RETURN TO OZ (‘85) deserves a great deal more respect than what it is often granted. It’s safe to assume that 1939’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 Baum’s “OZ” 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 child’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 it’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 it’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? It’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, everyone’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 “damaged” and locked in the basement! It’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.
Dorothy’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 of…
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 “Beware the Wheelers.” 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; they’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 it’s not much worse than Aunt Em’s threat to make stew of Billina if she fails to lay eggs).
HEADLESS MOMBI. No, we’re not in Kansas anymore but we’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 Mombi’s “Power of Life” 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 witch’s headless body. No doubt about it, it all screams pure unadulterated horror.
Don’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 (it’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 she’s willing to abandon her friends and it’s obvious the very idea is unthinkable to her. Nome King and Mombi (as well as jerk-offs Doctor Worley and Nurse Wilson) clearly don’t know who they’re dealing with! Sure, RETURN TO OZ can sometimes be a dark and threatening journey for some younger viewers but I’d say the sometimes frightening dangers it presents only serve to make its larger message of perseverance and loyalty all that much stronger.