Recommended Viewing Situation:
Regressing to nine years old, then defending your pillow fort from wheeled nightmare fuel.
Running Time: 113 MINUTES.
Format: Dolby 35mm Film.
Director: Walter Murch.
Writer: Gill Dennis & Walter Murch.
Cinematographer: David Watkin & Freddie Francis.
Awards: 6 Nominations Including 1 Oscar Nomination For Best Visual Effects. 0 wins.
‘Ah kids films of the 80’s’.. A phrase usually spoken from behind rose tinted sunglasses, voice thick with nostalgia. While it would be acceptable to dismiss this off hand as the words of a jaded cynic, the 1980’s were a truly odd time for children’s films as a whole.
After the death of patriarch Walt Disney in 1966 there was a period of nearly 20 years where Disney as a film studio operated rudderless, with no clear direction of where their film or animation departments were heading. Adding to this confused meandering was a mass exodus of talent in 1979, which included future Animation pioneer Don Bluth. Bluth would later form his own studio and become one of Disney’s main competitors, collaborating with Stephen Spielberg to release “An American Tail” and The Land Before Time” in 1986 and 1988 respectively.
It is in these wilderness years where Disney crafted some of its most ambitious, creative and critically derided children’s films; the studios lack of direction as a whole enabled some of the more niche ideas slip though the mouse’s gloves and go into production. This is where Return To Oz fits in.
Released in 1985 Return To Oz’s production predates the hiring of Michael Eisner at the helm of Disney, Eisner would later mastermind the Disney renaissance of 1989 (The Little Mermaid) that would make Disney the juggernaut it is today. The Disney formula of action, romance, music and formulaic stories proved extremely successful until the rise of Pixar in 1995.
But before that formula was set in concrete three children’s films were in production, The Black Cauldron, Return To Oz and Who framed Roger Rabbit going into production as early as 1982, which is essentially China Town with cartoons and a terrifying Christopher Lloyd with springs for legs. Like its two counterparts Return To Oz revels and delights in its dark tone and often sadistic scenes, scenes that are perfectly paced to burn them onto a child’s psyche into adulthood.
The film opens with Dorthy Gale (Fairuza Balk) unable to sleep, staring forlornly at the stars and looking decidedly unhappy. This combined with a score from David Shire (Saturday Night Fever) will set the tone for the rest of the movie, the opening score of a mournful violin would be just at home being played over someone giving the Shylock speech.
Set six months after the events of The Wizard Of Oz, Dorthy’s Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) are becoming increasingly concerned with Dorthy’s ramblings of Tin Men, walking Scarecrows and a land called Oz. Worried that the trauma of the Tornado has made Dorthy retreat into a personal fantasy world, they take her to an Asylum for electro shock therapy. It is here where Director and Co-Writer Walter Murch gives a nod to the original 1939 classic. At the Asylum we are introduced Dr Worley (Nicol Williamson), Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh) and a terrifying anthropomorphic electric shock machine. All of which would return later in the film as different characters.
While in her room (or cell) she is visited by a young girl seeming to just appear in the room like a apparition, she gives Dorthy a gift of a pumpkin but leaves quickly as wails and screams from the other patients fill the air. She leaves as she arrived, silent, disappearing from a locked room.
Director Murch is really starting to seed the idea that Dorthy’s adventures in the Wizard Of Oz may just be mental illness caused by post traumatic stress, the appearance of ghostly girl in her room offering gifts and friendship may be Dorthy creating an imaginary friend to help her though a lonely and traumatic time. This is given credence as the ghostly girl is never spoken to or acknowledged by any other characters besides Dorthy. Things escalate quickly the next day with Dorthy being strapped to a gurney and prepped for electro-shock therapy, while it may be an unintentional call back by the Director, this scene mirrors another film where a young scared girl; tormented by voices is taken for experimental procedure, 1973’s William Friedkin film The Exorcist.
The procedure is cut short by a electrical storm which cuts the power leaving Dorthy strapped down alone with only the mechanical ticking of the shock machine to counter-act the wailing of the other patients. Thankfully the ghostly girl comes to her aid (Just appearing in a locked room from nowhere again) and says one of the stranger lines in the movie. After Dorthy asks “what’s all that screaming?” the girl replies “There are patients who have been damaged, locked in the cellar”. While this is only a pseudo sequel to the Wizard Of Oz comparisons to the original where inevitable at the time of its release, but it is easy to see why it wasn’t received warmly by critics or the public. The girls line about damaged people locked in the cellar hints at some truly sinister things being carried out by the Doctor, a little too dark for a film that was after all advertised as a children’s fantasy and the long waited sequel to one of the most beloved pictures of all time.
The girls escape into the thunderstorm and run through the woods pursued by Nurse Wilson, falling into the river; Dorthy’s friend is seemly swallowed by the current and killed. Managing to climb aboard an old crib Dorthy floats away into the glimmer of the moonlight. Washing up on a shore she finds herself back in Oz with a new companion, her farm yard chicken Bellina who replaces Toto for this adventure.While this is Oz, it is not the Oz she remembers.
Alongside keeping continuity to the Wizard Of Oz, references and themes from Frank Oz’s original novels are woven into the narrative creating a mashup of both story lines. The story most heavily borrowed from is 1907’s Ozma of Oz. This goes so far to even retcon parts from the original film, such as Oz being encompassed by a vast deadly desert and The Scarecrow being the King of Oz.
While Dorthy is at first happy to find herself back, proving if only to herself that Oz is real and she isn’t going crazy. This elation soon turns to despair, as in the six months she’s been gone her former world of adventure has become a post apocalyptic afterscape; Munchkins seemingly killed, the yellow brick road torn asunder and the shining light of the Emerald City destroyed with its populace turned to stone. This includes her former friends the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion.
This is where the baffling nature of the film’s production really starts to become apparent. With Disney’s notorious micro management of their brand and image; a film like this simply wouldn’t be made and marketed to children in 2016. From the point Dorthy finds the Emerald city destroyed what follows is a cavalcade of disturbing imagery, themes of mental illness, parental abandonment and very little levity. It’s tone is more reminiscent of Independent British film Watership Down (1978) and the early work of Don Bluth than something that would of come from the House of Mouse if it wasn’t produced in that sweet spot of their rudderless period.
Even some of the characters that are supposed to be whimsical and charming come across unintentionally frightening with a uncanny valley-esque look that borders on the wrong side of uncomfortable. For example Jack Pumpkinhead’s tall angular stature and hollow dead eyes would make him perfect for a German expressionist film from the 20’s or a suitable creepy counterpart for Nosferatu.
Jack also refers to Dorthy as ‘Mom’ throughout the film, raising the question of parental abandonment. We never know why Dorthy lives with her Aunt and Uncle or what happened to her parents, another subtle hint from Director Murch that all this may indeed be in Dorthy’s head. This film surprisingly has many parallels to Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film Total Recall. By the end of both movies a legitimate argument can be made that protagonist’s adventure was simply the creation of a unwell mind, a coping mechanism for the reality of their lives.
This isn’t to say that the effects are bad, quite the opposite, the excellent team at the Jim Henson Company really did showcase every pre-CGI technique while crafting the world of Oz. The talents that are shown off range from simple matte paintings, in camera foreshortening and puppetry to claymation, stop-motion and animation.
With its strange production history and the fact that this film came from Disney – marketed to children only works in its favor; a rare piece of art that has the distinction of being one of only two Children’s cult films (The other being ‘The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T’) For a child with the right kind of mind, this is a film that will stay with them, cherished and beloved well into Adulthood