In electing to do a sequel to The Wizard of Oz, one of the most beloved films of all time, the makers of Return to Oz made some wise choices. Instead of competing directly with the 1939 musical, they drew their material from a variety of L. Frank Baum’s Oz
stories, staying close to the books’ illustrations for the right visual quality. As well, they did not try to duplicate the 16year-old Judy Garland in the role of Dorothy. Vancouver’s Fairuza Balk, 11, with her big, questioning eyes, has a much more childlike quality. A great deal of feeling and imagination went into the film, and the result is an intense fairy tale which is in many ways more terrifying than the original. Watching Return to Oz, children will scarcely blink and adults will be as quiet as their small companions.
In the sequel, Dorothy has returned home from her visit to the Emerald City, and is wracked by insomnia. No one, not even her kindly Aunt Em (Piper Laurie), will believe the tall tale that she tells. Worried about Dorothy, Aunt Em takes
her to a hospital where the doctor (Nicol Williamson) plans to give her electric shock treatment. To make matters worse, the head nurse (Jean Marsh) is a witchlike archetype from childhood nightmares. But Dorothy is saved at the last minute by a storm that knocks out the power and mysteriously transports her back to Oz.
Return to Oz plays to childhood fears
of mistrustful adults and claustrophobic rooms. Back in Oz, the dream landscape of Dorothy’s mind, she discovers that the Emerald City has fallen into disrepair and that its denizens have turned to stone. As in the original movie, the main characters in Oz are counterparts to those in Dorothy’s Kansas life. The evil one responsible for Oz’s dilapidated state is the Nome King, the doctor’s equivalent, and his helper, Princess Mombi, is Oz’s version of the mean head nurse. With the help of Tik Tok, a mechanical man who constantly needs to be wound up, Dorothy makes her way to the Nome King’s fortress across the Deadly Desert and attempts to bring the life and gleam back to the Emerald City. In this return visit Dorothy’s companion is not her dog, Toto,
but Billina, a sharp-tongued chicken. When the raging torrent lands Dorothy in a large puddle in Oz she asks, “Where did all the water go?” Billina, a stickler for detail, counters, “Where did Kansas go?”
Walter Murch, a former sound editor who makes his debut as a director, has a genuine talent for highlighting the threatening qualities of fairy tales. The idyllic and leisurely opening scenes, which capture the bucolic beauty of Dorothy’s Kansas home, make the ensuing hospital nightmare all the more horrible. In the Oz landscape, terror lurks around every corner. Mombi’s helpers, the Wheelers, are a particularly nasty gang of henchmen whose arms stretch to the ground and end in wheels instead of hands. These bizarre creatures, who resemble punk rockers, lunge into view when least expected. The wicked Mombi lives in a golden, mirrored room, adjoining a gallery where she keeps a change of human heads to attach to her body when she pleases. The Nome King is a presence living in rock with a resounding but spectral voice; through animation with clay, called Claymation, the rock’s surface makes a very disturbing transformation toward human-like features.
The script of Return to Oz could have been much wittier; there are lines that drop with a thud. But the movie is always visually arresting. Most delightful is a tree with napkins for leaves and lunch pails for fruit. As well, Return to Oz is emotionally satisfying. Murch has drawn a completely natural performance from Balk. Her reactions, whether tender or terrified, always seem spontaneous and she never overplays. Balk makes Dorothy’s dream and her predicament in it entirely believable. In Return to Oz she and Murch have managed the rare feat of giving a fairy tale the illusion of reality. Even rarer, Murch has not shamed the memory of a classic.
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