Return to 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?
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.
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.
Review date: 6/7/99
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