director Walter Murch
It was, I think, the somewhat limited wonders of Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) and the historical diminishment of films we’ve watched in the kids’ memories that led me to re-queue Return to Oz, which we watched some five years ago. Given the Sam Raimi film’s box office success, much like the newly minted Disney Star Wars franchise, L. Frank Baum’s Oz looks to be increasingly prevalent in popular culture and cineplexes.
Return to Oz, director Walter Murch’s 1985 stab at the Baum stories, was a washout in its day, though it has gone on to cult status in its legacy. Based on a mashup of Baum’s 2nd and 3rd Oz books, The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, it lacks the opulence of the MGM classic The Wizard of Oz (1939) but its darker nature and more traditional FX make it substantially more satisfying than the computer-generated fantasies of Oz the Great and Powerful.
The young Fairuza Balk plays the role of Dorothy, with the big ruby slippers to fill of Judy Garland, she deports herself quite well. Dorothy is in a funk back in Kansas. Nobody believes her Oz stories. In fact, they want to give her electro-shock therapy. When a storm and power-outage gives her chance to escape, she finds herself in a swollen river and wakes up in a different part of Oz.
Things are bad here, too. The Nome King and Mombi the witch have stripped the Emerald City of its jewels, turned its people into stone (and stolen the heads of the women), and now let the bizarre Wheelers run rampant over the city. It’s up to Dorothy, Tik-Tok (a mechanical man/army of Oz), Jack Pumpkinhead (brought to life by the Powder of Life), a Gump, and Dorothy’s chicken Billina to find the Scarecrow and defeat the villains.
The effects use puppetry, stop-motion animation, and other real world camera tricks to evoke the magically strange world of Oz. The animation of the Nome King and his henchrock are very cleverly animated in stop-motion, in one of the film’s most eerie effects. It’s also kind of nice how the character designs reference back to W.W. Denslow’s illustrations from the books versus their MGM incarnations or something different.
The film is dark. If you didn’t pick up on that from the electro-shock therapy, maybe the witch switching heads or the evil, mad Wheelers can give you the nightmares that you so desire.
The kids both enjoyed the film. I think quite well. I have yet to fully query them on it since its had time to set in.
For me, I liked it even better this time through. Cult film or not, it’s a weird, earnest piece of fantasy filmmaking.