Return to Oz (1985)
Written by Walter Murch & Gil Dennis
Directed by Walter Murch
The Wizard of Oz comes with iconic images that pop into the mind as soon as you hear the name. Dorothy. Scarecrow. Tin Man. Cowardly Lion, The Wicked Witch. Emerald City. These are so embedded in the pop culture zeitgeist that to present the idea of a sequel must have been relatively daunting. Return to Oz was released forty-six years after the original and was a stark contrast to the rainbows and Technicolor of MGM’s film. Disney brought in Academy Award-winning film editor and sound designer Walter Murch (The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now, The Conversation) for a brainstorming session on potential projects for him to direct. This is the only film Murch has and ever will likely direct, but it is a cult classic like few others.
It’s been a year since the big tornado hit, and Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) is still haunted by her journey to Oz. Her aunt and uncle believe the child is suffering from a mental illness. Dorothy is taken to an asylum where she will receive electroshock treatment. The night of the procedure, a storm creates a power outage, and a strange girl who is also a patient with Dorothy helps her escape. Swept away by a flooded river, Dorothy wakes up the next morning with her pet chicken Billina in the Land of Oz. However, something terrible has befallen the land since the little girl was last here. The yellow brick road is in ruins, and the citizens of Emerald City have been turned to stone. Dorothy meets a host of new friends but also terrifying new villains as she seeks to uncover the truth about what has happened.
Return to Oz is a very dark movie in its tone and atmosphere. Murch was informed by both the volumes of books in L. Frank Baum’s Oz series but also Wisconsin Death Trip, a book that combined real photographs from late 19th century rural Wisconsin with fictional pieces inspired by them. Murch sought to create a realistic portrayal of the harshness of life in a place like Kansas. Audiences not familiar with Baum’s books also didn’t realize how strange and eerie the world of Oz becomes. So, Return to Oz ended up being incredibly faithful to the original source material, which is what alienated audiences who only knew the Judy Garland musical.
The production design is one of the strongest elements in Return to Oz. There are subtle touches of the farmhouse on the Kansas plains. The standout though is the lush art nouveau design of Emerald City and the accompanying costumes. If you are familiar with the illustrator John Neill’s work on the Oz books, you’ll be astonished by how beautifully his work is recreated in three dimensions. I particularly love how faithful the design of Tik-Tok was to the books. He’s designed completely impractically, a wind-up man in the shape of a large sphere, like an oversize mechanical doughboy.
Return to Oz is in the same aesthetic and tonal vein as the Jim Henson dark fantasy films of the time, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. It also shares that label with non-Henson features like The Neverending Story and Legend. They all have the exterior trappings of fairy tales and children’s fantasies, but their themes and plots go into bleak psychological territory. I can remember as a child seeing some behind the scenes, making-of footage from Return to Oz, and it boring its way deep into my mind. I was determined to see this movie that challenged everything I knew from the classic Wizard of Oz. Return is one of those films I argue speaks to children’s interests in horror, how it can be empowering to watch horror films knowing you have control over when to stop it if it becomes too much.
The script needs a little punching up, but it’s not terrible. The pace is relatively quick, and I never felt there were slow moments that bogged down the story. Exposition is given as needed, and this lets a mysterious, creepy atmosphere wash over the first act of the film. If you are a fan of Baum’s work and wanted to see something more in tune with the source material Walter Murch has given us a beautiful product. I just wish he had been able to direct more pictures.