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Return To Oz (1985)

November 10th, 2008 · 9 Comments

Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) lies in bed unable to sleep. Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) confides to Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) that it’s been six months since the tornado, and all the girl does is talk about some place that doesn’t exist. On their farm in turn of the century Kansas, Dorothy finds a key with the word “Oz” emboldened on it. Aunt Em tells her it’s just the key to the old house, but Dorothy refuses to believe it. Leaving Toto behind, Dorothy is checked into a hospital run by the pompous Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson) and the nefarious Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh). When a storm knocks out the clinic’s electricity, Dorothy escapes with the help of another young patient (Emma Ridley). The girls fall into a river and are swept away.

When Dorothy regains consciousness, she finds herself in the company of a talking chicken named Billina, stranded in the Deadly Desert of Oz, which turns any living thing that touches it to sand. They escape and locate the house that fell on the Wicked Witch of the East, but the Munchkins are nowhere to be found, and the Yellow Brick Road is in ruin. Walking to the Emerald City, Dorothy finds the citizens of Oz – including the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion – turned to stone. All that’s left are the bizarre Wheelers, hoodlums who have wheels for feet and hands.

Dorothy activates a mechanical soldier named Tik Tok, who grabs one of the Wheelers and learns that the Nome King conquered the Emerald City, stealing back his emeralds and imprisoning the Scarecrow. To find him, Dorothy and Tik Tok are directed to Mombi (Jean Marsh again), a witch who changes heads as easily as wigs. Imprisoned by the witch, Dorothy befriends Jack Pumpkinhead, a stick man with a pumpkin for a head, who Mombi created with a Powder of Life. Dorothy steals the powder and is able to escape by bringing to life a flying sofa with the head of a moose. Dorothy and her new friends head to the mountain of the Nome King (Nicol Williamson again) to save Oz.

Production history

In the mid-1930s, Walt Disney was searching for a follow-up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He inquired about the first in L. Frank Baum‘s best-selling fantasy series. The Baum estate had sold the film rights to Samuel Goldwyn for $60,000, and Disney just missed out being able to make an animated version of what became The Wizard of Oz. Disney never lost enthusiasm for Oz. When eleven of Baum’s books became available in 1957, Disney bought them. At one point, he intended for The Rainbow Road to Oz to become a live action musical with the Mousketeers filling many of the major roles. For a myriad of possible reasons – too expensive, too inexperienced a cast, a weak script or a lackluster book of songs – that never happened, and Oz languished.

In 1980, the studio’s young production chief Tom Wilhite contacted Walter Murch, a sound designer and film editor who won an Academy Award for Apocalypse Now. Murch recalls, “it was just a fishing expedition on both of our parts. But one of the questions he asked was, ‘What are you interested in that you think we might also be interested in?’, and I said, ‘Another Oz story.’ … And Tom sort of straightened up in his chair because it turned out, unbeknownst to me, that Disney owned the rights to all of the Oz stories. And they were particularly interested in doing something with them because the copyright was going to run out in the next five years.”

Working with Gill Dennis, Murch wrote a treatment based on Baum’s The Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz and when the studio responded favorably, the pair returned with a script in the spring of 1982. Darker than what the studio anticipated, Wilhite moved forward on what was then known simply as Oz, footing the bill for art director Norman Reynolds to begin designing sets, and work to begin on animatronic puppets. $6 million had been spent when in November 1983, Disney’s new head of production Richard Berger pulled the plug on Oz. He cited the film’s $27 million price tag, along with the failure of that summer’s dark and costly Something Wicked This Way Comes, which Disney had produced and had not gone over well with audiences. Shaving the budget down to $25 million by shooting the film on five soundstages at Elstree Studios in England – with the Salisbury Plains standing in for Kansas – Murch revived the project and filming commenced February 1984.

Murch recalls, “There were 114 days of shooting, which is a lot, and the character of Dorothy, played by Fairuza Balk, is in almost every shot. She was absolutely great, a fantastic ally in the making of the film, but there are laws in England and the United States that limit the amount of time you can shoot with a child actor, so it put great strains on how much we could do each day. Add on top of that all of the creatures she was with: puppets and claymation and animals. That old adage about never making a film with a child or an animal; we had not only a child and animals – talking chickens and dogs and all of that – but also puppets, each operated by three or four people, radio controlled devices, front projection, and claymation (for the nomes) that wasn’t there at the time of shooting.”

