Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 25 October 2006
Source Walt Disney Home Video VHS
Features: 31 Days of Horror
To be fair, my parents were simply trying to please me when they rented Return to Oz, as the Disney label is the universal sign of wholesome family viewing. However, my initial viewing of Return to Oz resulted in much gape mouthed horror and bewilderment at this murky, songless manifestation that had made its way into my living room and presented no resemblance whatsoever to the bright MGM musical. In hindsight, and to my later satisfaction, it is likely that this was the screening that hooked me into the dark and twisted, with visuals that would spurn an interest into many things cinematically horrific. Director Walter Murch (acclaimed editor of films such as Apocalypse Now) combines two of the later Oz novels (The Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz) into a through the looking glass version of Oz, a subsequently poorly received film that for my money remains one of the great cult horror classics.
Picking up sometime after the tornado, Dorothy (portrayed by a young Fairuza Balk, later the catty witch in The Craft coven) is suffering from insomnia, as nightmares of Oz plague her mind. While Dorothy believes her friends in Oz are crying out for help, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry fear she is mentally ill, and decide that what their niece needs is a trip to the local mental asylum for electroshock treatment. The mental health clinic, if it can be called that, is a cleverly constructed set piece specific to the late Victorian era, as white smocked orderlies attend to the deep voiced, bespectacled Dr. Worley and Nurse Wilson, a woman whose rigid stance and high lace collar would frighten Nurse Ratched. It becomes quite clear that something is amiss in the clinic, as Dorothy hears wretched wailing while awaiting her late night treatment; she manages to escape in a panic thanks to a thunderstorm and a mysterious blonde girl dressed in white. While both girls make it to a nearby torrential river with Nurse Wilson in pursuit, only Dorothy finds safety on a makeshift raft; closing her eyes, she awakens to find herself in Oz.
Oz is not as we, nor Dorothy, remember it, although the distress for fans of the 1939 film will differ from fans of the novels. However, there is the established bridge in both films between Kansas and Oz that is made evident in the correlation between Dorothy’s reality (her home in Kansas and the staff at the mental clinic) and her fantasy (the staff morphs into Oz villains while Dorothy’s farm chicken somehow ends up on the raft when she awakens in Oz). While it is highly emphasized in The Wizard of Oz that Dorothy is purely in the midst of a dream, the argument is more ambiguous in Return to Oz; Murch has stated he never intended for this to be a sequel, but instead a version more akin to the vision in the Frank L. Baum novels, a decision that enhances the film and sets it apart from the shadow of the 1939 classic, bringing instead an edge of terror that is found in many fairy tales, particularly those of the Brothers Grimm.
Having viewed Return to Oz at least a dozen times by this point in my life, I have to express my penchant for this vision of Oz. The opening of Dorothy’s journey is not a merry reunion with the Munchkins, but instead commences with her realization that she has landed in the Deadly Desert, a vacant wasteland where one misstep will have her disintegrate into dust. It is exceptionally eerie, watching Dorothy stumble on a wrecked, broken Yellow Brick Road that leads to an empty, silent Emerald City with familiar faces, such as the Lion and Scarecrow, frozen in plaster among headless Grecian figures. Dorothy’s terror does not end in finding her friends immobile, but increases with the appearance of the Wheelers, a throng of masked men propelled with wheeled appendages, and servants to Princess Mombi. Mombi may be the most awful nightmare in all of Oz, a headless witch who has taken power from the Scarecrow and Princess Ozma and now collects new heads as accessories; upon Dorothy’s arrival she leads her through her palace into a long mirrored corridor, flanked on both sides by glass cases. Within these cases are Mombi’s other heads, which she adjusts and selects according to her mood. After being imprisoned by Mombi for her lovely, adolescent head, Dorothy manages to leave the attic and sneaks back to the head chamber in search of the Powder of Life (needed to bring her escape vehicle, a ramshackle furniture creature to life), only to face shrieking and the piercing stare of roughly two dozen eyes when she accidentally awakens Mombi’s original head.
In its third act, Return to Oz does slightly kowtow to tamer kiddie fare; with the help of her friends, Dorothy journeys to the Nome King’s castle, the oddly conceived Emperor of Oz who is nothing more than a morphing granite wall. With haphazard luck, Dorothy finds the Nome King’s weakness and destroys him, bringing Oz back to life, and resulting in a joyous celebration at the Emerald City before Dorothy returns to Kansas.
Despite a lukewarm happy ending, one wonders what new terror awaits Dorothy, now that she has returned to the adoptive parents who not only condoned the potential destruction of Toto but also gladly tendered their 10-year-old niece for electroshock therapy. Perhaps it is somewhat cynical, but neither Kansas, nor her family has ever felt worthy of Dorothy’s unyielding loyalty, instead provoking an elaborate mental fantasy where Dorothy not only feels safe enough to realize her fears, but also has the power to overcome them. Dorothy looks far more depressed leaving Oz at the film’s conclusion than in The Wizard of Oz; when she awakens on a riverbank, the world is still bleakly colored, and she appears only mildly comforted at the imprisonment of the clinic staff before heading home with Aunt Em. While it is common for children to convince themselves of an imaginary person or place for play, Dorothy seems desperately reliant on her fantasy as an escape mechanism, as her childhood has offered her nothing but poverty, poor parental substitutes, harassment from nasty old women, and a lack of any real security. Certainly Return to Oz remains an unusual and persistently disturbing vision of one of the most beloved literary series in childhood.