  I’d like to think that 25 years from now, I’ll still be watching it.

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