"We're still at war, Plissken. We need him alive."

"I don't give a fuck about your war... or your president."

Return to Oz

June 21, 1985

Forty-six years after MGM’s beloved Technicolor musical THE WIZARD OF OZ, Walt Disney Pictures produced their own journey through the world of L. Frank Baum. Though titled and framed like a sequel, writer/director Walter Murch and co-writer Dennis Gill (WALK THE LINE) treated it more as a literary adaptation, basing it mostly on book #3, Ozma of Oz, combined with some characters from #2, The Marvelous Land of Oz. In an article by Alan Jones in the July, 1985 issue of Cinefantastique (my most quoted source in this review series, you may have noticed), executive producer Gary Kurtz (THE DARK CRYSTAL) says they “pondered at great length” whether to even use the iconic ruby slippers, since in the books they were silver.

Like its predecessor, the not-really-sequel is full of whimsical characters and underpinned with fairy tale menace, but in most other ways it’s wildly different. The colors are subdued rather than vivid, the settings are grounded rather than stagey, it stars 10-year-old newcomer Fairuza Balk as Dorothy rather than a teen like Judy Garland, and she doesn’t sing, because it’s not a musical. While WIZARD’s costumes, jokes and dance numbers come out of the vaudeville tradition, RETURN creates its world and characters with the rapidly evolving cinematic puppetry, animation and visual FX technology of the Lucas/Spielberg era. Murch told Cinefantastique, “At first I was worried about using state-of-the-art animatronics, but so many of the OZ personnel are graduates of The Muppets, STAR WARS, and THE DARK CRYSTAL that I realized it would be pointless to worry.”

The result is a classic entry in the unique-to-the-‘80s subgenre of dark, imaginative, FX-heavy fantasy for children, preceded by THE DARK CRYSTAL and THE NEVERENDING STORY and followed by LABYRINTH.

The story begins in Kansas, late October, 1899, six months after the tornado. Dorothy has had trouble sleeping at night, and hasn’t been herself lately, according to Aunt Em (Piper Laurie, way nicer than in CARRIE). Since Dorothy keeps talking about her friends in the magical land of Oz, Em worries her niece has been driven crazy by trauma, so she saves up the money to bring her to Dr. J.B. Worley (Nicol Williamson, EXCALIBUR, SPAWN) for innovative new electroshock therapy.

The doctor seems friendly enough, but at night the cold Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh, before a similar role in WILLOW) asks Dorothy if she wants to “go for a ride,” which means to strap her to a gurney and roll her to the shocker machine. Luckily a storm knocks the power out and a mysterious other patient (Emma Ridley, previously in a 1980 episode of Hammer House of Horror) helps Dorothy escape. But they fall in a raging river.

Dorothy floats away in what looks like a baby’s crib, or a cage, but I guess it’s a chicken coop. She wakes up later and her hen Billina is there, talking to her (voice of Denise Bryer, The Junk Lady in LABYRINTH), so she realizes she’s in Oz, where animals can talk.

Things have really changed in half a year. The yellow brick road is torn up and full of weeds, the Emerald City is in ruins, and she finds the Tin Woodman, The Cowardly Lion (kind of a mean thing to call her friend, in my opinion, but maybe I don’t get the Oz culture) and a bunch of random people turned into sculptures, and King Scarecrow has already been deposed by the conquering Nome King (Williamson again).

As you expect in an Oz or Wonderland or Neverending type of story, it’s sort of an episodic tour through weird magical places (the Deadly Desert turns people into sand) and threats (The Wheelers roll around with wheels on their hands and feet, wearing weird shiny clothes and harassing people like some Cirque du Soleil version of alley rapists from a DEATH WISH ripoff).

