(1985) dir. Walter Murch
Along with The Dark Crystal (1982), Labyrinth (1986), and The NeverEnding Story (1984), the Castro Theater had a mini-festival of fantasy films from the 1980’s that featured a lot of non-digital special effects, puppetry, animatronics, even stop-motion animation, in which 1985’s Return to Oz was featured. Reading about it, it sounded interesting. I’d never seen it, but those who remembered it said that they thought it was a bit “scary” for little kids, and it sounded kind of interesting. I wasn’t originally going to watch it with the kids, but in the end, decided that it was probably okay.
Oddly, I never really grew up with The Wizard of Oz (1939), the way most kids did. I think I always caught it in snippets and never really saw the thing through all the way, even though it’s one of those massively major Hollywood and Americana cultural artifacts. In fact, it wasn’t until I saw snippets of early silent-era Oz films that I became enamored with them at all.
A couple of years back, I read Land of Oz to my kids, which was too old for them at the time and also pretty far out as far as reading material, but I found it pretty fascinating. As it turns out, Return to Oz, the box office bomb of the 1980’s, is adapted from both Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, the 2nd and 3rd books in the series by L. Frank Baum, so elements of the story were resonant for me. It’s the stuff of a rich imaginative fantasy world, one older and more strange and dated, stuff from pretty much a century ago, yet still rich and strange.
The film is earnest, dedicated and occasionally kind of wonderful. There are some interesting and cool design effects. The wheelers, mad, evil four-wheeled weirdos, scoot around with long-stilted arms. Jack Pumpkinhead is a combination of puppetry and costumed actor. Mombi the witch, while not really so much a special effect, is creepy with her closet full of alternative heads, decapitated from the pretty ladies of Oz who had been turned to stone. The Nome King is also a combination of stop-motion animation, puppetry, and costumed acting, and his henchman/men, the stop-motion animated faces on the rocks, are quite eerie, too.
Dorothy is dragged back to Oz, which has been devastated by the Nome King and Mombi. But Kansas is no piece of cake either. Auntie Em and her uncle think that she’s insane and set her up for electro-shock therapy! (That was a little difficult to explain to the kids) But Dorothy, played by first time actress Fairuza Balk, escapes and disappears to Oz in a storm-engorged river, winding up, with her chicken, in Oz, on the edge of a desert that turns anything living to sand.
It’s morbid and creepy, truly. And what is Oz really? Is it literal? Metaphorical? Are Dorothy’s experiences really active delusions? It’s one of those combinations of dream and nightmare that resonate within one.
It’s not a masterpiece, but its flaws aren’t nearly so evident in some ways as one might think. Director Walter Murch wanted this film to be less about the classic 1939 predecessor and more about L. Frank Baum’s books and stories. Taken from that angle, it’s easier to comprehend. But it is always hard, if not nigh impossible to successfully follow a classic, especially with a general public that is less and less familiar with anything but it. How many families read Baum anymore? That is an interesting question because given Hollywood’s interest in creating fantasy film franchises from existing stories, Baum could be revisited again perhaps. Could be, that is. Not necessarily should be. Because if they do, it will be digital, and this film will be more anachronistic than it already is.