Return to Oz

Year 1985

Fairuza Balk as   Dorothy Gale  
Nicol Williamson   as Dr. Worley / The Gnome King  
Jean Marsh as Nurse Wilson / Witch Mombi
Piper Laurie as Aunt Em
Matt Clark as Uncle Henry  
Michael Sundin as Tik-Tok (voice)  
Brian Henson as Jack Pumpkinhead (voice)  
Lyle Conway as Gump (voice)  
Denise Bryer as Billina (voice)  
Director - Walter Murch
Screenwriters - Gill Dennis
  - Walter Murch
Novelist - L. Frank Baum

You know those stories and movies where a child hero has to stop the evil D&D wizard from gaining power? This movie starts at the point where the hero would have failed and the evil wizard has taken over for about ten years. This Oz is a dark, dystopian, post-apocalyptic ruin and it's up to Dorothy Gale (Balk) to restore the light.

This might be a children's movie thanks to the special effects, but because some of the scenes are borderline scary in their imagery, I wouldn't recommend it for young ones. It's not excessively spooky or even kinky like the Mexican movie El gato con botas (Puss in Boots) which was targeted to a child audience. Nor is it as bloody as Mad Max, another example of a post-apocalyptic alternate universe. It's dark like the Mexican movie and it's as bleak as Mad Max, but it's still an L. Frank Baum story so it retains that fairy tale feel.

I'd like to categorize this as a "little" movie, and cut it a lot of slack. But it's a Disney movie (Really? Disney? Yes and yes, again.) and the production values are evident. Oh, it's not top-tier Disney, but it's 1980's Disney. Think The Black Hole without any attempt to be cute and you get the idea. So, I can't judge it as I would a low-budget effort.

As for Return to Oz and the plot, keep in mind that Oz was not always a wonderful place filled with singing and dancing midgets calling themselves "Munchkins" because "midgets" was too demeaning. In the iconic movie, The Wizard of Oz, my sympathy was with the "evil" witch. Her sister was accidentally killed by Dorothy and to rub salt into the wound of bereavement, Dorothy stole the deceased's most prized possession - the pair of ruby slippers. As the only living heir, the still living sister is entitled to those ruby slippers. They belonged to her dead sister! And Dorothy has, for all intents and purposes, stolen them.

Actually, it was that witch Glinda, the "good" witch, who coveted the slippers and eagerly offered up Dorothy as a sacrifice by sticking those slippers on Dorothy's feet. Glinda knew that the surviving sibling would kill anyone wearing those slippers so Glinda, being a weak powered coward of a witch, gave them to a child hoping that the child would either kill the evil witch or die in the attempt. I never liked Glinda, and now I know why! She deliberately set up a young girl to be killed so that she could gain access to the items of power.

But Dorothy won out, gave the slippers to Glinda, and went home. Everything was A-OK, or was it?

Now we come to Return to Oz. Everything is NOT A-OK. It's not even "A". It's "O" for Oz. Dorothy thinks about it all of the time. She can't even sleep through the night because she's thinking about Oz. She sees a shooting star and that's a sign from Oz. She finds a key and it seems to be from Oz.

Now is where it gets creepy and kind of real. The house where Dorothy lives is still being repaired of tornado damage by her Uncle Henry (Clark) and he might have a drinking problem, Does Aunt Em (Laurie) love Dorothy or is she a bit of a sadist who wants to get rid of the burden of having to raise a child that is not her own? Does she hate Dorothy because she can have no children of her own? This movie makes you ask these questions. Especially after Aunt Em is hauling Dorothy away to see Dr. Worley (Williamson) for electroshock therapy.

The insane asylum where Aunt Em drops off Dorothy is a gothic nightmare containing weird devices and screaming patients. At one point, Dorothy is bound to a gurney and taken to the room to have her brain fried. (Really!) The storm of the century saves her from the torture and the next thing she knows, she's back in Oz. This time she's without Toto but instead has a talking chicken named Billina as a companion. The chicken sounds like Marjorie Main (Ma Kettle) and the voice gets old fast. Really, really fast.

This Oz is filled with danger. Just for starters there's the Deadly Desert whose touch turns living things to sand.

This Oz is also in a state of entropy. The Yellow Brick Road is choked with weeds, the Emerald City is collapsing, and the people have been turned to stone.

Villains? Forget about your witch with flying monkey minions. Now you have Mombi (Marsh) with her Wheeler minions. Before I tell you about Wheelers, let me tell you about Mombi. She wears a great outfit with metal spikes sticking out of the back and she can change heads. Pop one off and an a new one on. She changes heads more often than she changes that cool dress. As for the Wheelers, they have no hands or feet - just wheels. In their metallic, nearly discothèque ready, suits with overly long arms, they are quite unsettling.

There's also The Gnome King (Williamson again) who owns all rocks and is particularly fond of emeralds. Those used to build the Emerald City were, in his opinion, stolen from him. He took them back so that's why the city is in ruins.

There's no lion or tin man to accompany Dorothy this time (although they make an appearance after they're no longer petrified). This time there's Tik-Tok (a wind up man), Jack Pumpkinhead (a sort of scarecrow, but not really), and a combination couch, gump head (a green moose with deer antlers), and palm leave living contraption. If you can handle not involving the lion, tin man, or scarecrow, then these three new companions will fill in nicely.

There are occasional example's of Baum's sense of humor. Tic-Tok needs to have his brain wound and also his speech box. In one scene, his brain ran down but he kept babbling. There was a line about how that happens often where a person's brain shuts down but they keep talking anyway. So, there's humor here along with the dark atmosphere.

And there's claymation. Yes! The lair of The Gnome King is often depicted using stop motion clay figures. It is very cleverly done.

The movie has a happy ending. I recommend it for Halloween if you're sick of vampires, zombies, psychopathic mutilators, and oversized lizards. This one is different and worth a look. No nudity, blasphemy, or profanity. It has some chick flick potential because there's a female protagonist and there's the whole Oz thing. Although Return to Oz is a sequel to The Wizard of Oz it's a completely different presentation of the same land of fantasy.

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