And she puts together a new group of friends. Jack Pumpkinhead (Brian Henson) is a tall scarecrow type who sometimes is a guy in a costume but usually has a long, skinny neck so that you can tell he’s not. The Gump (voice of creature design supervisor Lyle Conway, a.k.a. Reichardt from BLADE) is a flying creature they magically created out of a hunting trophy, a sofa and some palm leaves – like a prompt for kids to imagine building a friend/vehicle with furniture at home. My favorite is Tik-Tok, a rotund metal man with three wind-up keys – one for thinking, one for speaking, one for action – that tend to run out at different times. I miss these kind of movies, with so many non-human characters that are fun just to see moving and speaking. And I like that this ragtag crew of a child, a chicken and some animated objects are seen as a threat to the Nome King, and referred to as “a small army.” The antifa of their day.


I didn’t see this as a kid, but I imagine the scariest element is Mombi (Marsh again, or sometimes Sophie Ward [WAXWORK II] or Fiona Victory [CHAMPIONS]), the evil princess who can remove her head and replace it with others from her collection of living heads stolen and kept in display cases. She sees potential for Dorothy’s head when it gets older so she wants to hang on to her.

The less bizarre but more fantastical Nome King starts out as a moving face in the side of a rock formation. As Dorothy’s squad travel the kingdom they never notice that rocks keep spouting eyes to spy on them. It’s all depicted through the Claymation of Will Vinton (creator of The Noid and The California Raisins), adding a little different flavor to the Muppet/STAR WARS vibe.

Reading Wikipedia summaries of the books, the movie seems more faithful than I assumed. Many of the details are different, like Baum had much of this taking place in kingdoms other than Oz. But the books have Billina, the Wheelers, the Nome King (who’s afraid of eggs), the Powder of Life, the Gump, the Deadly Desert, Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead, the people turned into objects and back, even the princess with the collection of exchangeable heads (although the name Princess Mombi comes from a different character). Murch and Dennis added the scenes in Kansas with the doctor, which I think give the story its meaning.

We all want to believe Dorothy is right, that Oz is real, but it could also be a dream inspired by things she sees in reality (explaining why the nurse becomes the wicked princess and her gurney-pushing orderlies become Wheelers). In either interpratation, Oz represents Dorothy’s precious imagination, which Dr. Worley minimizes by saying that “our dreams and delusions” are really just “excess current” in the brain, and thanks to his machine “Now we have the means to control these excess currents.”

Aunt Em unfortunately buys that they need to do that to make her niece normal. But Dorothy avoids the electric treatment and is able to keep her fantasy life. There’s a parallel in Billina, who in the Kansas scenes is warned she’ll be stewed for dinner if she doesn’t start laying eggs soon. She’s refusing the traditional role of a chicken of her gender. As soon as I realized this I was worried that the happy ending would involve her being able to lay eggs again, but she only lays one by accident, in fear. At the end she decides to stay in Oz – where she’s free to wander, doesn’t have to lay eggs, and has a voice – rather than go back to that bullshit on the farm.

You’d dream of magical lands too if you lived in an age when this is what constitutes “downtown.”

And of course there’s something to be said about Mombi, whose lifestyle is to sit alone playing lute in a gigantic, extravagant room, judging other women’s looks (she considers Dorothy “pretty” but “not beautiful”), stealing their heads, turning people into objects for her collection, and conversely complaining when some of her “valuable antiques” turn into a living being. After Mombi’s defeat, Dorothy could become queen, could choose to live a superficial materialistic life like that, but would rather go back to the farm, as long as she has her dreams and memories of her friends. In the end those chambers are open to all the weirdos of Oz, including the very cool looking Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion (not people in makeup, but elaborate costumes/puppets based closely on the book illustrations).

Murch was known as the genius editor of THE CONVERSATION and APOCALYPSE NOW, also working on the sound for those films as well as THX 1138, THE GODFATHER and AMERICAN GRAFFITI. He had co-written THX 1138 (and some uncredited work on THE BLACK STALLION), but had never directed before, and by all reports it was a struggle for him. The budget was already out of control during pre-production, causing them to bring on a new producer, Paul Maslansky (HARD TIMES, CIRCLE OF IRON, the fucking POLICE ACADEMY series) to keep an eye on it. Murch couldn’t get along with director of photography Freddie Francis (THE ELEPHANT MAN) and replaced him with David Watkin (THE DEVILS, CHARIOTS OF FIRE). Five weeks in he was already behind schedule and they fired him. But his friend George Lucas immediately flew in, watched the footage with him and liked it. In another great use of his clout (see also: BODY HEAT, KAGEMUSHA, TWICE UPON A TIME, POWAQAATSI), Lucas convinced Disney to rehire Murch by guaranteeing he’d step in himself if his boy couldn’t turn things around. Murch told Film Freak Central in 2012, “It was a fantastic act of generosity and commitment on his part.”

