FilmBuff’s Vaults: 'Return to Oz'

By Morgan Leger

Return to Oz!

“The Wizard of Oz” is a film that can be hard to describe, and it’s hard to explain how it amazes the audience. For a film from the late ‘30s, it’s an impressive landmark in storytelling and special effects.
However, not too many fans of the film look back to the original novel that was written by L. Frank Baum. Charming as it seems, it contained material and scenes that were much darker than the light-hearted classic. Still, fans never thought they would see the day when another Oz film would be made – one that would rely on the more mature content that was in Baum’s original series.
The way that “Return to Oz” was made can be summarized in less than two sentences: Baum’s” Oz” books were placed in the public domain for a while in the 1980s and thus, Walt Disney Pictures took the opportunity to create a sequel to the novel rather than to the 1939 film. In fact, you would never think Disney would create a darker version of a happy and magical land that exists in the mind of a little girl. But either way, they did.
This time, we meet a much younger Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) who still questions whether Oz was a real place or just in her imagination. Her uncle and aunt think she is still delusional from the tornado and think the only solution is to send her to a mental institution. As she tries to enjoy her unwelcome stay, the doctor (Nicol Williamson) decides to give shock treatment to rid her memories and dreams of the fantasy land of which she thinks fondly.
Once she escapes from the asylum, she finds a way to Oz at last, but this time its not the paradise it was when she left it. The yellow brick road is worn out and destroyed, Emerald City is entirely crystallized and bleak, and her old pals are either turned to stone or lost. It’s revealed that the merry old land was taken over by the tyrannical Nome King (also Nicol Williamson) and the villainous witch Mombi (Jean Marsh, who also plays the head nurse in Dorothy’s reality).
The interesting thing about Mombi is that she literally can’t decide on a good look for her head. She is actually a headless witch who keeps a great variety of faces locked up in separate display cases and has no true pick.
 However, she has an interest in having Dorothy as her next “choice” once she ages. This wicked witch may not have the terrifying cliches as Margot Hamilton’s green-skinned counterpart, but what works is how you don’t expect her to be fearful until the headless revelation. Creative as it is, it can be very frightening to see a headless body chasing after a young girl.
As for the Nome King, he can be scary at times, too. He appears to act like a trustworthy nobleman at first, but builds up to show just how eerie and cold-hearted this character can be when he threatens our main character to perform his task or enter a massive fire pit. While he does these cruel acts, he still manages to maintain his bittersweet but creepy charm. The choice of having him depicted as a stop-motion animation creature (created by Will Vinton and performed through his then-groundbreaking Claymation) and a live actor is a very odd but interesting choice. The idea is that he wants Oz to be forgotten. Therefore, the fewer memories of Oz, the more real he literally becomes.
On a positive note, Dorothy has some allies including a talking chicken, a human-sized stick figure with a pumpkin head (surprisingly voiced by Brian Henson), a wind-up dwarf robot that has great combat skills and a flying sofa with ferns for wings and a talking moose head attached to it. These oddball characters provide plenty of comic relief but somehow, it’s not the same without the classic quadruplet from the other and more familiar adaptation of Oz.
In fact, the main problem lies in how this differs from MGM’s well-known hit in terms of tone, style, and look. Audiences and critics alike were not accustomed to seeing a little girl facing these horrors as opposed to someone like Judy Garland and a darker atmosphere which left some younger viewers disturbed. Even if it flopped at the box office, “Return to Oz” has gained a better reputation over the years and seen better days with the cult audience that grew in time. As a film for older audiences, it works as a metaphorical trip into the mind to show the darkness of reality invading one’s dreams and at times a look on what is truly real and imaginary. For younger audiences, they will mostly see it as a horror film or one nightmarish journey through the Oz they never knew and won’t forget.
My conclusion: Parents should wait until their kids are old enough to handle dark films like this. But if they can handle seeing decapitated heads that talk and creepy minions that have wheels for hands and feet, it will make a great introduction to scary flicks for the kids and a perfect thriller for the entire family.