Video Vault: RETURN TO OZ
My love of all things cinema can be traced back to my preschool days when we would make a stop at the local video rental store, Video Vault, after being dragged on a grocery trip. I have many fond memories of Land Before Time sequels and Vons deli rotisserie chicken. Video Vault was a place where a plastic square chip sat in front of an empty VHS box and you would take the chip to the clerk to exchange it for the real video that was housed in the stacks behind the counter. Being prior to my ability to read, I learned to pick out movies based on the box cover. Over time the many hours spent grazing these hallowed aisles had imprinted the video box art onto my brain, even from movies that I had never even seen (The Silence of the Lambs and Dune boxes come to mind). Of all the VHS boxes and white plastic chips I picked up during my childhood, no VHS has been more imprinted on my brain and become one with my being than Disney’s 1985 box-office flop, Return to Oz. 1939’s The Wizard of Oz would have been my most viewed movie at that time since we owned the VHS, so it was a natural choice for me to want to see the continuation of the story. Little did I know that the colorful illustrated cover art of Dorothy and her friends from Oz happily strolling down the yellow brick road and neutral tagline “Return to the land where the adventure began” would be deceptively unrepresentative of the disturbing, life-altering content that would later materialize on my TV.
Directed by sound design legend Walter Murch with the help of Jim Henson‘s design team responsible for The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Return to Oz is one of those wondrously bizarre 80’s “children’s” films that has since established a small yet passionate cult following comprised mainly of kids who rented VHS’s in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The script was adapted from plot elements in L. Frank Baum’s The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), Ozma of Oz (1907), and Tik-Tok of Oz (1914), which Disney owned the rights to at the time. Frustrated with the film’s slow development process, Murch was originally fired from the film after only a few weeks. George Lucas, who was enjoying the power that came with his post Star Wars success and had several projects going in partnership with the Disney studio, stood behind his friend and fought for Murch’s re-hiring. While there are many reasons to despise Mr. Lucas today, this is one of his decisions that I am truly grateful for. Thanks to him, Murch was able to finish his only feature directorial effort to date, which perhaps adds to the mystique of this unbelievable film. Produced as an unofficial, non-musical sequel to the 1939 classic, Return has a much darker tone, but is more accurate to Baum’s original source material. The bleak and often terrifying vision of Oz is often credited for the film’s mixed reviews and low box office returns. It is for these reasons, however, that it was one of my most frequent rentals from Video Vault despite being responsible for sleepless nights and horrible nightmares. Forever scaring the brain of this impressionable kindergartener’s mind, it remains one of my all-time favorites!
Return to Oz begins immediately where Judy Garland last left us 46 years earlier, with Dorothy Gale (a 10-year-old Fairuza Balk) getting left at an asylum-esque electric healing treatment facility for her delusions of a fantasy land known as Oz. Despite protests from Uncle Henry, Aunt Em decides this questionable treatment is the last hope to cure her tornado-surviving niece whose performance as a farm hand has dwindled due to her obsession with the “imaginary” land. After the discovery of locked up patients that have been driven mad from the electric treatment, Dorothy escapes the hellish hospital, falls into a raging river, boards a floating chicken coup, and washes up on the shore of the “marvelous” Land of Oz. And it is very much the magical land that we remember – the yellow brick road, the Emerald City, our beloved friends the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Li….oh…wait…no it’s not, just kidding. It’s the opposite. The yellow brick road is in ruin, all of the emeralds have been stolen from the Emerald City, and everyone Dorothy once knew has been turned to stone. To save her friends and restore Oz to its former grandeur, Dorothy sets off on a terrifying quest filled with treacherous villains including the head-swapping Queen Mombi, her maniacal henchmen “the Wheelers” (‘urban’ clowns whose feet and hands have been replaced with wheels), and the nefarious Nome King, who used the ruby slippers that Dorothy left behind to turn Oz into a post-apocalyptic nightmare. A whole new gang of strange allies joins her including the wind-up robot Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead, Billina the talking chicken, and a flying creature made out of a bed, palm fronds, and a moose head known as The Gump. Dorothy faces one frightening situation after another with the naïveté and confidence of a child who truly does not understand the danger she is in. Complete with an Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade-esque climax and a final deus ex machina that is so hilariously out of nowhere that it is hard not to love, Return to Oz is a wholly captivating and truly terrifying interpretation of Baum’s world.
The film’s strength lies in the fully realized characterizations and actors who embody these strange foreign creatures. Clever, Baum-ian dialogue is quick to establish the characters’ personalities, such as Tik-Tok’s matter-of-fact declaration, “I have always valued my lifelessness.” Elaborate puppetry and masterful voice performances make Dorothy’s team of misfits believable, especially Brian Henson who brings a tender humanity to Jack, the boyish pumpkin man. Nicol Williamson is fully committed to the joy of being evil as the crafty Nome King and the convincingly mad rage of Jean Marsh makes Queen Mombi one of the most terrifying characters is cinematic history. Fairuza Balk has never been more likable than as the now melancholic Dorothy trapped in the I Am Legend version of the wonderful world she once knew.
Also of note are the incredible special effects that bring the story to life. Produced in the last great era of effects before the digital age, Return to Oz is a true practical effects masterpiece. The detailed and unique puppet creature creations are infinitely more convincing than any soulless CGI pixel turd. The film’s only Academy Award nomination was for Best Visual Effects, but it was snubbed in favor of Cacoon (Fun Fact: the other nominee that year was Young Sherlock Holmes which featured the first fully CGI photorealistic character, courtesy of John Lasseter). Model work, claymation, and interesting set effects are also top notch.
Walter Murch created a truly unique film, the one and only children’s fantasy horror movie. Along with Dorothy, the audience is faced with true-life medical horrors and the return to a desolate dystopian version of a fantasy world that is well ingrained in our collective movie culture. It forces us to consider the direst of circumstances. What happens when the situation is so bleak that even our methods of cognitive escape are tainted with evil? Once you have confronted the traumatizing land of the Nome King’s Oz, Land Before Time sequels just aren’t going to cut it.
…and thus began a life-long love affair with horror movies. Nothing has ever compared to Return to Oz though, the Wheelers will forever haunt my dreams.
For a more in-depth look at Return to Oz check out Gabe Rodriquez’s online documentary Return to Oz: The Joy That Got Away. I would recommend first watching the movie though….alone, with all the lights turned off.