Rediscovering a Classic: Return to Oz
by Marianne Paluso (@Marianne_P81)
Ever since the earliest days of film, audiences have delighted in the world of Oz and the many colorful characters created by L. Frank Baum. The latest of these is Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful, which stars James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, and Mila Kunis. But many of you may remember that this is not Disney’s first journey to the mysterious land of Oz. In 1985 came Return to Oz, a less star-studded, very dark, and often creepy continuation of the Wizard of Oz story that is frequently met with polarizing reactions.
One thing that must be made clear is that this is not a sequel to the 1939 MGM classic musical starring Judy Garland. Nor does it resemble that film visually or tonally. Return to Oz is based on two of Baum’s books (The Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz) and involves Dorothy traveling back to help the friends she believes are in great trouble. Unlike the musical, Oz is not merely a dream, but a real place, with companions that do not resemble farm workers. So, if you watch this hoping for a film resembling The Wizard of Oz, you may be disappointed. However, if you like different or darker interpretations of classic stories, Return to Oz may capture your interest.
The film certainly has some fanciful characters that readers of the books will delight in seeing brought to life, such as Ozma, Jack Pumpkinhead and Tik Tok (my personal favorite). Much of the imagery is also evocative- a broken yellow brick road, a room full of glorious ornaments, a lunch pail tree. Another appealing aspect is that the familiar characters we love (the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion) all resemble the original illustrations by W.W. Denslow, while the Emerald city and its occupants are more like realistic fairy tale characters than caricatures. Of course, there is also the said creepiness of the film. Before Dorothy returns back to Oz, her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry send her to a doctor that specializes in a new treatment hoping it will help rid her of her sleepless nights. The place is actually an asylum, while this treatment turns out to be electric shock therapy! The dark corridors and sinister looking orderlies and nurses resemble something out of horror film, more than a family friendly flick. Oz is also in dire straits. Dorothy discovers that Emerald City has been taken over by the evil Nome King, and overseen by the Wheelers, frightening creatures that have wheels instead of hands and feet and take pleasure in laughing manically. But they are nothing compared to Princess Mombi- a malevolent woman who has cabinets of decapitated heads she likes to “change” into whenever the mood suits her.
I watched this movie as a child and I seriously do not know how I did not have nightmares, and for that matter why I still like it. But I do. Perhaps it will never reach the universal adoration of the classic musical, but despite its creepy nature, Return to Oz has a sort of indescribable appeal. If you enjoy The NeverEnding Story or Labyrinth, then Return to Oz will most likely appeal to you. Time will tell whether the new take on Baum’s enduring creations will stand the test of time. Regardless, lovers of all things Oz should definitely give Return to Oz a chance to enchant.