Last week’s Disney’s blockbuster Wizard Of Oz prequel Oz The Great And Powerful opened to $150 million worldwide, making it a massive success.
However, for anyone over the age of 4, the movie was a disappointment. With Sam Evil Dead Raimi in charge of the production, the hope was he would return the series to the dark and mysterious roots of L. Frank Baum’s original Oz stories, but instead we got a big candy colored CGI festival that was child-baiting family fluff. However, there is one little glimmer of hope to curb your disappointment. If you want a dark and twisted Oz update, a rather brilliant one was made in 1985 called Return To Oz. The film is so dark that it was deemed too frightening for children upon release and bombed at the box office. Disney barely even acknowledges that they made it these days, letting the DVD release go to the indie horror studio Anchor Bay and not even bothering to crank out a Blu-ray cash-grab alongside their new blockbuster. That’s a real shame because not only is Return To Oz dramatically better than Oz The Great And Powerful, but it’s become a cult favorite amongst the few kids who saw and were terrified by it in the 80s.
Return To Oz establishes itself as a nightmare Wizard Of Oz twin from the opening Kansas sequence. While the 1939 movie played Dorothy’s Oz adventures as a dream, Return To Oz plays them as psychosis. It’s been a few months since Dorothy’s original adventure along the yellow brick road and now she can’t sleep at night. Out of concern, Auntie Em (Twin Peaks and Carrie’s Piper Laurie) sends Dorothy (The Waterboy and The Craft’s Fairuza Balk) to a psychiatrist (Nicol Williamson) who immediately decides to give the young girl electroshock therapy to wipe Oz from her memory (no, I’m not making that up). He introduces the terrifying machine as a mechanical friend for the young girl and has his equally evil nurse (Jean Marsh) lock her in a room in his asylum while he prepares to blast her brains out. Thankfully a mysterious little girl appears to break Dorothy out of the asylum and a well-timed storm whisks her back to Oz.
Now, at this point you might be expecting the movie to get bright and cheery since we’re moving out of harsh reality and into a magical land. Not so fast there, smarty pants. After arriving in Oz with a talking chicken (don’t ask), Dorothy discovers that all the munchkins have disappeared, the yellow brick road has been torn up, and the Emerald City is in ruins. All of the OZ citizens have been turned to stone (including the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion), while the crumbling walls are covered in graffiti warning Dorothy to “Beware The Wheelers.” Right on cue, those wheelers show up and they are terrifying (even to an adult) weird puppet men with wheels for hands. They introduce Dorothy to the witch Mombi (Marsh, again) who has taken over the Kingdom. Mombi has a chamber of a few dozen heads that she wears depending on her mood and hopes to claim Dorothy’s for her collection. So Dorothy flees along with her new buddies: a wind-up robot named Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead (self-explanatory), and a weird moose-couch creature. They end up confronting the creepy claymation Nome King in the hopes of freeing The Scarecrow. Unfortunately the Nome King (Williamson , again) has other plans involving a sadistic game and eating his visitors. All of this eventually leads to a happy fairy tale ending, I swear!
So, yeah. If you’ve never seen Return To Oz, reading the plot summary can be a bit of a shock. It’s a nightmare odyssey through Oz and possible madness rather than the gentle dream of the original. By the end you’ll wish the Wicked Witch and flying monkeys were around simply because they feel cuddly by comparison. That tone is more in keeping with the original books rather than the whitewashed MGM production. There are no songs and even very little comedic relief. Yet, it all works and is never less than engrossing. The movie was written/directed by Walter Murch, a longtime collaborator of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola as an editor/sound designer. It would be his only film as a director following the box office failure, which is a sad waste of talent. Murch clearly has a strong sense of visual storytelling/design. His Oz is a fully realized and unique creation that looks far more like the original illustrations for the book than the 1939 production. The film is paced extremely well and completely unpredictable, following more of a surrealist dream logic than conventional Hollywood narrative beats. He also actually cast an age appropriate 9-year-old girl as Dorothy in Fairuza Balk and not only does she deliver a magnificent performance, but her youth only makes the adventure that much more tense and frightening.
Murch was almost fired from the production for going over schedule and over budget, but that effort shows on screen. The sets are massive and evocative, while the special effects team whipped up some of the finest puppetry and stop motion of the 80s. Whether it be the creepily distinct designs of The Wheelers or the eerie shifting claymation of the Nome King, the designs of these characters feel otherworldly with a physical weight impossible to manufacture digitally. Honestly, if Murch and his effects wizards had done a worse job, I doubt anyone would have found the movie inappropriately dark. Because the world is so well-crafted, there’s not a moment where you can dismiss the movie as childish fluff. I have to confess to being absolutely terrified by Return To Oz as a child, but that was never a bad thing. Contrary to what the MPAA wants you to believe, children love being scared and that aspect only made the young Phil Brown that much more fascinated by the movie. While it might not quite match the quality of the iconic original, Murch and co. wisely tried to create their own vision of Oz rather than merely mimicking a classic and that approach worked exquisitely.
With all of it’s brilliant 80s effects, bizarre humor, and frequent scares, Return To Oz feels more like a Sam Raimi version of Oz than the movie he actually made. This is a movie that not only doesn’t try to hide the darkness of Baum’s creation, but flaunts it and creates a completely unique children’s adventure in the process. It really makes no sense to me why Disney has buried the movie since it’s initial release. Yes, it was a box office failure, but I defy you to find a child of the 80s that saw the movie who can’t vividly remember images like the Wheelers or headless witch queen today. Too often there’s a tendency amongst folks making children’s entertainment to water down their material to the dullest possible levels. That’s completely condescending and misplaced. Sure, you should probably wait for a kid to come of age before showing them Dawn Of The Dead, but there’s room for darkness in kiddie entertainment and generally speaking that’s the material that appeals most to the target audience (see the career of Tim Burton and every Grimm Fairy Tale ever written for more). As Oz The Great And Powerful begins it’s slow walk into obscurity, I urge you all to pick up Return To Oz to rediscover or maybe even watch for the first time. It might not be perfect, but it is easily one of the strangest children’s films ever made and that’s something Disney should celebrate rather than shun.