Ozma’s the rightful queen of Oz and the Scarecrow’s its sovereign for a while. That’s good enough to connect Return to Oz to this week’s royalty theme timed with the King’s Speech’s home video release.
Look at children’s entertainment in the long view: it’s hard not to see it as being on a continually-inclining curve toward safe, defanged political correctness. That manifests as recently as G.I. Joe and Transformers getting away with a lot more manly gunplay in the 80s and it goes as least as far back as Grimm’s Fairy Tales and der Struwwelpeter and their especially-gruesome bedtime stories. The wonderful world of Oz sits somewhere in the middle of that: meaning you can forget all the cutesy comments about how freaky the flying monkeys and apple-fling trees are, because the fantasia of L. Frank Baum’s original books is stranger, scarier and more satirical than the modern reader will expect. Return to Oz pays undoubtedly greater respect to the flavor and look of the world Baum described on paper… and that was maybe to its detriment.
Go on and give its trailer a gander...
In spite of being a big budget Disney spectacle with a plethora of effects that still impress, nearly 30 years later, Return to Oz was a box office bomb upon its release in ’85. A picture reviled by audiences and critics alike, it was judged especially egregious by parents’ watch dog groups who found its intense tone inappropriate for children. For once, that last contingent might actually be right, because the following clip is still a bit unnerving to even this grown man…
The touch of Walter Murch’s visceral sound design is unmistakable there. This was the legendary editor’s sole directorial effort and his stated aim was to eschew the stagey, vaudevillian styles of Victor Fleming’s Wizard of Oz musical to try something a little darker and truer to the source material. The resultant product - - a story the starts with Dorothy’s getting electro shock therapy treatment to cure her seemingly-insane tales of a fantasy land somewhere over the rainbow - - remains something of a cautionary example of a children’s film that'll likely terrify kids. Even when Dorothoy’s in Oz, she encounters positively ghoulish villains like Queen Mombi, a vain witch with a collection of heads…
…and the monstrous, dictatorial Gnome King who talks like Tim Curry’s Lord of Darkness in Legend and looks like one of Bill Sienkiewicz’s chaotically-metamorphosing alien Technarchy from New Mutants. Don't watch it if you don't want to see the ending.
If you were introduced to Fairuza Balk through her intense, oft-crazy roles in the likes of American History X and the Craft, it’s a little startling to see her as a sweet, little girl with pig tails (even more so than with Jennifer Connolly in Labyrinth.) She’s about ten years old here and, as such, is a more accurate vision of Dorothy than Judy Garland actually was. Of course, that also means that the scenes where she’s imperiled (and there are a lot of them) are that much more distressing.
Dorothy also gets a new patch of pals in this one--including Tik Tok the clockwork soldier, a sofa with wings and a moose’s head called the Gump, and Jack Pumpkinhead, who’s maybe only a couple notches away from Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead--and they’re certainly less cuddly than the Scarecrow, Tinman and Cowardly Lion. Even when that familiar trio shows up, they’re much more... creaturely than ones you're used to; the ones who loved to sing and dance.
To keep it all in perspective, Return to Oz is certainly less nightmarishly-trippy than the various faithful adaptations of Alice in Wonderland like the Hallmark mini-series or that Polish one with all the stop motion. Even in print, Lewis Carroll's stories were far stranger than anything Baum conceived. Either way, this is still a memorable achievements of practical creature effects and cinematic animation. I’d certainly recommend it to you highly-discerning Screenheads; I just wouldn't necessarily watching it with your daughter or your niece.Check out some previous "Weirdies" below...
- WELCOME TO WEIRD: Videodrome
- WELCOME TO WEIRD: The Holy Mountain
- WELCOME TO WEIRD: Bubba Ho-Tep
- WELCOME TO WEIRD: Santa Claus
- WELCOME TO WEIRD: Moonwalker
- WELCOME TO WEIRD: Death Race 2000
- WELCOME TO WEIRD: A Scanner Darkly
- WELCOME TO WEIRD: Buckaroo Banzai
- WELCOME TO WEIRD: Twelve Monkeys
- WELCOME TO WEIRD: Dark City
- WELCOME TO WEIRD: The Yellow Submarine
- WELCOME TO WEIRD: Shadow of the Vampire