Return to Oz proceeded so slowly that Murch was fired after five weeks. After George Lucas guaranteed he’d step in for his friend the first time director if needed, the studio rehired Murch after a few days. But by the time the film was in post-production, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg had arrived to manage Disney. Murch recalls, “And they were not really interested in Return, probably because it was so dark, and not a musical, and particularly because it had been started by an executive two generations earlier, and so they mostly ignored it after it did not do so well in previews, which was both good and bad. The good part was that I was able to complete the film I wanted to make, the bad part was that they didn’t really get behind its release. Having said that, it was a difficult film to distribute, as we found out, given the zeitgeist of the mid-’80’s. Maybe any zeitgeist.”

Opening June 1985 with a lavish premiere at Radio City Music Hall, Return to Oz was blasted by critics. From the Los Angeles Times (Sheila Benson) to the New York Times (Janet Maslin) to At The Movies, the overwhelming consensus was that the film did not measure up to The Wizard of Oz, and was too intense for children. Gene Siskel: “Kids under six are gonna get nightmares from this picture. Kids over six, they’ll just have a bad time at the movies.” Roger Ebert: “Somebody should have thought at the very first when they were starting out with Return To Oz. somebody should have had this thought: ‘It oughta be fun, it oughta be upbeat, it oughta be sweet, it oughta be wondrous. It shouldn’t be scary.’” Return To Oz grossed a dismal $11 million in the U.S.

Murch – who would win two Academy Awards in 1996 as both the film editor and sound designer for The English Patient – never directed after Return To Oz. In 2000, he mused, “We knew going in that it was going to be risky, but it had been 45 years since the original film came out, and I thought enough time had passed for a different sensibility to have a chance, to present a somewhat more realistic view about Dorothy and her life on the farm, and have the film not be a musical … I definitely felt that if we had tried to really do a sequel, which is to say, do something in the style of an MGM musical, we would have been in even greater trouble, because there’s just no way you can reinvent that particular combination of people, technology, and attitude, which really reached a peak in the late 1930s and never recovered after the war.”

The two components of this film’s disastrous reception were probably its title – Oz might have led to a little less buyer’s remorse among moviegoers – and the fact that Murch was simply ahead of his time here. In the 1980s, E.T. and its message of hope and reassurance were what most ticket buyers needed. Return To Oz is one dark, perilous and morally complex place to venture into. It’s also as majestically rendered a fantasy as you’re ever likely to see, grander than anything Jim Henson would produce in the same period, as textured and thrilling as the Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings franchises, but black as gunpowder. It’s the quintessential adaptation of L. Frank Baum, striking out from the lighthearted, vaudevillian approach of The Wizard of Oz and right into the heart of darkness.

Just as much – if not more – genuine love went into the making of Return To Oz as the 1939 original. The screenplay is even more inventive in the way it establishes each character Dorothy will meet in Oz; the wheel of a gurney becomes a Wheeler, a wicked nurse becomes Mombi. That’s cool. The film is peerless in terms of set design and camera movement and spares no expense in its grandeur. Fairuza Balk – nine years old at the time she was cast – does a sublime imitation of Judy Garland’s voice, while matching Baum’s vision of Dorothy when it comes to her age; Balk gives a terrific performance. David Shire’s musical score is just as enthralling. Critics condemning the movie for being scary apparently forgot all about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Return To Oz, much maligned, is just as much a classic.

Jenny Jediny at Not Coming To A Theater Near You writes, ”While it is highly emphasized in The Wizard of Oz that Dorothy is purely in the midst of a dream, the argument is more ambiguous in Return to Oz; Murch has stated he never intended for this to be a sequel, but instead a version more akin to the vision in the Frank L. Baum novels, a decision that enhances the film and sets it apart from the shadow of the 1939 classic, bringing instead an edge of terror that is found in many fairy tales, particularly those of the Brothers Grimm. Having viewed Return to Oz at least a dozen times by this point in my life, I have to express my penchant for this vision of Oz.”

Matt Gamble at Where The Long Tail Ends writes, “Return to Oz is a decidedly different children’s film, with its dark themes and horrific moments it is not the typical candy coated fare released in American theaters. But it is this unique aspect of the film that makes it both so memorable and endearing. Return to Oz is a film that challenges its viewers, both young and old, and attempts to create a fascinating fantasy world that will be both remembered and revisited by the viewer. And while some special effects driven children’s fantasy films of the 80’s haven’t held up well over time, I’m looking at you The Neverending Story, Return to Oz is a film that has not only aged well, but has become even more enjoyable with each viewing.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Alternate universe · Based on book · Beasts and monsters · Cult favorite · Dreams and visions · No opening credits · Psychoanalysis · Sequel

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 AR // Nov 12, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    I liked this movie as a kid, even though it’s in the class of films that scared me a little. I’m not sure when I watched it again many years ago as an adult it really quite held up. I do still appreciate the fact that it’s a bit dark, as well as the production design.

