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Retro Recommendations: “RETURN TO OZ” (1985)

Tuesday, August 10, 2021 | Opinions


When parents and their children went to theatres to see RETURN TO OZ in June 1985, both expected a continuation of The Wizard of Oz: lush hues, catchy musical numbers, and little girls skipping down the yellow brick road. What they got instead was Princess Mombi and her cabinets of severed heads. They got Wheelers, the Deadly Desert, and the Nome King, who turns his kidnapped victims into ornaments and steals their life force. 

What they got was the terrifying and bleak Oz as depicted in L. Frank Baum’s novels.

RETURN TO OZ is set in October, 1899. It has been six months since the events of the first film. Dorothy, played by Fairuza Balk (The Craft, American History X), continues to talk about Oz as though it were a real place. Her Aunt Em, played by none other than the incredible Piper Laurie (Carrie, Dario Argento’s Trauma), is beginning to worry about Dorothy’s mental state, so when she sees an ad in the paper for Doctor Worley’s Electric Therapy, she decides to take her to his clinic as a last ditch effort. Not long after Aunt Em drops her off, the nurses strap Dorothy down onto a gurney and wheel her into a dirty operating room for her experimental electroconvulsive therapy. Meanwhile, a storm rages outside and the power goes out. While the medical staff are scrambling to restore the power in the clinic, a mysterious girl unstraps Dorothy and helps her escape. Soon after, Dorothy goes to sleep and wakes up in Oz. The yellow brick road is destroyed, the Emerald City is in ruins, and the citizens of Oz have been turned to stone, many of whom are also headless. Dorothy soon discovers that Oz has been taken over by the Nome King, played by Nicol Williamson (Excalibur, Spawn).

RETURN TO OZ is based on L. Frank Baum’s The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, the second and third books in the Oz series, and it is more faithful to its source material in terms of both content and tone than The Wizard of Oz. Its box office failure and the negative reviews that followed its release were the byproducts of unmet expectations rather than the result of an inferior film.

The film shares a vantage point that was popular in 1980s family fare such as E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial and Stand By Me, as well as in 80s throwback films like It: the idea that the children at the centre of the story are the only ones who truly know what is going on, and the adults in their lives serve as enemies, intruders, or, at best, well-meaning obstacles. The kids in those films band together to deal with the problem(s) at hand. So too in RETURN TO OZ. However, since Dorothy is the only child in a world full of adults and invented beings, her gang consists of a chicken, a couch with a gump’s head on it, Tik Tok (a mechanical man), and Jack Pumpkinhead, a puppet who calls Dorothy “Mom” and who looks as though he might have been a precursor to Jack Skellington from 1993’s A Nightmare Before Christmas. Her group makes the Losers Club look like the cool kids in town. But this ragtag gang of creatures is no less human than anyone else to Dorothy, who accepts the unnatural as natural and the magical and terrifying aspects of Oz as an average and necessary part of life. 

RETURN TO OZ also stands as a character study of people who are on the brink of change. With the exception of Doctor Worley, the adult characters in the film are all trying to hold onto the past in some way. Their refusal to adapt impedes their growth, and they remain trapped within their own weaknesses. Dorothy’s focus is on the present, and her ability to roll with problems as they occur better equips her for setbacks when they happen. 

Comparisons persist between the two Oz films. But in terms of acting, writing, directing, in-camera special effects, and its overall faithfulness to L. Frank Baum’s books, RETURN TO OZ is the superior film. Fairuza Balk’s mature and independent Dorothy is a generous spirit who places the needs of her friends above her own. For her, there is no such thing as a dead end. But if one does appear, there is always a keyhole. RETURN TO OZ effectively balances horror and fantasy in ways that place it in the same league as other dark family films that came out of the 1980s including The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The Neverending Story

Make no mistake, RETURN TO OZ is a horror film, but it is tame enough that it can serve as a bridge film for parents who are interested in introducing their children to horror movies. If one is looking for something to fill the gap between Mickey Mouse and Hellraiser, look no further.

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