The world is retarded and I have proof. This film flopped at the box office, got criticised for being too scary for children and appeared on Siskel and Ebert's list of the worst films of 1985. However it's also brilliant.
Misplaced expectations wouldn't have helped. It's making itself look like a sequel to the Judy Garland film
, when in fact it's nothing of the sort and it's going back to the original books so forcefully that it's slightly jarring. I don't have a problem with the Scarecrow and Tin Man not resembling Ray Bolger and Jack Haley, but it is a bit weird to see them so faithfully reconstructed from the original illustrations. There's something almost defiant about it. "Yes, we look like something from a kiddie book. What you gonna do about it?" I admire it, but it's an extreme decision and something to which I couldn't instantly acclimatise myself. That's this film all over, by the way. At every turn it's taking the spiky, scary option until by the end you've got something that you'd think deserves as much cult acclaim as the Coen brothers and would probably kill Mary Whitehouse.
Disney was going through a bit of a weird phase around then, incidentally. A few years later they'd enter a new golden age with The Little Mermaid (1989), but in the meantime their live-action slate included stuff like Popeye, Dragonslayer, The Devil and Max Devlin, Tron and Something Wicked This Way Comes. There's some dark stuff in there. Meanwhile their next animated films would be The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective
and Oliver & Company, the first two of which I actually quite like and the third of which is an atrocity so unbelievable that I kept my DVD purely to study its badness.
Return to Oz though is something special. Dorothy isn't Judy Garland with her breasts taped down, but a intense-looking child with eyes like an alien Grey. Toto is scraggy. Kansas is a historical reconstruction of 1898, with Auntie Em saying things like "never had a mortgage, now might have to have two" and Dorothy being about to have a lobotomy because of her "fantasies" about Oz. No, really. She gets strapped down to a trolley and wheeled into a room by evil orderlies in operating gowns and everything. This takes up the first twenty minutes of the film. Admittedly it's a stretch for me to be calling it a lobotomy because they're planning to modify her brain with electrical shocks rather than surgery, but it's still wildly disturbing. It ends with Dorothy fleeing through darkness, rain and a lightning storm, then falling into a river and getting washed away.
This might look gratuitous, but it's important because it's preparing us for what to expect in Oz. Clue: not song and dance numbers.
As for Oz itself, it's the best-realised Oz I've ever seen, not to mention one of the best fantasy environments of its kind in cinema. What I admire about it is the way it's giving us gloriously silly ideas and impossible monsters, but it never feels like random nonsense being thrown at the wall. On the contrary, Oz feels both real and dangerous. Anyone who isn't scared hasn't been paying attention. L. Frank Baum's fantasies have a directness about them, in which he'll consider the implications and practicalities of the worlds he's created. Thus for instance the first concern of Jack Pumpkinhead when we meet him is to find out whether his pumpkin head has started rotting. Similarly there's no way we're taking lightly the dangers of the Deadly Desert, the Wheelers and the Nome King. The Deadly Desert will turn you to sand if you touch it. We know this because we see it happen to someone. This film has a body count. Similarly the Nomes aren't merely a special effects tour de force, but the guys who trashed the Emerald City, turned its inhabitants to stone and will later try very hard to turn Dorothy and her friends into household ornaments.
This film is easily as mad and brutal as His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz
(1914). Note the severed heads, for instance. Dorothy's explanation of the Tin Man's origin involves him hacking himself to bits, including decapitation. (It's also straight from the books.) The Gump is built from furniture and a stuffed moose head, which talks about its last living memory and later has the Nome King eat its body. Jack Pumpkinhead's head falls off. Most extreme of all though is Mombi, who'd appear to have been kicked out of a Hammer horror film for being too gruesome. Put some blood in her scenes and Disney would have had trouble getting even an R-rating from the MPAA.
Nevertheless all this is sitting alongside whimsy like the Lunch-Pail Tree. Dorothy's friends are weird even for an Oz movie, but that's a good thing and I particularly liked Tik-Tok. His independent keys for thinking, speaking and action are a little freaky, his fighting style is awesome and he has some surprising opinions. "I have always valued my lifelessness." His design's great too.
Another good thing about the film is its breadth. L. Frank Baum's Oz isn't just a second-best Alice in Wonderland, but a far more deeply explored fictional universe with its own history. The Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man hardly appear and the film's world feels so rich that that you hardly miss them, but to my surprise I found myself recognising things from the silent Oz movies. Mombi's the obvious one, but note also the Powder of Life and a headdress for Ozma that's just like the one in the logo of the 1914 films from Baum's Oz Film Manufacturing Company. The first two are from the books, but the third? That made me sit up. Add in the ruby slippers, the use of which cost Disney a fat fee to MGM, and you've got something that's referencing all kinds of sources and having a real sense of history underlying the fantasy.
The special effects were Oscar-nominated, but unfortunately these days it's harder to appreciate them. CGI can do anything, but Return to Oz is achieving a similar kind of total fantasy immersion in pre-CGI days and it's a real shame that modern technology has overtaken our ability to be impressed. The epic landscape shot looks cool, but otherwise you're as likely to be nitpicking the unconvincing talking chicken and grumbling about the Nome King having become an actor in grey stone make-up until you've noticed the plot reason. However there's one exception to this: the Nomes. Even today, these are jaw-dropping. They live in and move through stone, much like a fire elemental possessing fire, which was achieved with life-size claymation, often in the same shot as actors. It's incredibly characterful work and almost hypnotic to look at.
The acting is doing its job. Fairuza Balk (Dorothy) and Emma Ridley (Ozma) were nominated for Young Artist Awards, but furthermore Balk has since gone on to a real acting career. You might know her from The Island of Dr Moreau or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans. Jean Marsh is fairly obvious casting and I was happy to see her, but she's not exactly being stretched. Piper Laurie is Aunt Em and Nicol Williamson is both Dr Worley and the Nome King, which might not be a particularly famous name to movie-goers but in his day he was called "the greatest actor since Marlon Brando" for his theatre performances. He's also Sherlock Holmes in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
. I'm afraid I can't say I particularly noticed any of them, although you've got to admire Balk for the way she carries the movie.
As for the story, I have a feeling that it's stronger in the first half. Everything in Oz up to and including Mombi is riveting, but the Nome King material after that is a bit less intense. I still enjoyed it, but the Nome King's downfall would have been laughable if it hadn't been so thoroughly established beforehand, while I must have missed the explanation of what happened with Jean Marsh. She's lost her powers! Er, how's that again?
On the other hand, though, I like the script. Every so often it'll surprise you by leaving a cliche unsaid, for instance not having a character say "it's green" when we can see that (important) fact for ourselves. I was also impressed by Dorothy engaging with the Nome King's accusation against the people of Oz, instead of just dismissing it as the usual villainous self-justification. "He never stole the emeralds. They were there when he came." I found that moving, actually, while there's also thematic depth in the movie's subtextual criticism of Dorothy's determination last time to get back home to Kansas. You know: "there's no place like home." Once there she can't sleep, everyone there calls her a liar, she's in line to be lobotomised and in her hurry to get home she even unwittingly caused this whole mess.
This is a wonderful film, not so much for its story but instead for its tone. This feels like the true Oz, of which all other films have only ever perpetrated bastardised versions. It's certainly not even trying to be a comfortable family film like its more famous predecessor, but instead is scary and gothic enough to make parents and guardians uncomfortable. In other words, it's what children really want to see. "It's bleak, creepy, and occasionally terrifying," goes one contemporary quote and I'd go along with that.