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