More Dark Disney: Revisiting Return To Oz (1985)

Not too long ago, when I did a post and video about Disney’s 1980s “Dark Phase” and talked particularly about the 1980 film The Watcher in the Woods, I happened to mention that the movie in this specific cycle and era that actually got the most discussion for being straight-up nightmare fuel for 80s kids was probably the 1985 live-action movie Return To Oz. Because I grew up in the 1980s myself (I was thirteen when Return To Oz came out, incidentally), loved anything dark and creepy, and remain especially fascinated with darker-edged media aimed at children, I knew I would eventually sit down and revisit Return To Oz and assess it with a more adult eye. This thing haunted a generation for a reason, and its cult status, I have to say, is very richly deserved, as it’s a rather somber and spooky, but still fantastically realized, take on the Oz story, with some absolutely terrifying ideas and images brought to life with creative special effects, most of which still look pretty damn great, at least in my humble opinion.

Much like the previously discussed Watcher in the Woods, the (yellow brick) road to the final film version of Return To Oz was definitely a rocky one. Walt Disney, before his death in 1966, had wanted to do an Oz movie, and had purchased the rights to Frank L. Baum’s Oz book series, but nothing had been developed until 1980, when the copyright on the books was set to expire. It so happened that editor/director/writer/sound designer Walter Murch—who had worked in various capacities on classic films such as THX-1138, The Godfather, American Graffiti, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now—had been keen to develop an Oz story as well, and pitched an idea to Disney’s then-production chief, unaware that Disney already owned the rights to the Oz books. It seemed like kismet, and the project began moving forward.

Drawing largely from the second and third books in the series—The Marvelous Land of Oz from 1904, and Ozma of Oz from 1907—Murch also incorporated details from the 1914 book Tik-Tok of Oz, specifically the title robot character. Murch wanted to do something different from the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, making his Oz movie less a sequel and more a shared-universe variation more similar in tone to the novels, which meant going in a slightly darker direction and losing the musical aspect of the beloved Judy Garland vehicle. The only major feature carried over from the 1939 movie was the ruby slippers (which were actually silver shoes in the books), and for use of those, Disney had to pay MGM a licensing fee, since the fabulous red footwear was a film-only original concept. The rest of the stories, though, had since fallen into the public domain, so anything from the novels was fair game. Murch also chose to retain the original film’s plot trope of having the people in Kansas turn up as various characters in Oz, to keep continuity and highlight the dreamlike mirroring and ambiguity of the 1939 film.

Almost the entirety of Return To Oz was shot at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, England because of budgetary constraints; the movie would end up costing $28 million altogether. Murch got behind on the production almost immediately, and even worse, Disney executives weren’t happy with the footage they were seeing, and were threatening to fire him. Happily, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola went to bat for him, and their clout ensured that he’d be allowed to stay on and finish the film.

Unfortunately, however, the movie tanked upon release, making only a little over $11 million at the box office, and drawing decidedly mixed reviews from critics, some of whom compared it unfavorably with the 1939 classic, and/or lamented that it was too scary and intense for the children it was supposedly aimed at. Just like all the other live-action films released during Disney’s Dark Phase, though, the movie would build up an audience over the years and eventually become a cult classic.

Return To Oz is also notable, of course, for being the debut feature film of Fairuza Balk, beloved by goths everywhere for her awesome turn in 1996’s The Craft. Fairuza was only eleven years old in Return To Oz, which was much closer to the actual age of Dorothy in the books; although Judy Garland was technically supposed to be twelve in the 1939 movie, she was actually seventeen, and clearly looked it. Fairuza, while not in any way homaging Judy Garland’s performance, is fantastic here: she’s obviously a child, but she’s intelligent, resourceful, serious, and a little melancholy, as befits her situation at the start of the story.

Return To Oz is set in 1899, six months after the tornado that initially ferried Dorothy to Oz. The house belonging to Auntie Em (Piper Laurie, aka Carrie‘s crazy mom) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) was destroyed in the storm, and though Uncle Henry began constructing a new home on their Kansas farmland, he broke his leg at some point and hasn’t been able to finish it. Auntie Em knows the leg has healed by now, but Henry has fallen into a deep depression about the sad state of the family finances and simply sits on the half-finished porch of the new house, staring out at the prairie, while Em tries to keep everything together.

