Return to Awesome ’80s Dark Fantasy… I mean Oz
I enjoyed all 118 minutes of Disney/Walter Murch’s 1985 follow up film to The Wizard of OZ, granted I was not the target audience and I also have an affinity for dark fantasy films from the‘80’s. Disney’s Return to Oz failed to meet their target demographic, claiming to be a children’s movie yet features some uncomfortably dark material. This film drew inspiration, albeit loosely, from L. Frank Baum’s books Ozma of Oz and The Marvelous Land of OZ as well as mimics, again loosely, aspects of the 1939 Oz film.
The film begins months after Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) comes back from her first visit from OZ, where Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) seeks help from a doctor for Dorothy’s sleepless nights due to “dreams” about a foreign land. While in the gothic clinic, Dorothy meets a mysterious blonde girl who gives her a small pumpkin as a welcome gift. While a storm rages outside, the ominous Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh) dressed in all black escorts Dorothy on a hospital bed with hauntingly creaky wheels to Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson) who attempts to perform electro shock therapy on her to rid her of all “dreams” of OZ but the power goes out and Dorothy escapes with the help of the mysterious blonde haired girl. After a brief chase through the woods, Dorothy finds herself washed up on the beach in OZ where the Nome King has taken all the emeralds back to his mountain and turned everyone in OZ to stone.
The skeleton of this film conveys nuances of the first in the way that characters from OZ mimic characters from Dorothy’s Kansas. Jean Marsh plays both the ominous nurse Wilson as well as the evil Princess Mombi of OZ and Nicol Williamson (Dr. Worley) doubles as the Nome King. Things that Dorothy remembers from Kansas, weather terrifying or comforting, also manage to mirror into her Oz adventures. For example, the Wheelers who are reminiscent of the flying monkeys from the 1939 OZ roll around on all fours with hauntingly creepy wheels for hands and feet, reminiscent of the creaky wheels from the hospital bed in Kansas. Also, the pumpkin that the mysterious blonde girl gives to Dorothy in Kansas mirrors Jack Pumpkinhead in OZ, I especially love this connection because it announces Dorothy’s imagination toward imaginary objects and her motherly instincts.
The film emphasizes “living”, all specifically “living” things in OZ turned to stone by the spell which is why non-living metal wind-up soldier Tic-Tok, one of Dorothy’s companions, was still functional. This emphasis on living suggests that even in Kansas, Dorothy wasn’t truly living and needed to go on this Journey through OZ to restore her zest for life. Overall I loved the effects of this film and the dark cinematic Never Ending Story kind of feel. I was entertained the entire time and enjoyed looking deeper into the story to find the hidden imagery and continuity. The only negative thing I would say is that I wish Jim Henson were involved, also it doesn’t seem too much like a children’s film … even though it did bring the child out of me.