RETURN TO OZ (â€˜85) deserves a great deal more respect than what it is often granted. Itâ€™s safe to assume that 1939â€™s THE WIZARD OF OZ is held in such high regard that critics simply could not accept such a wildly divergent interpretation of L. Frank Baumâ€™s â€œOZâ€ books (even if it was more loyal to the original source material). Well, THE WIZARD OF OZ being a great, beloved classic movie does not stop RETURN TO OZ from being an incredible, one-of-a-kind, dark fantasy film. Director Walter Murch (best known for his editing and sound work on such fine films as the GODFATHER TRILOGY & APOCALYPSE NOW) delivers a gorgeously gothic and terrifically trippy steampunk world like no other that is equal parts amusing and menacing and he obtains wonderfully grounded work from the human cast while making impossible creatures convincingly come to life (with the help of many gifted claymation and practical artists including members of the Jim Henson Company). RETURN TO OZ conveys the bizarre, dream-like world of a childâ€™s imagination perfectly while being a gentle reminder of the importance of friendship (especially of the non-human variety; my favorite kind), teamwork and devotion in a dangerous, unpredictable world.
All that being said, any OZ movie worth itâ€™s salt, be it the OG, THE WIZ or RETURN has got to deliver on the kindertrauma front. The land of OZ is just not the land of OZ unless itâ€™s freaky as all hell and full of heinous child endangering witches, beasts, and monsters (oh, my!) Naturally RETURN is no slouch in this all-important area so lets take a look at its boldest strokes:
THE SANITARIUM. What better way to kick-off a colorful, high-spirited romp than visiting a dour mental institution that looks like it was painted by Edvard Munch during a particularly depressing period of his life? Itâ€™s six months after Dorothy Gale (a remarkably restrained and convincing Fairuza Balk in her screen debut) first visited Oz and Auntie Em (Piper Laurie, everyoneâ€™s favorite maternal figure) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) are worried the tyke is so delusional about her experiences that some good old electro-shock therapy is in order. The poor girl is first made to acknowledge that the electrotherapy machine has a smiling face and is soon strapped down to a squeaky wheeled gurney and prepped for the procedure. Luckily for Dorothy, there is a power outage due to a lightening strike and a kind girl frees her from her straps. The girl informs Dorothy that the screams she has been hearing are coming from previous recipients of the procedure who are now â€œdamagedâ€ and locked in the basement! Itâ€™s all very stressful and it could be said that the trauma triggers Dorothy into dissociating to the degree that she must travel back to Oz in order to process it all.
Dorothyâ€™s rescuer (Emma Ridley) becomes Princess Ozma, scary Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson) becomes the dreaded Nome King, creepy Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh) becomes evil witch-princess Mombi and her twisted assistant (Pons Maar) transforms from a squeaky gurney operator into the ring leader ofâ€¦
THE WHEELERS. Not long after Dorothy has returned to Oz with her pet chicken Billina who can now talk (Toto wisely hangs back in Kansas for this outing), she encounters some graffiti warning â€œBeware the Wheelers.â€ Soon she is surrounded by these cackling creatures with wheels rather than feet and hands who roll across the terrain doing the bidding of Wicked Witch placeholder Mombi. Wheelers are notorious for freaking out younger viewers as well they should be; theyâ€™re objectively alarming, chaotic creations who straight forwardly threaten to kill Dorothy by throwing her in the deadly desert which will turn her to sand (although itâ€™s not much worse than Aunt Emâ€™s threat to make stew of Billina if she fails to lay eggs).
HEADLESS MOMBI. No, weâ€™re not in Kansas anymore but weâ€™re not in the Oz we know and love either. The Nome king has turned all the residents of Oz into stone and Mombi has gone and grabbed a bunch of their severed heads for herself which she keeps in glass cabinets and wears as her own when it suits her. When Dorothy is captured by Mombi, her plan of escape involves procuring Mombiâ€™s â€œPower of Lifeâ€ powder which she keeps in a cabinet with her favorite noggin. Of course Mombi wakes up, all the decapitated heads wail and Dorothy narrowly escapes the rampaging witchâ€™s headless body. No doubt about it, it all screams pure unadulterated horror.