Aside from their dire money problems, Em and Henry are also very worried about Dorothy, who has been suffering from insomnia since the tornado, and keeps regaling them with fantastical tales of Oz, which of course neither of them believe. They’re starting to fear that she might have serious psychological problems, and though they can’t really afford to take her, they’re convinced that she needs to see a doctor.

They see an ad in the newspaper for a physician with a newfangled approach to wellness, utilizing the modern and seemingly miraculous power of electricity. Unsure of what else to do, Em takes Dorothy to see this quack, Dr. Worley (played by Nicol Williamson of Excalibur), who seems all nice and avuncular while Em is there, but once she leaves poor little Dorothy in the care of Dr. Worley and the sinister Nurse Wilson (played by Jean Marsh of The Changeling and Willow), the truth comes out; essentially, the doc and the nurse are giving their “patients” electroshock therapy using an untested device of Dr. Worley’s own design, and when they “damage” their unfortunate subjects, they lock the wretched, screaming folks down in the basement. Cheerful.

Dorothy is strapped to a gurney and about to get this same treatment when the raging storm outside knocks out the power, and when the doc and nurse go to check on the breakers and their other shrieking captives, Dorothy is able to escape with the help of a mysterious blonde girl she’s seen a couple of times previously (once in a mirror, and once in her room at the asylum, where the girl gave her a foreshadowing jack o’ lantern to remind her it was almost Halloween). The two girls flee out into the storm with Nurse Wilson giving chase, and at some point they fall into a swollen river and get swept away, seemingly out to sea.

The mystery girl is nowhere to be found, but Dorothy wakes up inside a broken crate, which has deposited her in the middle of a sandy plain with some greenery in the distance. Also in the crate, for some reason, is Billina, one of the chickens from her farm back in Kansas, only now, Billina can talk (she’s puppeteered by Mak Wilson, and voiced by Denise Bryer, who also voiced the Junk Lady from Labyrinth a year later). Because of the chicken’s sudden loquaciousness, Dorothy deduces that they must have been transported back to Oz, and if that’s the case, then the place where they’ve landed must be the Deadly Desert, which surrounds Oz proper and also turns you into sand if you touch it. Dorothy and Billina are able to hop from rock to rock to get to the grassy area, but some of the rocks have creepy looking faces that seem to be watching them, although Dorothy doesn’t notice this.

After plucking some grub from a convenient lunch pail tree, Dorothy and the chicken set out to find her friends the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, but soon enough, she begins to realize that a lot has changed since her last adventure. Dorothy finds her old house that was blown here from Kansas, but it’s no longer surrounded by Munchkinland; now there are just empty woods, and worse still, the yellow brick road is all crumbled and unkempt. A distraught Dorothy runs toward the Emerald City, but before she even gets there, she can see that it’s just a ruin, stripped of its former, glittery green glory.

Arriving in the heart of the city, she finds to her horror that everyone has been turned to stone, including her former friends, and some ominous graffiti on a wall warns to “Beware the Wheelers.” As if on cue, the Wheelers themselves—a gang of hoodlums dressed in colorful tailcoats who have wheels instead of hands and feet—start chasing Dorothy and Billina, and the pair is only able to escape by ducking into a hidden compartment using a key that Dorothy received back in Kansas when it supposedly fell from a shooting star.

As an aside, the Wheelers get brought up a lot when people talk about how much this movie scared them as kids, and I can totally see why, although I admit that they’re much scarier before they take off their creepy masks or talk. Once that happens, they just kinda look like rejects from Cirque du Soleil doing Klaus Nomi cosplay, and their threats and sneers of contempt just come off like the taunts of bullies from any 80s kids’ movie.

Several characters in Oz up to this point, by the way, seem to find it very significant and shocking that Dorothy has a chicken with her, a detail that will pay off toward the end.

