Return to Oz (1985)
As far removed as imaginable from the candy-coated, technicoloured, ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ Judy Garland-starring classic The Wizard of Oz (1939), Return to Oz, Walter Murch’s belated, somewhat 'unofficial' follow-up, is a beautifully dark, brooding and deeply melancholic work. Indeed, many critics at the time claimed it was too dark and frightening for its young audiences. While it features more of Dorothy’s fantastical adventures in Oz, a host of colourful characters and a plethora of astoundingly realised effects, at the heart of Return to Oz is the story of a courageous and resilient child who has endured hardship and tragedy, and of the weary, ineffectual or cruel adults responsible for her care. It is of course a sort of sequel, but is perhaps more accurately described as an adaptation of several other L. Frank Baum Oz novels that followed on from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), as Murch and Gill Dennis’s screenplay carefully amalgamates plotlines from The Marvellous Land of Oz (1904) and Ozma of Oz (1907).
The story continues six months after Dorothy’s (Fairuza Balk) life was turned upside down by the tornado that wrecked havoc and destruction throughout her Kansas community, and whirled her off to Oz. Now melancholic and suffering from insomnia, no one believes her chatter of talking scarecrows and wicked witches. Her weary and careworn auntie Em (Piper Laurie) and uncle Henry believe she’s suffering from delusions brought about by tornado-induced trauma and decide she needs professional help. When she is deposited in a psychiatric institution, and the questionable care of Dr Worley and Nurse Wilson, who insist she needs electrotherapy to get rid of her ‘bad dreams’, Dorothy, with the help of a mysterious friend, soon escapes. While she is pursued by Nurse Wilson through dark woods in the midst of a great storm, Dorothy is swept away in a raging river and later awakens to find herself back in Oz with only her chicken, Billina, for company. Things have changed since her last visit however, and Oz now resembles an apocalyptic wasteland, devoid of singing Munchkins and rainbows. The Yellow Brick Road, a symbolic and literal pathway she previously followed in the hope of returning home, and upon which she encountered her friends, now lies in ruins. To her further horror she discovers that her friends and the other inhabitants of the Emerald City, now a derelict, eerily uninhabited place, have all been turned to stone by the evil Nome King and his cohort, Princess Mombi. Dorothy sets out to right these wrongs and along the way she makes friends with a rag-tag assortment of dysfunctional outsiders and loveable misfits who help her, including Tik-Tok (arguably one of the first literary representations of a robot), a loyal and rotund mechanical man who likes to remind Dorothy that he is not actually alive; the gentle-hearted, gangly Jack Pumpkinhead, who, being made of bound-together twigs and branches and with a carved Jack O’Lantern for a head, also has distinctly Frankensteinian issues as he pines for his absent creator; and Gump, a mounted elk-head tied to an old sofa. Before she eventually confronts the Nome King, a malevolent rock creature whose features take on life-like human qualities the more of Oz’s power he consumes, she encounters the terrifying Wheelers, bizarre creatures with wheels instead of hands and feet, and the tyrannical Princess Mombi, who displays her collection of beautiful heads, which she can change at whim, in a mirror-filled hallway within her castle.
Return to Oz is, to date, the only directorial offering from esteemed Oscar-winning sound and film editor Walter Murch. A lifelong admirer of Baum’s Oz books, to which he was introduced at a young age by his mother, Murch’s film is incredibly faithful in tone to its source material. Indeed, many of the characters Dorothy encounters are lovingly based on the John Rea Neill illustrations that adorned Baum’s later books, and they have the same slightly sad, weirdly eerie quality to them. When creating a sense of historical accuracy and period atmosphere in the ‘real world’ scenes that bookend the film’s narrative, Murch was inspired by Michael Lesy’s book Wisconsin Death Trip (1973) and Willa Carter’s novel My Ántonia (1918). There is a drab bleakness to these early scenes which not only works to contrast the mundanity of Kansas with the otherworldly awe of Oz (just like the framing black and white scenes in the 1939 film did), but to speak of the hardship faced by impoverished rural communities in early 20th century America. The washed out colour palette depicts a misty, cold and desolate Kansas (actually England, where the film was shot) as Murch suggests the deep despair felt by a community still rebuilding itself and reeling from the destruction caused by the tornado. Dorothy’s house is in a partial state of repair, the sight of which not only relays the devastation wrought by the storm, but suggests the subsequent familial problems that arose in its aftermath. It’s little wonder Dorothy so desperately wants to return to see her friends in Oz, and the film effectively taps into a child’s view of the world as a hard and unfair place, and the frustrating inability to be in two places at once.
