Return to Oz (1985)
Directed by Walter Murch

Artistic Value: * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * *

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Months after having returned to Kansas from the magical land of Oz, Dorothy (Fairuza Balk), a young girl being raised on a farm by her impoverished Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark), is having trouble sleeping and constantly talks about her otherworldly adventures. Her guardians, fearing for her well-being, decide to take her to a clinic operated by Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson), who heals his patients with electric shock therapy. In the middle of a fierce storm, Dorothy, who is about to be treated, manages to escape, but, while being chased by the sinister Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh), she is washed away by a flooding river. The next day, Dorothy finds herself in the middle of a small pond surrounded by the sands of the Deadly Desert, contact with which instantly turns any living thing to sand. Fortunately, the young girl, having been joined by a hen named Billina, who is now able to talk, manages to cross the wasteland. She quickly realizes that she has returned to Oz, but it is not as she remembers it. The Yellow Brick Road is overgrown. The Emerald City is in ruins, and all of its inhabitants have been turned to stone. While wandering through this desolation, Dorothy is attacked by Wheelers, garishly dressed beings who have wheels in place of hands and feet. The girl escapes, finds a mechanical man named Tik-Tok, and, with his help, confronts the evil Princess Mombi (Marsh again), who is now governing Oz, which, Dorothy learns, has been conquered by the Nome King (Williamson again), who dwells beneath a mountain on the other side of the Deadly Desert. If Dorothy is going to save herself, her calcified friends, and the whole of Oz, she is going to have to defeat both of these villains, and so she sets out to do so.

It really is a shame that Walter Murch's Return to Oz, which centers around characters appearing in several of L. Frank Baum's Oz books, but which also makes reference to the 1939 film directed by Victor Fleming, is so often ignored. Whatever its faults, and it is far from perfect, the movie is frequently both beautiful and thrilling.

Perhaps the film's single greatest virtue is that it is not a mass of syrupy sweetness. It can actually be fairly frightening. Although I can hardly speak for all children, I, as a child, enjoyed being a little afraid. I liked scary movies, and I do not believe that I am alone in this. Return to Oz is neither gory nor particularly intense, but it does have some moments that are likely to make its younger viewers tingle with anxious excitement. Admittedly, the initial scenes, in which Dorothy is taken to a clinic to receive shock treatment are not successful, and probably should have been omitted, but the thrills that follow are all delightful. At different times, the young protagonist is chased by threatening Wheelers, is shown her old friends turned into stone, plunges down a crack in the earth into the realm of the Nome King, and faces being magically transformed into an ornament. The movie's scariest moments are, however, those that feature Mombi. The witch has a collection of different heads, and she changes these as other people change clothes. She even locks Dorothy in a room to give the girl's head a few years to ripen so that she can harvest it and add it to her collection. The threat is deliciously scary. That said, the sight of Mombi's headless body rising up out of her bed to chase the girl is probably even better. The film really is pretty exciting.

Such adventurous content is, by and large, made even more engaging by the film's look. The character designs are, for the most part, inspired by John R. Neill's illustrations of Baum's Oz books, and are almost all a joy to see. Tik-Tok is a copper plated, round-bodied mechanical man. Jack Pumpkinhead is a stick figure topped with a jack-o'-lantern. The Gump is the head of a green-furred moose-like animal that is tied to a pair of sofas, decorated with palm frond wings, and brought to life with a magical powder. Even the Nome King and his subjects, though they bear no resemblance to the beings drawn by Neill, are delights. They are depicted using stop motion animation and are made to resemble living rocks. The effect achieved is almost always fascinating.

What is more, the most important members of the cast generally acquit themselves well. Balk is charming as the innocent yet spunky Dorothy, and both Marsh and Williamson are suitably villainous. Some of the supporting cast members can be a little sugary in their portrayals of their characters, or can ham it up a little too much, but they are never so extreme that they make the movie unwatchable by their presence.

Lastly, I should mention that although the designs of most of the characters do resemble the illustrations of them in the Oz books, the narrative itself is nothing like that of any of those books. There will, undoubtedly, be people who come to the movie expecting that it will be faithful to one of Baum's works, and, if they are going to judge the movie by its fidelity, they are going to be disappointed. That said, if a person is either unfamiliar with Baum's books or is willing to watch the movie as an independent creation, it is likely that he will find much to enjoy. In fact, it should be remembered that many of the Oz movies the production of which Baum himself was involved in differed markedly from his books. Even he realized that he could tell new stories with his movies.

While I will hardly claim that Return to Oz is the best children's film I have ever encountered, it is both beautiful to look at and often thrilling. It is certainly able to catch and hold the attention of adults and children alike.

Review by Keith Allen

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