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Review: Return to Oz (1985)

Return to Oz (1985)

Directed by: Walter Murch

Premise: A follow up to The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) insists that her adventures in the land of Oz were real and is sent to a psychiatrist for electroshock therapy. She escapes and finds herself back in Oz but the Emerald City has been destroyed and its citizens have been turned to stone.

What Works: In the early 1980s Walt Disney Studio’s film division was in a slump. The last of the classic animated films had ended in the 1970s with Robin Hood and The Rescuers and their animated features wouldn’t pick up again in a meaningful way until the early 1990s with the release of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. However, during this period Disney did release some interesting live action movies including TRON, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Flight of the Navigator. The 1980s also saw the release of a significant number of live action fantasy films by other Hollywood studios including The Neverending Story, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth. It is in this context that Return to Oz was made and like many of its contemporaries it remains an interesting and original picture. What is most notable about Return to Oz is how bold it is. So many current fantasy movies like 2010’s Alice in Wonderland or 2013’s Jack the Giant Slayer are processed into cinematic porridge, drowning anything potentially distinctive in a wash of gloss and grounding down the edge to the point of negating the drama. Return to Oz does not do that and nearly two decades after its initial release the movie is pleasantly startling because of it. Return to Oz does not try to recapture the 1939 film. Instead of the stagy production design of the earlier movie, Return to Oz has a weathered and lived-in look that suits the dark tone of the story. When Dorothy arrives in Oz she discovers that the yellow brick road has been destroyed and the movie often has frightening imagery such as Mombi (played by Jean Marsh) replacing her head at will. Compared to the upbeat tenor of the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz, Return to Oz is decidedly downbeat and the filmmakers’ willingness to push boundaries and put Dorothy in jeopardy makes her heroic and puts something meaningful at stake. This film is distinguished as a picture in its own right even while it uses the basic story design of the 1939 film. Return to Oz introduces a new group of companions for Dorothy: Jack Pumpkinhead, Tik-Tok, Gump, and Billina the talking chicken. Although they do recall the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion of the earlier story, these new characters are distinct and the filmmakers create the illusion of personhood in them. The modest special effects through which the characters are made are generally very charming and the organic qualities of this film make it engaging in ways that many fantasy movies of the digital era are not.

What Doesn’t: Return to Oz is only a partial sequel to the 1939 film. It makes use of innovations of the earlier picture, namely the ruby slippers, but it is intended to stand as a film in its own right and ought to be evaluated as such. The movie does have some significant faults; this is not a lost classic. The plot is complicated and younger viewers may struggle to make sense of it. The story of Return to Oz is thin but so was the narrative of The Wizard of Oz. Because the 1939 film is a product of a different time and because it is considered a classic a lot of its narrative problems are generally overlooked. Return to Oz does not have those saving graces and so its flaws stand out. The movie’s special effects, although charming, are also quite dated and some of the returning characters, namely the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion, aren’t very convincing.

DVD extras: Trailer, TV spots, interview with Fairuza Balk.

Bottom Line: Return to Oz was not a hit at the time of its original release in 1985 but in the years since it has become a cult favorite. The movie is worth a look by young and old alike, especially by viewers who enjoy fantasy stories. Although it isn’t as timeless as The Wizard of Oz and doesn’t have the sheen of Oz the Great and Powerful, Return to Oz does have artistic ambitions all its own and personal touches that distinguish it from Hollywood’s mass produced fairytales.

Episode: #342 (March 24, 2013)