Two more friends, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg, also showed up to help. According to Maslansky in Cinefantastique, it was “Electrifying. Walter caught fire, and OZ became a totally new picture.” The producer was convinced the movie was going to be a hit. “The way I look at it is that we’ll get half the money back on OZ from people who are just curious—‘What did they do to our cherished institution of OZ?’ And when they find out, the word of mouth will start, helped by the proper marketing that Disney is determined to do, and we should sail past our projected grosses.”

Arguably that marketing wasn’t there, but the word of mouth wasn’t either, at least during the theatrical release. Neither critics or audiences seemed very open to this new approach to Oz. Variety called it “astonishingly somber, melancholy, and sadly, unengaging… a heaviness of tone and absence of narrative drive prevent the flights of fancy from getting off the ground.”

Gene Siskel gave the film a half star, and only spent one paragraph evaluating it on its own merits (praising the Claymation). The entire rest of the review is complaints about it being different from THE WIZARD OF OZ:

“Couldn’t they at least have had ‘Over the Rainbow’ played as an instrumental every now and then? Oh, I know it would have horrified the purists who love the L. Frank Baum books, but, I dunno, it might have put a smile on the face of a couple of paying customers… Rarely has a movie been created that seems so pointed to frustrate the reasonable expectations of the audience… the yellow brick road [is] shown only in ruins and is never repaired in a glorious finale… the kind of movie that encourages people to rent home videotapes of THE WIZARD OF OZ and THE WIZ.”

And it bellyflopped at the box office, opening at #8 (two slots beneath WITNESS in its 20th week). It didn’t even make back half of its budget in theaters. But it went on to become a cult favorite, primarily with the exact audience Siskel worried about when he said it was “certain to send young children under the age of, say, 6, screaming up the aisles,” and for the exact reasons he disliked it (scary, not a musical, completely unlike the MGM movie). Many kids who saw it on VHS or the Disney Channel grew into young adults who fondly remembered being creeped out by the exchangeable heads, the Wheelers, the threat of electroshock, etc.

I don’t think Variety was wrong about the lack of narrative drive, but if there’s a movie of this subgenre that’s “almost RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK,” as Maslansky claimed of this, I don’t think I’ve seen it. Generally the formula is a series of encounters with strange creatures and places, followed by an evil being defeated, and the protagonist going home. Siskel needed song and dance within that, which is fair enough, but to many – including me – the mood and the craftsmanship and the fantastical world are the attraction, and I think we’re all better off with a distinctive movie like this than if it had been a pale ’80s imitation of the Judy Garland classic.

SUMMER OF 1985 NOTES:

Summer of 1985 connections:

This movie stands out from its peers. The 19th century time period prevents it from having any video game high scores or Playboys, and there are no dobermans. But like THE GOONIES it had a movie poster painted by the legendary Drew Struzan.

Tie-ins:

Being a major Walt Disney summer would-be blockbuster, it had some merchandising including trading cards, a paperback comic book adaptation released by Scholastic, a young adult novelization by Joan D. Vinge (writer of the COWBOYS & ALIENS novelization and storybooks for SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE, RETURN OF THE JEDI and even DUNE), a hardcover storybook, a series of Little Golden Books (Return to Oz: Dorothy Returns To Oz, Return to Oz: Dorothy in the Ornament Rooms and Return to Oz: Escape from the Witch’s Castle), but surprisingly no toys or dolls, from what I can tell.

Legacy:

After the Oz ordeal, Walter Murch couldn’t get any other directing projects off the ground, so he returned to editing and sound mixing (including CAPTAIN EO, THE GODFATHER: PART III, FIRST KNIGHT, K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER and many more). His only ever return to directing was for a 2011 episode of the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars (“The General”).