Donâ€™t worry, Dorothy can handle it. She looks fear in the face and soldiers on. She makes awesome new friends along the way like Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead, a flying couch with a green moose head called a Gump (itâ€™s a long story) and wins the respect of every single reasonable person in the land of Oz. At one point the manipulative Nome King even offers Dorothy a free trip home if sheâ€™s willing to abandon her friends and itâ€™s obvious the very idea is unthinkable to her. Nome King and Mombi (as well as jerk-offs Doctor Worley and Nurse Wilson) clearly donâ€™t know who theyâ€™re dealing with! Sure, RETURN TO OZ can sometimes be a dark and threatening journey for some younger viewers but Iâ€™d say the sometimes frightening dangers it presents only serve to make its larger message of perseverance and loyalty all that much stronger.
This movie is very near and dear to my heart. The first time I rented it, the clerk at the video store insisted on giving my mother a lengthy lecture about how it’s “not for kids” and “too dark”. Of course, my mom, being a big-time horror fan, was undaunted (thankfully!) and it became a regular weekend rental.
Also, The Wheelers haunt me to this day.
Return to Oz wasn’t necessarily too scary for me as a kid, but it definitely verged on being too weird and intense (two qualities I struggled with back then). Even so, I always found it compelling, and upon rewatching it as an adult, I consider it a really excellent film for those same reasons. But it’s not just that it’s weird and intense. It’s rare for films aimed at children to be so moody and melancholy. There aren’t really any jokes, there’s very little levity, and most importantly, while it obviously values the lore of the source material, it’s more concerned with its emotional core. It also looks great, and is a true marvel of practical effects and set design.
Sounds like you have the coolest mom! The real world is so scary I think it helps kids navigate and process things if they see some scary stuff overcome and defeated in movies from time to time! Plus scary stuff is so exhilarating and fun! And it’s very inspiring to see Dorothy so calmly deal with the wheelers. There are so many wheelers in life!
Good point! Many kindertraumas are really more about freaky, weird and off-putting stuff than actual intended horror. Anyone who has ever had a nightmare understands! I really love that RETURN TO OZ does not talk down to children and presents them as capable and worthy of being heard.
All the sanitarium stuff is so relatable to kids who have had to deal with medical exams & the horror of losing your freedom during a hospital stay.
It’s sort of like BLADE RUNNER for kids too with its concern for what makes us human and the differences between body and mind. Really brilliant stuff and an inspired fusion of the first two OZ literary sequels.
And Balk is so excellent at a time when most kid actors were super precocious and annoying. I totally believe her stalwart loyalty to her chosen family in RTO. Of course she’s also great in THE WORST WITCH and the stone cold stone classic THE CRAFT! I’d love for her to play Mombi herself one day! She’d rule!
I’ve always wondered, if for the 40th anniversary they will do what they did to Fairuza on The Sopranos and retcon her out. Only time will tell…
Ghastly1, I forgot she was on Sopranos. How dare they replace her? I had to track it down on YouTube…
Exactly, most people have. It was only aired the one time when the episode premiered and all the subsequent releases on VHS, DVD, Blu Ray, etc. feature the altered version.
Love this movie! I especially appreciate how, aside from all of the terrifying imagery, it captured the everyday unsettling things that are so frightening for children. Dorothy overhearing Aunt Em and Uncle Henry talking about the sanitarium (but not fully understanding it) was a very relatable experience for the under 12 set! I also remember being so disturbed by the blatant ways the staff at the sanitarium lies to Dorothy (“we’ll strap you down so you don’t fall out”) and then ignore her protests and reasoning. What kid didn’t have an experience like that?
I think the most upsetting moment for me was when Aunt Em said that Uncle Henry’s leg wasn’t broken anymore (“that leg’s mended, Dorothy, it’s mended”) in such a sad and despondent manner. 8-year-old me was so frazzled, wondering, “what does that mean?! If it’s mended, what is wrong with Uncle Henry?! What is Dorothy supposed to do with this information?!” The movie perfectly captures how scary it is to be very small in a complicated world where adults make decisions for you and about you, but rarely explain their motives in a way that makes sense. The best you can do is make sense of the situation through your imagination, and reclaim some control and power in an otherwise powerless scenario. Eggs can be poison for the Nome King, and all will be well!