The Wizard of Oz, the classic 1939 adaptation of the children’s novel by L. Frank Baum, is often cited as one of the greatest films ever made. I don’t disagree.
It’s colorful, has memorable characters, terrific casting, wonderful music, fantastic makeup and sets and immortal words of wisdom that manage to be both hokey and sweet at the same time. It’s simply magic. But let’s look back on some of the stuff that happens in the original film. You have a little girl who’s scared out of her mind in a land that she’s completely unfamiliar with, and she is being hunted and tormented by a terrifying witch with the worst cackle you’ve ever heard. When we first meet the titular Wizard of Oz, he’s a giant, green, Great Gazoo head who yells loudly and is accompanied by explosions and dense smoke. And then of course there’s the talking trees, the flying monkeys that can rip people apart and the little people with creepy high-pitched voices. That last one is only scary if you have achondroplasiaphobia, but I personally find them a tad unnerving regardless. You know what? The Wizard of Oz is kind of horrifying. As an adult, you can probably handle all of that creepy stuff rather well. But if you’re a kid, this film can scar you for life. Take it from me. I can’t look at pictures of Margaret Hamilton without flinching. “What’s your point, you sad loser?” you may be asking. First off, that’s very rude of you to say. Second, my point is that Return to Oz, the unofficial sequel that came out in 1985, is 10 times scarier than The Wizard of Oz. It’s so creepy, dark and weird that it should practically be considered a horror movie…..…….AND I LOVE IT.
Return to Oz takes place roughly 6 months after the events of The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) has become a depression ridden insomniac (What a charming beginning), and won’t stop talking about her fantastical adventure in Oz. Worried about her mental health, Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) take Dorothy to a mental asylum run by Dr. J.B. Worley (Nicol Williamson) to receive a new medical treatment called electrotherapy (This can only result in good things, I’m sure). Before she can receive 100 volts to the brain however, the power to the entire asylum fails due to a lucky lighting strike. Dorothy escapes the asylum, but ends up being swept away by a flood and gets transported back to The Wonderful Land of Oz with her chicken Billina (Mak Wilson), who is now able to talk. Dorothy soon discovers that large swaths of Oz have been turned into ruins, and almost all of the inhabitants have been turned into stone by an entity know as the Nome King (also played by Nicol Williamson). As Dorothy journeys across Oz to stop the Nome King and his reign of terror, she meets new and strange friends. Like Tik-Tok, a mechanical man who needs to be constantly wound up in order to function, Jack Pumpkinhead, an animated homunculus made of sticks with a pumpkin for a head, and The Gump, a talking elk-like creature with two sofas for a body and palm tree limbs for wings. Did I mention this movie is strange? It’s Oz. I figured it was a given.
I’m exaggerating a bit when I talk about the horror movie quality of the film. It rides the line, but I don’t think it ever goes too far. There’s no blood, death, swearing or excessive violence. It just relies on creatively creepy visuals and tone to sell its scares. You’ve got evil henchmen like the Wheelers who have abnormally long wheeled limbs and cackle evilly at Dorothy, there’s a witch named Mombi (Jean Marsh) who has display cases filled with screaming heads and there’s the Nome king and his evil minions who morph and contort out of the walls in a hellish fashion. It’s frighteningly effective imagery, especially if you’re watching it for the first time as a kid. If you’re an adult though, you may mostly admire it for how creative and visually pleasing it is. Many of the characters and environments are brought to life by makeup, costumes, puppeteering and claymation. The latter of which looks phenomenal even to this day, and rivals that of Ray Harryhausen’s work (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans) in terms of fluidity and realism. The visuals contribute to the dual dreamlike quality of the film, which ranges from a calm and comforting dream to the rough and demonic visions of your worst nightmares.
There was clearly a lot of effort put into the environment and characters of the movie. The setting is undoubtedly the land of Oz that we’re all familiar with, but it feels more dangerous and hostile than ever before. The sets are large, detailed, fantastical and can only come from Oz, but there’s a dash of unsettledness that comes with them. As opposed to the original 1939 film which even in its darkest moments had a tinge of fun and color, Return to Oz’s mise en scene paints a threatening and darker setting, but never to a point where it feels as if it’s drowning in its own bleakness and angst. It balances the dark with the light exceptionally well. Its light, of course, being its main characters. They’re not only well performed, but they all have this warmth and kindness to them that makes you want to see them brave these dark trials and save this world that we love. Again, like the original film, amongst the horror and danger there are moments of compassion, fun and purity. In essence, that’s what The Wizard of Oz is all about. Moments of decency and personality amongst trials and tribulations.
If you’re hearing about Return to Oz for the first time and are expecting something akin to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musical classic starring Judy Garland, you’re probably going to be very surprised. It’s inspired more by the tone of the books, which could get pretty dark and surreal. If that doesn’t jive with you, then I wouldn’t recommend this. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a better movie than the original, but it certainly holds up for me as a well made sequel. It looks beautiful, has some lovable characters and features great designs and effects. It’s also creative, takes some risks and it has some teeth to it that I think L. Frank Baum would appreciate. It may be unexpectedly nightmarish, but some kids like to the challenged in that way, and this one certainly does it in a way that doesn’t reek of cheapness or foul play. I think that Walter Murch, the director of the film, perfectly understood the balance that he was playing with here, and I applaud him for trying something tonally different while also keeping to the spirit of The Wizard of Oz that we all know and love. But seriously, this movie is absolute visual nightmare fuel. Keep your heart medication handy.
Aaron Arkin says
A very thoughtful and well written review. Thanks.