Release Date: June 21st
Box Office: $10,618,813
This piece by Scott Jeffery was originally posted on his movie blog Film Dribble which is awesome and is one you should regularly read
Return to Oz is a strange beast indeed. Its 1939 MGM sibling, The Wizard of Oz, is a film which has taken on an almost archetypal power in the popular consciousness; an unassailable classic of cinema. By 1985 however Frank L. Baum’s Oz books were in the public domain, so Disney, having optioned the other books years earlier, decided to take a crack at a sequel. This might seem a good fit, Disney being synonymous with wholesome children’s classics after all, but the result was one of the weirdest, darkest kid’s films ever made. For the generation that grew up in the 1980s Return to Oz was the kind of film your parents would rent from the video shop in all innocence, completely unaware of the head-fuckery that awaited. Strange and distressing as the film is, in fact, precisely because it was so uniquely strange and distressing, Return to Oz remains well-loved; see, for evidence, the tellingly titled fan-made documentary, Return to Oz: The Joy That Got Away.
Why is the film so odd? Well firstly, Disney’s film was made without the involvement of MGM, although Disney still had to pay MGM a fee to use the ruby slippers, which were still MGM’s intellectual property. So while the ruby slippers are retained, evoking the memory of the original, the characters are redesigned to resemble something more like the illustrations that accompanied the original Oz books than the iconic MGM designs. Also, they are creepy as shit. Return to Oz also distinguished itself from the original by having no songs, presumably because these would have ruined the mood of unrelenting horror.
I’m exaggerating there, but only just.
Secondly, the director’s historical and artistic inspirations were unusual; its surely the only children’s film to have drawn upon Wisconsin Death Trip, and probably the only children’s film to ever have considered it for even a second. Here’s the wikipedia description of the book: “Wisconsin Death Trip is a 1973 non-fiction book by Michael Lesy, based on a collection of late 19th century photographs by Jackson County, Wisconsin photographer Charles Van Schaick – mostly taken in the city of Black River Falls – and local news reports from the same period. It emphasizes the harsh aspects of Midwestern rural life under the pressures of crime, disease, mental illness, and urbanization.” A troubled production, the film went through two management changes at Disney and was the first and only film directed by Walter Murch, sound designer on The Conversation and American Graffiti. Running behind schedule, and the studio unhappy with his footage, Murch was fired after five weeks, only being rehired at the insistence of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas.
Return to Oz ramps up the ‘was it real or just a dream?’ question of the original by replacing the word ‘dream’ with ‘schizophrenic breakdown’. Dorothy (played by a young Fairuza Balk) is back home in Kansas where her aunt and uncle are worried about her insistent references to the magical land of Oz. Thinking she may be mentally ill they take her for treatment at a local asylum. As the pipe-smoking psychiatrist prepares to administer Electro-Convulsive Therapy to the child there is apparently a lightning storm, and when Dorothy awakes she is once again in Oz, only this time the magical land has become ruined, lorded over by the evil Gnome King.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s companions bear a striking resemblance to the her companions back in Kansas, so Dorothy’s final exclamation of, “and you were there! and you!” gives the film an ambiguity- was it a dream all along? This effect is aided in the original by Dorothy’s ‘reality’ being black and white, while the fantasy land of Oz is pure Technicolor spectacle. Here, the question of ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy’ is a much darker one, because Dorothy is not just dreaming, she may actually be mad. So it is that Dorothy’s new companions resemble the people from the mental asylum in which Dorothy is interred. The Gnome King is the psychiatrist, while the evil Princess Mombi is the nurse. The frightening Wheelers, draped in over-sized coats with long arms and legs ending in small wheels, echoes the hospital’s orderlies and the gurneys they push around. Finally, and perhaps creepiest of all when you think about it, the loyal and brave robotic man Tik-Tok resembles the ECT machine! At the end, the bad guys of Oz are destroyed in a fiery blaze and Dorothy awakes back in Kansas to find out that the asylum was destroyed in a fire that night. In a final coda Dorothy is able to see Oz through her bedroom mirror, which I guess is meant to be a happy ending but in the context of this film it reads like the beginning of a major psychotic breakdown.
It’s basically Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, but for kids.
Return to Oz is the definition of a noble failure. Ambitious and expensive, it failed both critically and commercially, costing $28 million and making just $11 million on its North American release. Even so, as an entire generation will testify, it remains endlessly fascinating; too dark for children, too childish for adults, Return to Oz is entirely its own thing, a totally unique, one-off creation.
NOTE: Return to Oz is also a product of Disney’s ‘dark’ period, which I have discussed in more detail in the essay, Dark, Deranged and Disney.