Stephen Norrington, whose FX contributions include operating the Gump and building Billina, also worked on ALIENS, HARDWARE, ALIEN 3 and THE WITCHES before directing four films, DEATH MACHINE, BLADE, THE LAST MINUTE and THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, the last of which (much like this film for Murch) chased him away from directing.

But come on, man. The dude directed BLADE. He is one of the greats.

Neal Scanlan, the “mechanical characters technician” and builder of the stop motion puppet of Jack Pumpkinhead, went on to supervise animatronic characters for BABE and BABE: PIG IN THE CITY, and then all of the modern STAR WARS movies (THE FORCE AWAKENS, ROGUE ONE, THE LAST JEDI, SOLO, RISE OF SKYWALKER).

Will Vinton Studios later contributed sequences to Michael Jackson’s MOONWALKER and BRAIN DONORS, made TV specials including Festival of Claymation, Meet the Raisins!, Claymation Comedy of Horrors Show and Claymation Easter, plus three seasons of the “foamation” series The P.J.s. In the late ‘90s they brought on outside investors, including Nike CEO Phil Knight, who became majority share holder in 2002, fired Vinton and replaced him with his son Travis. Renamed Laika, they studio has made several brilliant stop motion features, and Travis Knight has proven himself very talented, first as an animator, then as director of KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS and BUMBLEBEE. Still, that’s fucked up what happened.

Storyboard artist Henry Selick was a Disney animator and had been sequence director on TWICE UPON A TIME. Around this same time he directed the video for Fishbone’s anthem “Party At Ground Zero”:

In 1991 his weird stop motion short Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions creeped people out on MTV, and then his old Disney co-worker Tim Burton tapped him to direct THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, starring another character named Jack who looks oddly similar to Jack Pumpkinhead and even has a pumpkin on his head in one scene. That was followed by JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH and, I’m afraid, MONKEYBONE.

Selick’s most recent feature was CORALINE, the debut feature by the aforementioned Laika Studios. He’s currently working on WENDELL AND WILD, a straight-to-Netflix feature starring and written by Key & Peele.

Fairuza Balk, of course, continued acting into teendom and adulthood, being directed by Milos Forman in VALMONT (1989), winning an Independent Spirit Award for GAS FOOD LODGING (1992), becoming sort of a goth icon in THE CRAFT (1996) and a cat lady in THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1996). I haven’t seen her in anything since the great BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (2009), but she’s been in movies as recently as 2018 as well as on Ray Donavan and and upcoming show called Paradise City. She also has a band called Armed Love Militia and has exhibited drawings and prints. Finding plenty to do with those excess currents.

This entry was posted on Monday, June 22nd, 2020 at 12:26 pm and is filed under Family, Fantasy/Swords, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

21 Responses to “Return to Oz”

  1. It’s still funny that THIS is the dark and disturbing Oz sequel, and not the one that was made by the director of EVIL DEAD.

    Also this was not just the first OZ movie that I saw, it was even the first time that I heard of Oz in general. It confused the shit out of me that Dorothy was talking about being in a magical land before. Germany didn’t seem to catch up on the whole Oz thing until, I don’t know, the 21st century? It’s still not really a thing here, though.

  2. I saw this one in the theatre as a little kid, and I know that ’80s kids like to talk about how THE NEVERENDING STORY and stuff is “Nightmare Fuel,” but RETURN TO OZ really wasn’t fucking around.

    I read somewhere that Murch felt Disney execs had prevented him from truly realizing “the wrath of his vision,” which is an awesome thing to say about a children’s film.

    ’85 was a fascinating year for the studio, and I look forward to your take on THE BLACK CAULDRON as well.

  3. 1) I wonder if I’m more prone to appreciate this now as an adult and an editor who worships Murch, having no clue who he was when I was 6 years old.

    2) Having a 6 year old myself who just saw Wizard of Oz, I wonder if this will freak her out. Probably.

    3) The sheer amount of behind the scenes talent on this blows my mind!

    4) Brain Donors is hilarious and I dont care if you feel otherwise.