Murch carefully creates a certain dreamy ambiguity as to whether or not Oz is real or an internalised, psychological world of Dorothy’s own creation. When Ozma appears to Dorothy it is always in reflective surfaces, and certain people from Kansas are manifested as dark doubles in Oz (these duel roles are played by Nicol Williamson as Dr. Worley and the Nome King, Jean Marsh as Nurse Wilson and Princess Mombi, and Pons Maar as the lead Wheeler and the creepy hospital orderly). There are also subtle visual links (Tic-Tok resembles the anthropomorphic features of the electrotherapy machine, Ozma presents Dorothy with a little carved pumpkin) and curious auditory links between worlds (the rustling of Nurse Wilson/Princess Mombi’s gown, the same squeaking noise made by the rusty gurney wheels in the institution heralds the presence of the menacing Wheelers). Disney were famously unhappy with the progress of filming and fired Murch, but were persuaded to rehire him several days later when a number of influential filmmakers he had previously worked with, including George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, stepped in to vouch for his dedication, talent and vision. This enabled Murch to complete the film he wanted to make, the beautiful darkness of which has not abated in the slightest over the years, nor has its message of hope and friendship in the face of adversity.
Return to Oz can be seen as a dark coming of age parable in which a young girl finds herself in a foreboding, fantastical otherplace and must use her resourcefulness to overcome monstrous (arguably psychological) adversaries in order to emerge into adulthood. It’s a kindred spirit of titles such as Labyrinth (1986), Curse of the Cat People (1944), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Paperhouse (1988) and, of course, The Wizard of Oz, which all feature young female protagonists undergoing rite of passage initiations in which they must outsmart monsters in strange worlds to obtain knowledge and experience. Its incarnation of Dorothy, brilliantly portrayed by the always excellent Fairuza Balk (The Craft ), is a little raven-haired ‘proto-goth’ prone to melancholy and insomnia, but who also possesses the same streak of defiance, resilience and self-determination bestowed upon her by Baum. She may be viewed by the adults in her worlds as a figure of ultimate vulnerability, but when faced with danger, Dorothy does not wait passively to be saved; active and self-reliant, she not only struggles out of literal restraints (as in the institution), but against social restraints, as she ultimately strives to gain control of her own destiny. When Princess Mombi tells her ‘You will be rather attractive one day. I believe I'll lock you in the tower for a few years until your head is ready. And then I'll take it’, Dorothy’s defiant retort of ‘I believe you will not!’ demonstrates her courage in the face of adversity and strongly echoes the early suffragette movement that inspired Baum when he first created the character.
When I was a child, Return to Oz was a firm favourite. While some childhood favourites can fall apart when re-visited later in life, this is not the case here. Return to Oz has aged remarkably well and upon returning to it in adulthood, I still find its dark, weirdly Gothic and poignant spell as irresistible as ever. The characters remain as charming, loveably spooky and strangely melancholy, and its oddness and downright eeriness - an aspect that, while still very much apparent to me as a youngster, but never something I could easily articulate or understand - is still fully intact and largely responsible for its cult appeal. Its offbeat but emotionally resonant depictions of friendship, resilience, hope and self-belief are as heartfelt and spellbinding as ever.