Return to Oz

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Our rating: three lava lamps.

Information about this film in the Internet Movie Database.

Return to Oz
When asked who was the better co-star, Balk
chose the animatronic chicken over Adam Sandler.
Return to Oz exists in an uncomfortable gray area. On the one hand, it is not a proper sequel to the beloved Wizard of Oz (1939). Unlike that great film, Return is not a musical, nor are any of the farm hands in evidence. But neither is Return totally faithful to L. Frank Baum's original books. This film combines Baum's Ozma of Oz and The Land of Oz into a new story, which takes place after the events in the movie version of The Wizard of Oz.

If you were to rent Return to Oz and watch it in a double feature with the musical Wizard of Oz, you'd be in for quite a shock. Return is a dark film. The menaces to Dorothy and friends are much more real, and the film seems to be built on the same concept as that of Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits, that a children's movie can be made with few "cute" elements. This is closer to the original Oz books than you might think -- Baum's Oz was an unpredictable place where frightening things could happen, and often did.

The film opens in Kansas (duh!) with Auntie Em and Uncle Henry building a new house and fretting about Dorothy's bad dreams. It seems "winter is coming on" and they need Dorothy (a very young Fairuza Balk) to be free of her problems. Why is winter always "coming on" in these movies which take place on farms? Wasn't winter coming on in every other episode of Little House on the Prairie? Does winter just lurk under bushes in the midwest, seek out families in distress, and then pounce on them?

Return to Oz
Mombi shows Dorothy how
to get a head in life.
Em and Henry decide that Dorothy can be cured by Doctor Worley (Nicol Williamson), who uses electroshock therapy. ("Electric miracle healing," he calls it. "Quack science," we call it.) Dorothy is relocated to Worely's sanitarium, which looks a heck of a lot like the one from Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. There Dorothy is attended to by Nurse Williams (Jean Marsh), though considering the black spiked dress she wears, she should be called Nurse Feratu. Before Dorothy can be lit up like a Christmas tree, lightning hits the clinic (oh, the irony!) and Dorothy escapes, only to be swept away by a flood to Oz.

Accompanied by a talking chicken named Billina, Dorothy walks to the Emerald City, only to find it destroyed and occupied solely by Tik-Tok, a mechanical man. While Dorothy was gone the Nome King (also Nicol Williamson) turned all the residents of Oz to stone and set up a witch named Mombi (also Jean Marsh) as the custodian of Emerald City. Mombi, who collects the heads of young girls for her own body (insert your own head jokes here), promptly throws Dorothy into her dungeon, where she meets her next companion: Jack Pumpkinhead (think Jack Skellington in the first few scenes of The Nightmare Before Christmas), a puppetry creation voiced by Brian Henson. With her newfound allies, Dorothy sets out to escape from Mombi's castle, confront the Nome King, and restore Oz to its former glory.

Return to Oz
Jack Pumpkinhead: he's what's for dinner.
Like its predecessor, Return to Oz features some parallels between Dorothy's life in Kansas and her adventures in Oz. Tik-Tok shares some characteristics with the electroshock machine, the Nome King and Mombi are played by actors who first appear in Kansas, and Jack's appearance just happens to coincide with Halloween back on Earth. All of these subtle similarities repeat the recurring question about Oz: does it really exist, or is Dorothy just bonkers? Alas, you'll find no definitive answers here, as Dorothy's travels between Kansas and Oz always occur while she is unconscious.

The joy of watching this film is in its faithful reproduction of the land of Oz. Dorothy is thankfully played by an actress of the correct age, and characters like the Tin Woodsman and the Scarecrow are taken directly from the original book illustrations and fleshed out in amazing detail. That detail extends to the surroundings as well: broken bricks from the Yellow Brick Road prove to be yellow all the way through, not merely painted yellow. In a nod to fans of the first film, the magic slippers are still ruby and not silver as in the books, but in a landscape so wonderfully brought to life, who are we to quibble?

No quibbling matter, however, is the script. No matter how wonderful your recreation of the land of Oz, the heart of every movie is its story. Sadly, this film's heart is a bit faint. Although we can feel Dorothy's shock at the state of disrepair of her beloved Oz (the Munchkin village reduced to a woodland clearing? what goes on here?), the subsequent adventure is a bit of a letdown. The actual method of the Nome King's conquest is interesting, but in his downfall the writer gives in to a deus ex machina, and a rather silly one at that. "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain" has become "pay no attention to that chicken in the pumpkin," and we think that just about says it all.

Return to Oz
Dorothy appears in her victory parade
before returning home, which begs the question:
why does she keep choosing Kansas over Oz?

Rent or Buy from Reel.

Review date: 6/7/99
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