Once inside the compartment, Dorothy and Billina find Tik-Tok (voiced by Seán Barrett), a squat little mechanical man who was once the Royal Army of Oz. Dorothy winds him up, and he seems like a pretty solid dude, telling Dorothy that the Scarecrow—who was made King of Oz before Dorothy left last time—stashed him there and told him to wait until Dorothy came back to fix things. Tik-Tok also tells her that the Detroit-like downfall of the Emerald City was caused by an evil fucker called the Nome King, and that no one has seen the Scarecrow in ages. If anyone knows where he is, Tik-Tok says, it will be Princess Mombi, so the group decide to head on over there and ask her what’s up.

The palace where Mombi lives looks all dusty and shit like it’s the maid’s century off, all except for the spotlessly pristine and very Versailles-like Hall of Mirrors, where Mombi sits on a throne and admires her own beauty from every possible angle. She tells Tik-Tok and Billina to cool their heels in the mirror room, then she takes Dorothy into another chamber so she can change into something more comfortable.

And right here is another one of those sequences that caused some childhood trauma, because Mombi takes Dorothy into a hall lined with glass cases, each one of which contains a different (and living) severed head. Turns out that Mombi is quite the collector, and because of her vanity, she likes to have lots of different heads that she can swap out when the mood strikes her. Her little decapitation habit is the reason why some of the statues in the Emerald City courtyard were headless, because she lopped off the ladies’ heads before turning them to stone. She also proposes to imprison Dorothy for a while until she becomes an adult, so she can add Dorothy’s head to her collection as well; admittedly it would look pretty weird for a grown woman to be wearing the head of an eleven-year-old. Which is a sentence I thought I would never type, yet here we are.

Mombi locks Dorothy and Co. into a musty old attic, but luckily, before she did, she revealed that the Scarecrow had been taken to the Nome King’s mountain, so this is the next destination on the agenda, once they escape from the attic. While looking for a way out, they stumble across a scarecrow-like man with a jack-o’-lantern head (calling back to the carved pumpkin the mystery girl had given Dorothy back at the insane asylum), who tells them his name is Jack and is voiced by Brian Henson. Apparently, Jack has only been alive for a short time, and asks if he can call Dorothy “Mom,” which is…odd and a little disquieting, but understandable given his predicament. He explains that Mombi brought him to life with a magic powder she had that was capable of bringing any inanimate object to life, and Dorothy resolves to get her hands on that shit, because something like that could really come in handy, as you can imagine. Jack says the powder is probably in the same case that contains Mombi’s original head.

Dorothy sneaks down to Mombi’s bedchamber to steal the key for the case, and although she successfully snags the powder, she wakes up Mombi’s head in the process (OG Mombi is played by Jean Marsh, the same actress who played the evil Nurse Wilson in the Kansas part of the movie), and there’s a terrifying scene where the headless Mombi lumbers after Dorothy in her nightgown, trying to get to the hall of heads to pop her noggin back on so she can give chase. It’s pretty unsettling, you guys.

So while Dorothy was doing that, the rest of the gang was focusing on constructing a flying creature that they’ll be able to use to escape, utilizing an antique sofa, some rope, a few big palm fronds for wings, and a trophy moose head thing of a creature called a Gump. Long story short, Dorothy returns with the powder, Mombi hot on her heels, and the gang sprinkle the stuff over the Gump, he comes to life, and they all pile on and zoom out the window.

A livid Mombi gathers the Wheelers and hooks them to a sledge like she’s Witchy Santa and they’re the eight tiny reindeer, and she lights out for the Nome King’s mountain to warn him about Dorothy’s arrival. Meanwhile, Dorothy and gang crash land after the Gump creature starts falling part midair, but luckily they all survive and end up on a plateau of the mountain, where the Nome King—an awesome-looking, moving-face-in-a-rock creature done with stop-motion animation and voiced by Nicol Williamson, who also played Dr. Worley in the Kansas portion—tells Dorothy that he imprisoned the Scarecrow because the Scarecrow had stolen his emeralds, which sounds kinda like bullshit in Dorothy’s opinion. Now, the Nome King does show her that apparently all the precious gems in the world come from his mountain, including all the emeralds, but Dorothy points out that the King has way more emeralds than he could ever use, so what’s the big deal about some other people having some, ya greedy bastard; and also, the Scarecrow wasn’t made King of Oz until after Emerald City had already been established, meaning that he couldn’t have stolen the gems.

