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.
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.
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.
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.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.