Director: Walter Murch
Cast: Fairuza Balk
Return to Oz is a direct sequel to MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (1939). The only difference being that Return to Oz was produced by Walt Disney Pictures and not by MGM. You see by 1985, all the Oz books had fallen under public domain, so anybody who wanted to, and had the money to do it, could make a film based on these books. So Disney jumped at the chance and made this sequel with director Walter Murch at the helm. How did this film fare in the public’s eye?
I’ve never really understood why this film didn’t become a huge hit in theaters! It’s such an excellent production! The film takes elements from two of the Oz novels by L Frank Baum: Ozma of Oz and The Marvelous Land of Oz. It picks up right where MGM’s Wizard of Oz (1939) left off, with Dorothy back in Kansas, striving to make people believe everything she saw in her adventures on the wonderful Land of Oz. This is where the film takes a turn towards the dark side, because Dorothy is then treated as a mental patient, and taken to a lunatic asylum by her aunt May. I can’t really say Aunt May did the wrong thing, after all, Dorothy is talking non stop about a place no one has ever seen or heard of. A land with talking scarecrows, lions and witches! So the idea to send Dorothy to a mental Asylum is actually a logical one.
And that’s probably one of the reasons why the film wasn’t a huge hit in theaters. This film is so dark! In comparison to its brightly colored predecessor, this film starts out and continues to be extremely bleak in nature all through out! I mean, Dorothy ends up in a mental institution, and not only that, her psychiatrist decides that it’s best to treat Dorothy with electro shock therapy! Suddenly, that image of the innocent beautiful Dorothy that everyone has from the old 1939 film is wiped out of our minds and replaced by a little girl with a delusional mind! But really, when you think about it, the whole trip to Oz in the first film only happened in Dorothy’s mind. She dreamed the whole thing up when she was knocked unconscious by the tornado. So in reality, Dorothy, the beloved heroine of these films is actually a little crazy in the head. And this film had no problems in exploring that. It asks the audience the question: isn’t Dorothy a little crazy for truly believing in all these Oz stories? Nutty or not, its great that Dorothy visits the Land of Oz, cause visiting Oz is the true highlight of these Oz films. In films of this nature, like for example Pans Labyrinth, Labyrinth or Where the Wild Things Are; the true delight comes when we visit the fantasy world to which the child escapes to.
On this Oz film we get to see our old friends The Scarecrow, The Cowardly Lion and The Tin Man again
So, what about the Land of Oz this time around? Again, the film takes a turn towards darker territory then the 1939 version ever did. Instead of a bright and colorful Land of Oz, filled with munchkins and talking trees, we get an abandoned city with people who have been turned to stone! Emerald City is in ruins because the Gnome King (the films major villain) has taken all the emeralds from Emerald City and he’s taken the ruby slippers for himself! This evil king has forgotten about the people of the Land of Oz, a once thriving city, alive with wonder and sparkle. This in my opinion is where this film takes a turn towards the subversive side. Dorothy recognizes Oz is in trouble because it has an evil king in power. So her plan is to get her ruby slippers and dethrone that evil Gnome bastard and get the good king (the beloved Scarecrow) back in command so that Emerald City can thrive and live again in happiness. We are presented with interesting new characters like Jack, a scarecrow with a Pumpkin for a head, Tic Toc, a robot from the robotic army of Oz and a talking couch. Oh, and Dorothy has a talking chicken named Bellina with her as a companion through out the whole movie.
When comparing Wizard of Oz with Return to Oz, some might think this sequel goes into heavier territory thematically, because its all about Dorothy’s “dementia”. In reality, the original Wizard of Oz was pretty heavy to begin with as well. I’ve always thought that Wizard of Oz was a very daring film, specially with the ideas that it’s trying to put across. Lets see, In Wizard of Oz Dorothy has to go down the yellow brick road (life) where she meets up with three friends in need (friends we make in life) and they have to go the Emerald City (heaven) where an all powerful magician (God) will solve all of their problems (poverty, hunger, war, decease, death) by giving them what they need (peace, food, everlasting life, health). But in the end, we discover that the “all powerful Oz” is actually just a man in disguise (a religious leader) who has been lying to people all along about his “powers” (religious mythology). The characters end up learning that all they had to really do is believe in themselves. In other words, Wizard of Oz is actually a film unmasking the falseness of religion and teaching us to believe in our own minds, our own hearts and our own courage. Our own inner strength and not to rely on some all powerful invisible deity whom we have never seen, that is supposed to solve all our problems. According to the Wizard of Oz, its not up to the Wizard, making life better is up to us! Pretty heavy stuff right there. So it comes as no surprise to me that Return to Oz also plays with heavy subject matter. Namely, the need to identify an evil, greedy government that cares nothing for its people and turns them into stone (a great metaphor for how people get when they suffer and strive to survive under the yoke of an abusive government) and replace it with a good one. So in essence, these two films attack two great evils in society, religion and despotic goverments.
Return to Oz has lush production values, great art direction, wonderful stop motion animation, great visual effects, great acting and a great script….so why exactly did this film tank at the box office? I really don’t get it. It’s a worthy sequel, a class a production. My best guess is that the film might be too dark and spooky for children. People had in mind the bright colored musical version from the 30’s, so visually by comparison; this film is spookier, darker and more gothic. The whole sequence with Dorothy in the mental asylum is very dark in tone, with a thunder storm looming in the background of the dark rooms in the insane asylum. There’s a character called Princess Mombi who has a collection of detached heads and switches them from time to time. She lives in an isolated castle in Emerald City, haunted by the ghost of Ozma. Spooky imagery there as well, but then again, didn’t the 1939 version have a witch in a castle? With flying evil monkeys?
Fairuza Balk is positively cute as the little Dorothy. She was a great actress right from the get go. The film was directed by Walter Murch, who had never directed a film in his life prior to this one. He was an editor, and a sound mixer on various academy award nominated films, winning various Academy Awards for his work. This films disastrous box office performance was probably what destroyed any chance of him ever getting a chance to direct a film again. Return to Oz stands as his one and only effort as a director. But I say he should feel damn proud of his job here, the film is a worthy sequel to the original, and in some ways, a better production then the original. It’s not a musical, it’s not colorful or happy, but that does not make it a bad film. It just makes it stand out as a different, darker take on the Oz universe. Give this movie a chance if you haven’t seen it yet, you won’t regret it!
Rating: 5 out of 5