  4. (Sorry, I realize that Brain Donors comment might come off as confrontational. Wasn’t meant to be. More of a jocular “This is what I think and if you think differently that’s fine, I just know you’re wrong” directed at nobody specific.

    On a related note, Vern have you tried Backbeat Bourbon based out of your home base there? Quite tasty.

    Signing off

  5. We’re all familiar with how the Oscars ignore anything “genre” so I won’t rehash those arguments other than to say Fairuza Balk’s performance in “The Craft” deserved some serious attention. It’s one of those performances where any sense of distance between the character and the actor vanishes, every moment seems authentic, and if it had been in a straight drama about Nancy Downs sliding into drug addiction or schizophrenia the Academy would’ve eaten it up with a shovel. Also “Return to Oz” is pretty great.

  6. I saw this in theaters and it was a movie I watched regularly on VHS. When I got Disney+ I watched it again and felt it did look cheap and sloppy, as the budget cuts and inexperience directing would suggest.

    Labyrinth is my favorite movie of all time. NEVERENDING Story is also profound for me (I only just realized it’s about us watching Bastian read about Atreyu and then our story will be part of someone else’s.) This is my genre and there aren’t enough examples. R2Oz did the job for me as a kid but not anymore.

    I’m also curious about the books as a franchise that seems quite different from its most famous adaptation. Never delved in though. I loved the Raimi prequel though.

  7. Tighter there with you The Winchester, I love Brain Donors. Saw in the theater with a a friend (my normal group didn’t like going any night but Friday and I was itching for some laughs the following night ) and maybe eight other people. While I roared at every bit especially the Turturro at-near-Cage-levels mega-acting, my friend instead watch the crowd who he said was laughing at me cackling rather than the movie itself.

    It’s pure Pat Proft without the ZAZ sensibilities or Bachelor Party R-rated expectations.

  8. Is Brain Donors the Marx Bros movie made in the 90s and without the Marx Bros (Turturro being Groucho)?

    I ducked into a theater to kill time, and was super confused about what I was seeing

  9. I don’t think I’ve seen this since the ’80s and I can’t say that I remember it at all. I certainly can’t find any residual nostalgia for it like I can for THE NEVERENDING STORY or LABYRINTH.

    But I do have a tragic legacy story about it that seems to’ve been overlooked here. Michael Sundin, an English and World trampoline champion, was the in-costume performer of Tik-Tok. During the filming of a RETURN TO OZ behind-the-scenes segment for the BBC’s flagship children’s magazine show Blue Peter, Sundin so impressed the producers of the show that he was hired as a presenter. Blue Peter is a British cultural institution that has been on air regularly since 1958 and being a presenter on the show is, or at least was then, something of a big deal. Unfortunately, Sundin was a little stilted on camera and, significantly, deemed “effeminate”, and he was let go after only a brief period on the show. Shortly thereafter he was outed as gay by Britain’s tabloid press, which may just have been bad timing but has always left the show and its producers looking homophobic. Sundin died in 1989 at the age of 28 of what I think are now acknowledged to be AIDS-related complications, although I should say that Wikipedia still has him denying AIDS.

    Here’s Walter Murch explaining what a complex job operating Tik-Tok was:

    The Elstree Project: Operating Tik Tok

    Director Walter Murch talks about working with performer Michael Sundin, and just how physically demanding the role of operating Tik-Tok was in the Disney fi...

  10. Wasn’t there some dust up a few years ago about Laika studio screwing over their artists? I don’t remember any details and could be wrong. A quick internet search didn’t bring up anything.

  11. I distinctly remember watching this with my cousins when I was a little kid and it scared the hell out of me and then I had to go sleep on the floor in their bedroom convinced that those wheel-man-monkey things were gonna come for me. I don’t think it’s ever come up in conversation since then without everyone agreeing it was a freaky movie, but I haven’t seen it since then. I imagine I’d like it a lot more now- I don’t really remember much about it, but the stills look interesting (though looking at the monkey-wheel guys again did bring back a jolt of “AAAH, oh yeah, shit, wow, haven’t thought about these things in years”).

