Return To Oz

This ain't your father's Oz
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1985
Director: 
Walter Murch
Starring: 
Fairuza Balk, Piper Laurie, Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh
The Setup: 
Dorothy has been unable to sleep since the tornado, so Aunt Em signs her up for electroshock therapy, prompting another trip to the land of Oz.
Discussion: 

I became aware of this movie by reading an interview with director Walter Murch. Murch was the editor of The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Cold Mountain, and Jarhead, and this is his first and only film. Anyway, liking dark children’s movies as I do, I thought it sounded very intriguing and thought I’d check it out.

Now, my DVD player/surround sound system in a refurbished piece of shit, and sometimes the audio doesn’t start right. So there I was, thinking this movie was really unusually prosaic, as all I was hearing was this beautiful, dreamy music, and no dialogue. It took me a while to realize that this was because my front speakers were not working, and I was just getting the music track on the rear speakers.

All of this of course required me to restart my machine several times, and it’s during those times that one becomes really annoyed at the useless video tags put on at the beginning of some DVDs that you cannot skip through. In this case, the interminable [10 second] graphic that informs me that I am watching a DVD. Oh, thank you so very much, but you know, I put the fucking disc in myself, so am pretty much aware that I am watching a fucking DVD. But we all know that Disney wastes no opportunity to let us all know how very magical every single aspect of watching a Disney film is.

Thing is, this movie is about as far from fare one would associate with Disney as you can get. Adapted from two later books in the Oz series, this film takes place six months after the tornado that we saw in The Wizard of Oz. Now, while it’s almost impossible to watch this film free of the influence of the other one, this movie immediately asserts its differences. For one, Dorothy is YOUNG. She’s 10 at the very most, and this both gives a better context to the entire thing and makes more sense of the idea of her inventing this fantasy world. Another difference is that her life on the farm is portrayed here as much more rural and true to life, as this film was shot in real locations and not entirely in the studio. The third aspect is that this film is MUCH more dark, which is apparently closer to the tone of the actual books, which are akin to Grimm fairy tales.

It would seem that since the tornado, Dorothy, played here by the charming and adorable Fairuza Balk, has been unable to sleep. Aunt Em, here played by Piper Laurie, is worried about her inability to sleep and her continual talk about Oz, which of course she doesn’t believe in. This makes this movie close in theme to one of my other favorite childhoood movies, The Curse of the Cat People, also about a young girl whose parents want her to pull her head out of the fantasy world she’s in. So she takes Dorothy to see a doctor who specializes in electroshock, and they plan to keep Dorothy with them overnight and run electricity through her brain. You will know that you are not in your father’s Oz when you see Dorothy STRAPPED to a gurney and hooked up to an electroshock machine. At this time you will also notice the wonderfully witchy outfit worn by his assistant, Nurse Wilson, with these great shoulder things that stick straight up. You should be paying attention to all of these people and things, because, as in the first film, they will all be processed and appear in disguise once Dorothy enters Oz once more.

You will also be aware that you are watching the work of someone who has been involved in movies for some time as you look at some of the beautiful compositions you see on screen. For example, look at the gorgeous frame at right, with it’s wonderful compositional balance, interesting shapes, and beautifully harmonious colors.

Anyway, a power outage causes the electroshock machine to fail, and Dorothy and a mysterious girl make a mad escape through a terrible storm from the institute. Dorothy is swept down a raging river, very intense and scary, and it is soon after that she washes up in Oz. Oh, by the way, all this time she’s accompanied by this hen, an extremely poor substitute for Toto, who utters dialogue akin to the droid Keystone Kops Komedy from the end of Star Wars Episode II, the kind that makes you want to strike yourself repeatedly about the head with a mallet. Please remove all heavy objects from your environment before viewing.

When Dorothy arrives in Oz we are greeted with another gorgeous shot of these wonderful trees, which she promptly settles under for a snack. During this time one sees that the ROCKS are watching her. It seems like a good idea to make rocks evil as… well, rocks SEEM evil, don’t they? This is followed by a quite interesting scene of a rock speaking to his master, accomplished by stop-motion animating layers of clay to make it appear as though the crevices in the rock is forming a face as speaking. It is not realistic in any way, but one admires the craft and imagination required to accomplish this… and we’re just getting started.

Dorothy soon sees that the Emerald City now lies in ruins, and all of its inhabitants have been turned to stone, including the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion! [I told you it was dark!]. Dorothy sets about finding the scarecrow, and finding out what happened to her friends.

Along the way she meets a jack o’ lantern on a body of twigs [whose appearance in the novels I’m going to guess was the inspiration for Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas], and a tubby robot.

Soon what I find to be the freakiest scene in the movie happens, when Dorothy is taken in by a queen, who decides that she will lock the girl in a tower until she grows up, then appropriate her head. This woman takes Dorothy into a large chamber with walls lined with little glass chambers, each displaying a head on a pedestal. The heads are all alive, and their eyes silently stare at Dorothy [creepy] or follow the queen. The woman takes off her head and places it in one of these cases, and chooses another to wear. Later, Dorothy has to steal something out of one of the cases. The heads are all asleep. When Dorothy makes a slight noise, the head wakes up, and the entire hall of heads starts SCREAMING! This whole thing is horrifying and wonderful in the way of the best freaky children’s tales, Alice in Wonderland being the best example.

So it goes on with more adventures, and special effects that mix stop-motion animation, puppetry, animatronics—whatever can be used, and while not all of it is successful, it is all interesting and one admires the film for its imagination and gung-ho attitude in attempting to conjure all of these things to life. Now of course they would all be accomplished with CGI, and unless the very best director were behind it all, it would all be boring as shit.

  

Look to right. Now that’s what you call a stone bear.The ending becomes quite explosive, and peace is restored through a similar device to the first movie. This is added to similarities including a corollary but different group of companions through Oz, the natural calamity that brought Dorothy there in the first place, and the whole structure of the story, but these all make it part of a series rather than a tired retread.

While it is a kids movie and while it is a Disney movie, this film is, I would think, more of interest to adults who enjoy tales of the dark side of childhood. There are scenes so terrifying they could easy go into a standard horror movie. Not all of it works, but the dizzying display of creativity and the brave attitude to just run with it all makes this a very satisfying watch.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, especially if you like dark children’s literature.