  • 2 Daniel // Nov 12, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    Great one, Joe! I remember you mentioning that you liked it when I featured it as an “underrated movie” this summer. For all the same reasons you say, especially about Murch being ahead of his time, I do my best to make people aware of this.

    I wonder, though, if people would “get it” if they were to see it for the first time now. Many people aren’t used to claymation, for example, and could get turned off my the effects (which I think are outstanding). Anyway, glad to see this get more positive attention!

  • 3 Pat Evans // Nov 19, 2008 at 3:21 am

    However much one loves the original Oz film, there is no reason whatsoever to dismiss this very dark Oz variation. I’ve watched it a number of times and it more than holds up equally well, with a sparkling turn from young Balk (her adult roles have been something of a disappointment) and a wonderful sense of a different fantasy world. The film will never achieve the same classic status, especially as it is even more frightening than the original for wee kiddies, but it does offer a great deal for the older viewer (including adults who relish the darker side of things).

  • 4 Monte // Nov 30, 2008 at 11:52 pm

    Return to OZ is lovely to look at, but I found the story clumsy and most of the acting unconvincing.

    Joe, what do you think of Gregory Maguire’s WICKED?

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Dec 1, 2008 at 12:01 am

    AR: I’m baffled by those who fault Walter Murch as a first-time director here. If anyone knows how a movie should look and sound, it’s him, and the overall design is exquisite. Disney made a number of dark, live action films, 1978-85 before the days of Eisner, and this is my favorite. Thanks for commenting!

    Daniel: The only thing Gene Siskel liked about Return To Oz was the claymation. Had Disney provided some context in preparing people for what the movie was, it would have fared much better. I think the ideal audience is anyone who enjoys The Nightmare Before Christmas and is looking for something that pushes the children’s film into even darker territory.

    Patricia: Well said. Your comment touches on all the reasons I love this film. I think audiences can accept more than one version or take on a story. Probably not right away, especially if we’re talking about an institution like The Wizard of Oz, but Return To Oz is one of the great cult classics of the 1980s.

    Monte: Thanks for commenting! I felt Maguire spent way too much time on political mechanization. It was a serious case of The Phantom Menace all over again. Some people love that stuff, but I look for a well told tale and characters and felt Wicked was a bit wooden. I didn’t find the book magical or mysterious for something set in Oz. The relationship between the Witch and Glinda had potential and I understand why a lot of women responded to the novel, but I felt it missed the mark.

  • 6 Deepanjana // Aug 21, 2009 at 6:54 am

    Hi… I was looking for a view on Dorothy’s condition in Return to Oz which is how I chanced upon your blog.
    I am an Indian and born when this movie was released, considering how obscure this movie is I dont know how we had a video of this at my home in India. Anyway, I was in love with the film as a kid and I dont think it scared me at all apart from the wheelers, but it never really left a nightmarish effect on me!
    I watched it again about 10 yrs later and I found it just as fascinating as when I was a kid. Only this time I found a darker and melancholic feel to it.
    Saying which I think this movie is as much for adults as for kids, because sometimes adults need their doze of imagination too. I think you wrote a great piece on the movie and I really hope more people read it. especially the Return to Oz cynics!

  • 7 The Sexy Armpit // Jun 24, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Excellent review. I was lucky enough to have seen the premiere of RTO at Radio City Music Hall when I was a kid. Unbelievable experience for me. I loved every second of it and it wasn’t too scary for me. I think everyone I know loved that film, but for some reason people only remember what critics said, not how it made actual kids feel. ’80s kids during that time LOVED Return to OZ. Funny too because there was no merch blitz or fervor. We need to see kids movies grow balls and add some scares. Kids need to be scared once in a while.

  • 8 Daniel Van Ness // Jul 14, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    I got the ‘Return to Oz’ DVD to play on my laptop’s DVD player.

  • 9 Oz Fan // Jan 29, 2014 at 10:17 pm

    Thanks for a great review. Fairuza Balk was excellent in this, and I think she continues to be excellent in her adult roles.

    I watched Return to Oz again recently, and for me, it has held up.

    I was surprised by Roger Ebert’s review. Honestly, I agree with Ebert about 95% of the time–for example, his review of Gus van Sant’s “Gerry,” but I digress–yet Ebert totally dropped the ball on this one. The fact that Murch was discouraged after making this wonderful film depresses me. His Oscars for film and sound editing translated into a foundation of solid directing skills. If I am correct, he used deep focus a few times to great effect, and if I’m wrong, he staged very convincing faux-deep focus shots. Kudos either way.

    I love this film.

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