  12. Thomas Caniglia

    June 23rd, 2020 at 1:51 pm

    The Wheel monkey men are the worst thing in this movie, and really almost ruin it. I believe that these characters are some gemini duo of evil spirits that inhabit movies and usually detract from them in big ways. They appear again in Highlander 2 as Corda and Reno and then again in Matrix 2 as the “twins”. They are like how Wes Craven meta-described the Freddy Entity in New Nightmare as this spirit that was trapped in our stories and fed on our fear, but these screechy siblings feed on our annoyance and disappointment.

    It is impossible for me to get my mind around seeing Fairuza Balk in this movie and also seeing Fairuza Balk in Ray Donovan. It makes me reject reality.

    I love Return to Oz in every way. Tik-tok and the Pumpkin man, the Scarecrow, Fairuza, Nicol Williamson, they all rock my world in this one. I could do without the nurse/witch.

  13. A couple of years ago I picked up a book from a book sale at work called THE WORLD OF OZ, chronicling the history of the series from the first book up to the release of RETURN TO OZ, but it’s not published by Disney so not strictly a tie-in I guess.

    There was a fairly infamous review in the UK by the fairly infamous Alexander Walker, where he made disapproving note of a six year old girl running out of the film screaming. A poster on a forum I used to frequent claimed they were that girl.

    For some reason I feel like mentioning that Bronson Pinchot, of Autumn of 85’s AFTER HOURS, is such an Oz-head that before he was famous he used to organise fan conventions, designed two OZ calendars, and even recently took the lead in a restoration project for one of Baum’s houses.

    MaggieMayPie- The only thing I recall hearing is that Travis Knight put his staff on garden leave while he made BUMBLEBEE

  14. Yes, I think it was a commenter here who had a friend who worked there as an animator, and said they were all left hanging with no work because Knight was trying to decide whether to take SUICIDE SQUAD 2 or something like that.

  15. I believe it was VENOM 2 Knight was considered for (now shot by Andy Serkis)

  16. I saw this at the cinema when it came out, possibly as a double feature with The Black Cauldron, I think.

    I think it was much darker than I expected if I recall correctly.

  17. Thanks, I knew it was something like that.

  18. People can make fun of George Lucas (and there’s a lot you can make fun of) but the story Vern tells of him helping Murch and promising to direct a movie he has nothing to do with as a guarantee of his friend shows that he’s always been the fucking GOAT. Helping to get guys like Kurosawa huge budgets when they’re on the ropes, and a bunch of other weird films made. Sure the prequels weren’t that great but he made them with his own money and did whatever the fuck he wanted, which is pretty cool and rarely seen since the 70s (of course the resulting movies show why). The guy is great.

  19. I loved the film as a child – the best and my favorite Oz book of them all, translated here as “Dorothy at King Nome’s Court” – although I did object to giving Langwidere Mombi’s name, for whatever inexplicable reason. (What, was “Langwidere” too complicated for someone?) Billina and her presence was the nicest part, and the Wheelers were probably the best part of the adaptation – cowardly yet malicious dorks, trying to masquerade as evil demons.

  20. Muh, I don’t think anybody will deny that Lucas seems to be a great guy, who loves to use his power for good. Like when he wanted to build affordable housing on his property, but the financial backers pulled out, because neighbours protested the project, out of fear that “thugs” would roam the area. He then just said “fuck that” and paid the 150 Million $ for it out of his own pocket. And that’s just the stories that we know about! He probably does all kind of awesome shit and never talks about it. I would love to see him getting into politics and beat all the corrupt billionaires in the white house with their own weapons, but that he is wise enough to stay out of it, is another reason why he is cool.

    (Of course at this point I wouldn’t be surprised if we would suddenly learn that he is an anti-vaccing, child trafficking KKK grand wizard and puppy kicker, but until that: Great guy!)

  21. I was thinking recently (as you do) that if Richard Williams had had backing/support from Lucas (or Spielberg for that matter) he would probably have been able to finish THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER

Leave a Reply





XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <img src=""> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <b> <i> <strike> <em> <strong>