Dorothy, saved from a psychiatric experiment by a mysterious girl, is somehow called back to Oz when a vain witch and the Nome King destroy everything that makes the magical land beautiful.
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There can’t be many people out there who haven’t seen 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz.” It’s a true classic, with a marvelous cast, lovely music and beautiful imagery. Not only that, but it carries with it a wistful sense of innocence and discovery. Even when the Witch of the West is on the prowl, Oz still seems like a glorious place to be.
That is about to change.
Walter Murch’s “Return to Oz” reintroduces us to L. Frank Baum’s fantasy in a jarring way, showing us a kingdom that has lost its glory and descended into despair. At the same time, it reminds us of the sadness we feel at having to surrender our childhood fantasies.
The story, co-written by Murch and Gill Dennis, is a combination of two books from L. Frank Baum’s original book series: “The Land of Oz” and “Ozma of Oz.” The filmmakers assume we’re familiar with the events from the 1939 musical, so they pick up where that story left off rather than explaining what Oz is and the adventures Dorothy had the last time she journeyed there.
While not exactly a sequel to “The Wizard of Oz,” “Return to Oz” borrows certain aspects of the 1939 classic. For one thing, the magic slippers are still a Technicolor-friendly ruby, even though they’re silver in the original books. Probably the most touching reference to the first film is the relationship between Dorothy and the Scarecrow. Although the latter is absent for most of the movie, when Dorothy is trying to save him, we get a hint of the bond they shared in “The Wizard of Oz.”
However, “Return to Oz” is very different in tone from the earlier film. Dorothy has returned to the land of her dreams only to find it on the brink of destruction, and we are shown at every turn that this is not the Oz she remembered so fondly. The Yellow Brick Road has been reduced to rubble, the Emerald City is has lost its gleam, and the citizens have all been turned to stone. Not only that, but the shattered kingdom is patrolled by evil henchmen known as Wheelers. They may not be nearly as effective as the Flying Monkeys, but they’re actually far creepier. Even the landscape is more ominous in this film. Instead of rolling green hills, we have the Deadly Desert, which turns all who touch it into sand. That, and the rocks themselves seem to be conspiring against our heroes…
The cast is excellent all around, led by an eleven-year-old Fairuza Balk, who makes a younger and more solemn Dorothy than Judy Garland. While both actresses played the character beautifully, Balk’s earnest portrayal has an added poignancy. Although Garland was still very much an innocent, Balk looks even smaller and more vulnerable when confronting her adversaries. It’s not surprising that when she laments the plight of the Scarecrow, even the villainous Nome King is moved by her tears.
Dorothy’s new companions are rendered through a combination of brilliant puppeteering, voice acting and live actors. Tik Tok, the stalwart clockwork soldier, is portrayed physically by performers Michael Sundin and Tim Rose, but voiced by Sean Barrett (who also played characters in “Labyrinth” and “The Dark Crystal”). Tik Tok’s no-nonsense attitude makes him more than just a knockoff of the Tin Man, but despite his bravery, he has an unfortunate habit of winding down just when his friends need him most.
The gangly Jack Pumpkinhead is brought to life through puppeteering during close-ups, but for more action-oriented scenes, he is played by Stewart Larange. As for his endearingly addled voice, that is provided by Brian Henson. Pumpkinhead’s relationship with Dorothy is particularly sweet: the poor thing is so childlike that he calls our eleven-year-old heroine “mom.”
Next is the Gump, who is perhaps the strangest of Dorothy’s companions in this or any other tale of Oz. Although the only well-articulated part of the Gump is his face, given the fact that his body is a sofa (yes, you read that right), the Jim Henson Company once again works its magic. Played and voiced by special effects crewmembers Stephen Norrington and Lyle Conway, respectively, the Gump is a strange creation who nevertheless proves a loyal friend to our heroine. Conveniently, he also serves as transportation, so get ready for some inventive flying scenes.
Last but not least is Billina, the chicken who follows Dorothy from Kansas to Oz (sorry, Toto fans). Operated by Mak Wilson, Billina is as lifelike as the other creatures are fantastical, and her voice, provided by Denise Bryer, is an amusing combination of “mother hen” and literal hen.
Like “The Wizard of Oz” before it, “Return to Oz” casts some of its adult actors in dual roles in order to draw parallels between the two worlds. Jean Marsh plays Princess Mombi, one of the most nightmarish villains ever to terrorize a family film, but is even more chilling as the head nurse at the asylum. As the psychiatrist, Nicol Williamson has a kindly demeanor that does little to disguise the fact that he intends to put a child through a series of painful experiments. When he plays the Nome King, Williamson plays up both the condescending sweetness and the menace, creating a villain who hides his sinister intentions behind a smile.
“Return to Oz” also features Piper Laurie as Aunt Em and Emma Ridley as Ozma, the rightful queen of Oz. While both of these characters serve as protective forces in Dorothy’s life, this film is too dark to let them spare her too much hardship. After all, Aunt Em is the one who commits Dorothy to the mental hospital, and Ozma is absent for most of our heroine’s adventure.
And it’s a chilling adventure. Highlights include the aforementioned Princess Mombi, collector of heads, and her army of Wheelers, as well as the shifty servants of the Nome King (rendered in wonderfully fluid stop-motion animation). Also, the climactic sequence in the room of knick-knacks is highly suspenseful, since our heroes are about one false step away from a horrible fate. But young Dorothy faces it all steadfastly, knowing that her friends are worth the risk. She never gives up, even when the situation seems bleak, and that is what really lights up this dark film.
Comparisons between this movie and “The Wizard of Oz” are inevitable, but it helps to view the two films as different interpretations of L. Frank Baum’s wonderfully imaginative books. It may not be as cheery as its predecessor, but “Return to Oz” is still an enjoyable and moving film. If “The Wizard of Oz” is a nostalgic reminder of our childhood, “Return to Oz” shows us the pain of being forced to abandon our youthful imagination. Yet through Dorothy’s determination to save her beloved Oz, we also see how important it is that we don’t lose our love of fantasy.