Hollywood today loves reboots. Whether it’s making a new installment in a long-running series or completely remaking a nostalgic film, the name of the game is recognizability. However, most of these efforts feel like they are attempting to remind audiences of something they grew up with rather than giving them anything new. From The Force Awakens having the same plot structure as A New Hope to the numerous Disney live-action remakes that graft unnecessary realism onto animated classics to the numerous sequels made years after the originals. While not necessarily resulting in bad movies on default, these efforts focus on the same old same old since it’s a safe bet for box office dollars.
With this in mind, there is one of these follow-ups that, rather than trying to recapture the magic of the original, went for a different style that not only was distinctive but was arguably more faithful to the soul of the original material. And interestingly enough, this was not made during today’s nostalgia craze but all the way back in the 80s. This movie was 1985’s Return to Oz. Produced by Walt Disney Pictures and the sole directing credit of Walter Murch (famous for editing Apocalypse Now), this movie is a loose sequel to the 1939 classic film and was one of the many attempts by the studio to launch a new franchise and follow the new trends of Hollywood.
After Walt Disney died in 1968, his company was unsure what to do since they always followed his say. While they attempted to simply make movies that they thought Walt would greenlight, the success of films like Star Wars changed the industry, and they soon tried to follow what other studios were doing by greenlighting any genre of film. Disney would eventually abandon these efforts and gain their modern identity by the 90s. However, Return to Oz was the last gasp of this experimental period and, arguably, its most interesting.
The film centers on Dorothy (played by Fairuza Balk), who, after returning home from her first trip to Oz, has fallen into a bout of depression when no one believes she went there. Her parents get concerned and send her to a mental facility that doesn’t seem to have her best interests in mind. When she escapes in a storm and floats down a river in a crate, she finds herself back in Oz. However, Emerald City and the Yellow Brick Road are in ruins, its denizens are turned to stone aside from The Scarecrow, who is missing, and the land is now under the tyrannical rule of Princess Mombi and the Nome King. Alongside a chicken from her farm who can now talk named Billina, she comes across new characters such as a robot named Tic-Tok (no relation to the app), a stick-armed scarecrow named Jack Pumpkinhead, and the oddest of these characters, a reanimated mounted head of an animal tied to a flying couch named The Gump. Together, they travel to the Nome King’s kingdom to save the Scarecrow and return Oz to its former state.
Being a fantasy film made in the 80s, it is no surprise that the visuals and designs are great. The entirety of Oz has been built with giant and elaborate sets that feel lived in, while its denizens have been brought to life with some of the finest practical effect work of the time. There was everything from puppetry for The Gump and Jack to Claymation for the Nome King and his subjects to how Tic Tok is a giant suit performed by a man having to control it from the inside while bent over. The production and costumes are also well-detailed. Kansas looks fittingly rustic and barren in its look and clothing, while the costumes and architecture in Oz are both ornate and bizarre. This is especially apparent in the final scene in Oz, where dozens of different distinctive-looking characters are seen during a parade. The score is also really good and quite underrated, in my opinion. It establishes a sense of wonder and melancholy by reflecting the tone and characters through distinctive instruments and subtle motifs, including the occasional use of a ragtime piano. Dorothy’s theme, especially during the credits, is particularly memorable in how it is both whimsical and sad, which embodies a lot about the movie.
While the movie’s look is great, it is only part of why Return works so well. Going back to the discussion about reboots, one would think that a sequel to arguably one of the most iconic movies of all time would fall head over heels trying to recreate moments or pepper references all over the place. However, this movie surprisingly doesn’t do that. Outside of the usage of the Ruby Slippers, Return feels more like a sequel in name only since almost every iconic aspect of the first movie is altered. These alterations make Return distinctive since it not only creates its own identity but reflects the one established by the original books. For those unaware, Oz was a long-running book series before it was turned into a classic movie. However, unlike the fantastical and colorful world that we know and love, Oz in the books is odd and unsettling. It reflected an older type of darker fantasy that presented fantastical elements in ways that were both dreamlike and uncanny.
A modern comparison would be Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio. A movie that adapts a fantasy story that has been put to film often but differentiates itself by not focusing on the most common elements of famous adaptations. Instead, aspects of the original text that have been forgotten are the driving elements with a focus on bizarre and creepy fantasy. Also, like Pinocchio, the dialogue and characters in Return have a simplicity that feels like a deliberate attempt to replicate the tone and writing style of the original book rather than putting it through a modern structure. The way the characters talk and are personified feels less fleshed out and more driven by quirks. This makes the characters feel like they are a direct adaptation of the page rather than being changed to fit a conventional character archetype. Even the look of the characters is modeled after the original illustrations, especially with Dorothy being played by an actual child actress. What you see is what you get, and while some might feel that there might not be much here outside of certain traits and the basic story, I feel that this isn’t the point of the movie. Like a classical, darker fantasy, the point of Return to Oz is to experience it through the emotions one feels while viewing the story. This is done through the most infamous aspect of the movie: how intensely scary it is.
While Return doesn’t get violent, its themes and imagery are still very intense, especially for a film aimed at children. For example, Dorothy is prescribed shock therapy at the facility she’s sent to, Princess Mombi wears different heads from other women (who are still alive when on display), and Emerald City is infested with creatures named Wheelers who are like the Flying Monkeys if they were the gang from A Clockwork Orange complete with creepy laughter and an intent to kill.
And yet, in spite of its darkness, this approach, both in tone and style, is arguably one that is needed. Most stories that have become icons of the fantasy genre were darker in their original forms. Over time, a lighter and softer presentation has taken over, especially with the popularity of Disney adaptations. While this is not a bad thing, it has overshadowed fantasy that skews darker, especially in children’s media. Outside of the occasional Coraline, most fantasy for kids apes Disney tropes. This perception of fantasy, as well as how the ’39 film became the main perception of what Oz is, is why Return didn’t do so well when it came out. Critics and audiences complained about how scary it was, and it flopped at the box office. However, there are benefits to a darker fantasy story for kids. By presenting a journey driven by creepier elements, the ending is more satisfying by how the audience has more sympathy and connection with the characters and wants them to overcome all that’s thrown at them to achieve a happy ending. Even older Disney films like Bambi and Pinocchio recognized this and have a similar structure and drive of emotion.
This darkness and focus on the books, alongside the look of the film, is what makes it great. What it lacks in depth, it makes up in almost every area. The film is very much an emotional experience rather than a story-driven one. You want to follow the characters and see them succeed, but the connection is driven by what they encounter and the fantastically creepy things they have to endure. This isn’t the kind of movie where the script or story is the point. Instead, you come to experience this world and its oddities. If anything, we don’t get big-budgeted movies like this anymore. A fantasy film that focuses on atmosphere over dialogue, with tons of practical effects to boot without adhering to popular tropes and styles of the day. Many consider the 80s to be the decade of kids’ movies that traumatized you. But of the lot, Return might be the darkest if not for the fact that the tone is its primary focus.
To conclude, this is a movie that deserves all of the attention it gets. It’s distinctive, bizarre, and feels unlike most other movies. The fact that most Oz adaptations after this one continue to use the ’39 film as a template does frustrate me a bit. It feels like people are limiting themselves to only what is recognizable instead of broadening their influences. It might not be a particularly deep film, but it stands as one of the most fascinating and creepy fantasy movies ever made, and I only wish that more follow its example.