The Nome King doesn’t give two shits about logic, though, and he decides he’s gonna fuck with Dorothy and crew a little bit. He tells her that the Scarecrow has been turned into a fancy knick-knack in his collection, and he will give each one of the gang three chances to guess which gewgaw is actually the Scarecrow. All they have to do is go into the chamber one at a time, touch the object they think is the Scarecrow, and say, “Oz.” If they pick the right one, the Scarecrow will be restored to life and all of them can leave.

Perhaps unwisely, the gang agrees to this game before asking what the consequences will be if they mess up, an oversight that is definitely going to come back to bite them in the ass. Gump goes into the chamber first and doesn’t pick the correct thingamajig, which leads to him also being turned into a vase or some shit. Dorothy is horrified, but the Nome King points out that they all should have asked what would happen if they guessed wrong, which fair play to him, they didn’t. Notably, every time one of Dorothy’s buddies gets turned into a knick-knack, the Nome King edges more toward being a human, eventually emerging from the wall his form was trapped in. The Nome King, incidentally, also has the magical ruby slippers, which he scooped up after they fell off Dorothy’s feet as she was going back to Kansas last time; so Dorothy feels indirectly responsible for causing all the misery in the Emerald City, since if she hadn’t dropped the shoes, the Nome King wouldn’t have been able to become all powerful and take over.

Jack goes into the chamber next and also fucks up; Billina doesn’t get a chance because she was hiding inside Jack’s head because of some trouble that occurred earlier. Tik-Tok agrees to go next, and because he’s clever, he pretends like his action has wound down before he got to pick, thus ensuring that Dorothy will get to come in the chamber with him to wind him back up. Tik-Tok says that he’s having a hard time choosing correctly—I mean, all the objects just look like random tchotchkes and statues and stuff, and there are a lot of them—so he figures that if he touches the third thing and it’s wrong, at least maybe Dorothy will be able to see what he changed into, which might give her a clue as to which item the Scarecrow might be. Tik-Tok touches a silver chalice and poofs out of existence, but Dorothy can’t see an object that he might have transformed into, so she’s kinda at a loss, since that was their whole plan.

Dorothy touches two things and neither one is the Scarecrow, and after that she decides to just stay fuck it and use the Force: she closes her eyes and just starts wandering around randomly. When she opens her eyes, she sees a large green crystal thing that sort of looks like an emerald paperweight, and of course when she touches it, the Scarecrow reappears. Dorothy surmises that everyone from Oz will have turned into a green object, so she and the Scarecrow race around the room looking for green things. They transform Gump back right away, but while they’re doing that, the Nome King has gotten super pissed at being bested, and has grown to an enormous size. The other nomes too are all shambling into the chamber like creepy granite zombies.

Dorothy finds Jack and changes him back to his regular self, but the Nome King is now gigantic and terrifying, and everything has turned red and fire-y and it looks like Hell all up in the place, and to make everything even more nightmarish, NK has had enough of their shit and decides he’s just gonna straight up eat them. He swallows Gump’s couch body (his head is still okay) and then picks up Jack by the foot and dangles him over his stretchy, stone maw, threatening to munch him down as he screams pitifully, but then, Billina—who remember was hiding inside Jack’s pumpkin head—lays an egg in terror, and said egg vanishes down the Nome King’s gullet. And remember also how all the bad guys in Oz seemed freaked out by hearing that Dorothy had a chicken with her? Turns out it’s because eggs are poisonous to nomes, and are in fact the only thing that can kill them. The Nome King disintegrates in a fairly horrifying fashion, and all of the other nomes either retreat back into the walls, or also die because maybe they’re all one organism?

