Disney Live Action Spotlight: Return to Oz

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This marks the final week of my Disney live action film spotlight. The last live action film I want to highlight is one that bombed critically and commercially on initial release. But since then, it has turned into a cult classic. It’s the much-maligned sequel to the classic film The Wizard of Oz. Yes, this week I want to give some love to Return to Oz, a film that probably gave a lot of kids nightmares in the 1980s.

So, why did Return to Oz fail initially? Well, there are several reasons. The first is that people went into it expecting to be colorful and cheery (not that the original didn’t have it’s scary moments) . Add to that the fact that it was coming from Disney, a studio known for upbeat family entertainment. To say that Return to Oz was darker than its predecessor would be an understatement. But you know what? That’s okay. Kids should experience dark and challenging films. They build character and prepare you for the reality that worlds both real and fictional can be scary. Some of the best books we read, or had read to us as kids, were steeped a little in creepiness: The Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (and pretty much everything by Roald Dahl), Harry Potter…I could go on. The fact is we don’t need to shelter kids from everything. I could do a whole piece on that subject, but I’ll stop. Back to the movie.

So what is sweet Dorothy Gale up to in the sequel? Here’s a brief summary to get you up to speed:

Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) has recently come home to Kansas from the Land of Oz is now almost back to perfect health since the incident of the tornado, only she cannot get that wonderful place out of her head. She frequently talks about it and cannot get any sleep at night. Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) worries about her health/well-being. Thinking that she is suffering delusional depression and acute insomnia, she decides to take her to see a special doctor in another town. While he tries to treat her with electro-shock treatment and take those nasty dreams away from her head, she is rescued by a mysterious girl who leads her back to Oz for a new adventure.–IMDB

And what delightful childhood fantasy doesn’t start with a child getting shock therapy? It’s like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for kids. Thankfully Dorothy escape with the help of Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh). When she makes it to Oz, she sets out to save the magical land with the help of some new companions: her pet chicken Billina, Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead, and the flying Gump. Oz is not the same as it was when Dorothy last visited it. Its residents have turned to stone and the Emerald City is in ruins. It turns out the Nome King is responsible for destroying the once magical land. According to the Nome King, Scarecrow stole emeralds from him to build the Emerald City. Logically, he must be punished. How the curse is eventually broken I will not reveal. That’s one of the films interesting plot twists. Before I move on, I want to recognize Fairuza Balk for her performance. She’s excellent as Dorothy. It’s one of the best performances by a child actor I’ve ever seen. Okay, now let’s talk about the world of Oz in terms of its visuals.

One of the few bright spots for Return to Oz when it was originally released was that its visual effects team was nominated for an Oscar. When you see the film you’ll understand. This is a glorious film to look at. It has a beautiful yet twisted look to at. Let me highlight a few of my favorite things. First there’s the design of the creatures known as the Wheelers. Those things gave me nightmares as a kid. They’re humans with wheels in places where you normally see hands and feet. Yeah, creepy as hell! And of course I have to mention the Nome King. When you see him in full demonic form it’s one of most disturbing moments in the film. That’s saying something considering what a twisted movie this is. Oh, did I mention the display of talking severed heads? Princess Mombi has a collection of talking, severed heads. She changes heads the way regular people changes outfits.

Return to Oz is delightful in its twisted creepiness the same way The Nightmare Before Christmas is. One of the many things I appreciate about Walter Much’s film is that it’s a kids film that doesn’t treat kids like idiots. It lets them experience a mystical yet dark world, but doesn’t hammer them with lots of mindless action or banal syrupy songs. I love a great Disney musical, but not every film for kids has to be easily digested and marketable. Films that take chances are few and far between these days. Personally, I would rather see a film that’s ambitious and fails than one that recycles the same plot lines and character archetypes. Whether you love or hate Return to Oz, you have to admit it’s imaginative. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen this film, I really think you owe it a second look. Here’s hoping that one day this film finally gets the respect it deserves.

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