The Film: 'Return to Oz' (1985), Dir. Walter Murch
Starring: Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh and Piper Laurie.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now: Oh, I tried. In my early years of perusing the VHS stacks at my local video rental establishment, I kept a vigilant eye open for it and consistently came up empty-handed. Considering how it seemingly traumatized everyone I know, maybe this was a good thing.
Pre-Viewing Assumptions: To hear it from many of friends and colleagues, 'Return to Oz' is the most terrifying movie ever made. It's always a similar anecdote:
"Oh man! My mom was looking for a movie for me to watch and she saw it and thought 'Oh! A sequel to 'The Wizard of Oz! That'll be nice.' Then she put it on, left the room and turned out the lights. I had nightmares for years."
What made it so scary? What could have possibly instilled such fear? I have no idea. They never get to that part -- they only shake their heads sadly and recall the cinematic experience that left their childhood gutted on the side of the highway. Maybe there was a mass mis-printing and a bunch of kids mistakenly found themselves watching 'Night and Fog' or something. C'mon, look at the poster at the top of this piece. It just looks so jolly!
And that takes me to the big question -- will I find 'Return to Oz' frightening? I doubt it. Kids are weird and they have weird reactions to the weirdest things. (Weirdos.) I know a guy who was traumatized by the opening fifteen minutes of 'E.T.' The ten and under set is an unreliable witness regarding scariness. What scares a kid doesn't always scare an adult (especially if you're like me and count smashing through brick walls to fight criminals and ghostbusting in haunted manors among your hobbies) and I find it highly doubtful that a 1985 children's movie will do anything to impair my sleeping habits. I made it through 'Labyrinth.' I'll be fine. What I find especially telling is how everyone talks about how this film scared them half to death, but they never bring up little things like story and character.
Because I'm viewing this as an oh-so-cynical grown-up, 'Return to Oz' will have to double its efforts to work for me. That means it will have succeed as a full-fledged film, not as a childhood memory. Is that possible? Beats me. Will I enjoy the film despite having not read a single word of L. Frank Baum's work and with my only knowledge of the 'Oz' world coming from the 1939 film and post-modern takes like 'Wicked'? Just exactly how steeped in Baum's lore is this film? Am I supposed to view it as a sequel or as a stand-alone adventure? Is it ... not a musical? Do any major characters return? Why is this the only film the great editor Walter Murch directed? Why am I thinking so hard about 'Return to Oz' before I've even seen it?
Post-Viewing Reaction: You people are crazy. I say that with all due respect, but crazy nonetheless. There is nothing about 'Return to Oz' that is remotely creepy and I find it difficult to believe that my younger self being in any way terrified by this film. To put it in 1980s family fantasy movie perspective, Young Me watched 'The Neverending Story' on a continuous loop for about a year and came out nightmare-free. That film featured the young hero's horse companion being overwhelmed by depression and slowly sinking into quicksand while our his master begged him not to die. In the immortal tone of Denzel Washington, 'Return to Oz' ain't got sh*t on 'The Neverending Story.'
You people were scared by the Wheelers? These guys? These guys? Really? Really?!
But I knew I wasn't going to be creeped out in any way by the movie (although I wasn't expecting an experience so completely un-scary -- you people are still crazy). Placing its unearned reputation as one of the scariest kids' movies ever made aside, is 'Return to Oz' any good?
Eh, it's okay.
Sometimes you just have to accept that you're not the target audience for a movie. I am not a child and I am not a fan of the 'Oz' mythos, so this film's sway over me is limited at best, since it doesn't even intend to cater to anyone outside of that crowd. Pixar has spoiled us in recent years, making us think that "family films" can entertain the kids, their sulky teenage brethren and their long-suffering parents in equal measure, but the vast majority of the time, the family film genre tag pretty much translates as "If you're under the age of ten, prepare to be underwhelmed."
And you know what? That's perfectly fine. Kids are a valid audience who need entertainment, too. As far as childrens' films with little-to-no actual adult appeal beyond nostalgia, 'Return to Oz' is a worthy endeavor, a massive step above most kids' stuff in terms of quality, design and imagination.