Oh, and by the way, Princess Mombi is still around, but she was put in a cage earlier by the Nome King because he was mad at her for not bringing Dorothy to him like he asked, and after Dorothy uses the ruby slippers she pulls outta the rocky wreckage that was once the Nome King to get them all the hell out of the mountain, Mombi has her witchy powers taken away, making her no longer a threat. The Wheelers, presumably, go back to audition for the road company of Fame somewhere.

So the Emerald City is restored back to its former glory, and although everyone calls for Dorothy to be made Queen of Oz, she says she really ought to go back to Kansas, though for the life of me I can’t fathom why. It turns out, though, that the mystery girl who was helping her at various points along the way is actually Ozma, the rightful Queen of Oz, who was trapped behind a mirror by Mombi after her father died. Dorothy happily frees Ozma, allowing her to retake her throne, and says goodbye to all her friends, though Billina the chicken very sensibly opts to stay in Oz, because who the hell would want to go back to drab-ass Kansas, especially if you’re a chicken who’s in danger of being spatchcocked and roasted with fennel if you don’t produce enough eggs? Live the dream, Billina.

Dorothy wakes up alongside the banks of the river near the insane asylum that she escaped from so long ago, and adorable Toto finds her, closely followed by Em and Henry and some other neighbors who have been out looking for her. Em tells Dorothy that the insane asylum was struck by lightning during the storm and burned down, and that everyone got out okay but Dr. Worley, who perished after running back inside to save his machines. Dorothy stares wide-eyed as Nurse Wilson—who remember is the same actress as Princess Mombi—is carted off to the hoosegow in a caged truck that looks like the cage the Nome King placed her in back in Oz.

After that, everything wraps up in a happy ending: Henry finishes the new house, and their fortunes look to be improving. Dorothy still sees Ozma and Billina in her mirror, and wants to tell Auntie Em about it, but Ozma encourages her to keep it a secret, I guess ensuring that Dorothy will be considered a delusional nutcase by her relatives for the rest of her days. Oh well.

Return to Oz is a very different film than The Wizard of Oz, but to be honest I think that’s one of its greatest strengths. It’s still whimsical and fun and action-packed, but the tone is much gloomier, and the enemies more numerous and slightly more frightening. Fairuza Balk is perfectly cast in this: she has a great balance of childlike wonder and pensive thoughtfulness, as though the weight of the world is on her shoulders; but she’s still very self-possessed and secure in her own values. For example, before she goes into the chamber to try her hand at saving the Scarecrow, the Nome King offers to send her home, no strings attached; her friends are already goners anyway, he reasons, so why risk her own neck? But she steadfastly refuses, knowing that there’s a good chance she might also be turned into an ashtray or something, but not willing to give up on rescuing her friends.

Interestingly, even though the movie didn’t do all that well with audiences or critics at the time of its release, it was nominated for an Oscar for visual effects, but lost out to Cocoon. And the effects here are outstanding for the time; although the puppetry isn’t quite as jaw-dropping as something from Jim Henson’s studio—like Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal—it still looks pretty awesome, especially Jack Pumpkinhead and Tik-Tok (whose head was remote controlled, but who had a little person actor inside, controlling the robot while essentially being upside down). I also loved the look of the nomes, with their faces traveling across the rock surfaces in stop motion; just another example of old-school techniques looking better than CGI, even with its imperfections.

If you love scary movies aimed at children but with plenty of juicy stuff in there for adults to enjoy as well, Return to Oz is a great slab of spooky 1980s goodness. Don’t approach it as though it’s a sequel or extension of the 1939 film, though; just watch it as its own thing, because even though there are a few overlaps, it’s very much a separate story and tone. It’s very easy to see as well why this movie frightened so many children back then, because there are some really chilling sequences and concepts presented—especially the electroshock therapy, the hall of severed heads, and the hellish-looking final battle with the Nome King—but honestly, I always loved scary shit when I was a kid, and even though this absolutely would have frightened the piss out of me if I had seen it when I was a wee nipper, I also would have probably immediately asked to watch it again.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.


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