'Return to Oz' picks up six months after Dorothy's tornado-driven journey to the magical land of Oz. She's barely sleeping, having strange visions and creeping out her aunt and uncle by telling them that she went on a trip to a magical land filled with talking animals and scarecrows. The only apparent solution? Primitive electroshock treatment at a shady asylum (probably the only scene in the film that actually approaches being scary). The only escape? A return to Oz! The only problem? The Gnome King has ransacked the Emerald City and turned everyone to stone. The only solution? A quest to confront him and restore the land.
What's strange about the film, and what probably led to it being a massive box office dud back in the day, is that it exists in a strange no-man's land between the popular public vision of the 'Oz' universe (entirely informed by the original musical adaptation of 'The Wizard of Oz') and Baum's universe as written. The Dorothy here is significantly younger than Judy Garland's iconic portrayal, her life in Kansas tougher, and more realistic and Oz itself more threatening (but never scary -- I'm upgrading you people from crazy to insane). It's a fantasy quest more in line with something like 'The Chronicles of Narnia' than a whimsical, joyous journey like the musical. To the film's credit, its attempt to stick to Baum's work instead of sequelize the original film is bold, but when you're making a sequel in a universe that is so different than the one everyone knows -- you are essentially shooting yourself in the foot. It truly feels like we've missed the proper introductions for these versions of the characters.
It doesn't help that the film's major journey feels so small. There is never a sense that our heroes (Dorothy befriends a talking pumpkin man and a badass robot soldier, among others) go on a quest of real length, and they seems to face absurdly limited opposition on their way to facing down the Gnome King. The film is crying out for some scope, it demands to be an epic, but the world feels so small and so easily traversable. Is my modern mind just spoiled by Peter Jackson's 'Lord of the Rings' or even 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,' both of which made going on an epic quest feel, well, epic?
The stagnant feeling of this journey is exacerbated by the film's pacing, which slows to a crawl once Dorothy arrives in Oz, never building toward anything that feels vital or significant. Threats never escalate. Dorothy and her companions don't have a plan. The Gnome King's motivation is shaky at best and completely non-existent at worst. What's the deal with fantasy villains so desperately wanting to become human? Aren't they more powerful in their original forms? Wouldn't becoming human make them more susceptible to getting knifed or poisoned or tackled by a particularly burly gentleman? I'd think the Gnome King would be happier as an ever-shifting stone elemental (brought to life through exceptionally impressive stop-motion before it becomes exceptionally unimpressive make-up), where his power over his domain is absolute. Then again, his desire to become human is only tossed out in one throw-away line, so who knows?
But do you know who won't notice these things? Children. Because this is a childrens' movie. As much as I believe all films should be measured up to the same level, there really is no point in picking on a film that so blatantly wants to appeal to such a specific target audience (and if you're an adult who legitimately likes this movie for reasons beyond nostalgia and/or love of Baum, please let me know why in the comments). Watching it now, I have to pick and choose the things I like, admiring parts above the whole. I love the stop-motion effects. I love the design of the world. It's a finely made film from a technical point of view (it still feels strange that Murch never went on to direct again). Most of all, I love Tick Tock the robot, a steampunk, clockwork robot with a man's man 'stache. If you asked me to name my favorite robots of all time, he'd probably find a place in the top five (right behind Elle from 'Starcrash' if you want to get specific).
Come for the solid kids' fare, stay for the ass-kicking robot.
Next Week's Column: Next week, I hope to officially bury the metaphorical hatchet with Jim Jarmusch by giving his 'Mystery Train' a watch. But what after that? There are only a few films left in this batch, so let me know your pick in the comments below (or on Twitter!)
'La Dolce Vita'
'High Plains Drifter'/'Pale Rider'/'The Outlaw Josey Wales' (Triple Feature)
'On the Waterfront'
'Sex, Lies and Videotape'
'Ferris Bueller's Day Off'
'The 39 Steps'
'The Sound of Music'
'Rebel Without a Cause'
'A Matter of Life and Death'
'Bride of Frankenstein'
'The Monster Squad'
'Colossus: The Forbin Project'
'A Boy and His Dog'
'The Thing From Another World'