This is a guest essay from David Turpin. Read his previous Spooool.ie contributions here.
On October 12, Hollywood Babylon will screen the brilliant, and underappreciated, Return to Oz (1985) at Dublin’s Lighthouse Cinema as part of their “Scare Your Kids Weekend” (also including a welcome screening of Ridley Scott’s Legend). The sole directorial outing of multi-Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch, Return to Oz is a Walt Disney production often mistakenly believed to be a sequel to MGM’s beloved The Wizard of Oz (1939). In fact, the film is an adaptation of several later books by original Oz author L. Frank Baum, principally Ozma of Oz (1907). The film was the subject of much hand-wringing upon its release, and much snark ever since, since its story – in which Dorothy escapes incarceration in a mental hospital only to find Oz devastated by the combined forces of the wicked Princess Mombi and the malevolent Nome King – has been deemed, by adults, to be “too bleak” or “too scary” for children.
It’s true that Return to Oz is scary. Princess Mombi, who changes her appearance at will by drawing upon a collection of detachable heads, is an authentically terrifying creation, while her minions, The Wheelers, carry an unusually potent underlying threat of violence. The film’s fans have sometimes claimed, erroneously, that the scariness of the film is truer to Baum’s original conception of Oz. In fact, Baum created Oz as a corrective to terrifying European folk tales, stating in his introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) that his aim was “solely to pleasure the children of today [with] a fairy tale in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out”. Return to Oz’s delightful scariness, then, is closer in spirit to early Walt Disney, with Mombi’s regal sadism evoking the Queen of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), while the Nome King’s terrifyingly volatile temper recalls the character of Stromboli in Pinocchio (1940).
In its scariness, Return to Oz is also truthful, in a way that many children’s films are not. The scene in which the Wheelers (who appear to be teenagers) pursue and threaten Dorothy is powerfully evocative of playground bullying, while the “mental hospital” framing device is a forceful depiction of the powerlessness of children in an adult world. Entirely invented for the film (Baum’s Ozma of Oz sees Dorothy return to Oz after a storm at sea) these early scenes are among the most striking, and not merely for their incongruity in an “Oz” story. Rather, they speak to an ugly truth about the experience of being a child, drawing on an archetype familiar from films as diverse as Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Tom Holland’s Child’s Play (1988): that of the child who tells the truth but is disbelieved, and even persecuted, simply because he or she is a child. The sight of Dorothy Gale strapped to a gurney awaiting primitive electric shock therapy is probably not one many people knowingly signed up for, but it makes for one of the most powerfully empathetic moments of 1980s children’s cinema. Even the way in which Fairuza Balk’s Dorothy is surrounded by puppets and animatronics, rather than the made-up actors of The Wizard of Oz, is evocative of how children, misunderstood by adults and mistreated by other children, find solace in toys. The extensive cast of friendly non-human characters includes a straight-talking animatronic hen, and a tender-hearted automaton, Tik-Tok, who sheds a single green tear in one particularly poignant moment. The Nome King’s minions, meanwhile, are thrillingly realised in Claymation by Will Vinton, whose own feature The Adventures of Mark Twain (also released in 1985) is another remarkable children’s film that was dismissed because it didn’t fit the mould.
As played by Balk, the Dorothy of Return to Oz is touching in very different ways to Judy Garland. While Garland communicates longing and joy with a piercing directness, particularly in her musical numbers, Balk – who does not sing in Return to Oz – is quiet, introverted. Like many children, she is an observer, cautiously gauging her environment and her place in it. Played by Balk as reserved and fair-minded, Dorothy has a genuine moral force on the occasions when she speaks out against her adult assailants, as when Mombi casually states her intention to harvest Dorothy’s head, only for the little girl to cry out, in purest Kansan, “I believe you will not!”
Importantly, the villains of Return to Oz are both monarchs, and are both played by British actors – Jean Marsh as Princess Mombi and Nicol Williamson as The Nome King. Marsh (who would tackle a similar role in Willow in 1988) and Williamson (who plays the Nome King as an evil reprise of his Merlin from 1981’s Excalibur) both take to their parts with relish, and their very British fruitiness contrasts sharply with Balk’s very American naturalism. Baum’s Oz is, after all, a specifically American creation – a “modernized fairy tale”, as he called it – that consciously remedies the folk traditions of the “Old World”. While MGM’s Wizard of Oz takes place in a relatively placeless art deco fairy world, Return to Oz belongs to a small subgenre of fantasies that take place in specifically American dream spaces. Norman Reynolds’ exquisite production design for Return to Oz draws directly on the original illustrations for Baum’s books, which were themselves inspired by the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. The result carries the eerie poignancy one might associate with a recreation of a near-century-old vision of the future, nowhere more so than in the concluding scenes, when the devastated Emerald City is returned to a vitality that somehow seems no less ghostly. No film before or since has offered a dust bowl dreamscape as meticulously realised as Return to Oz, although HBO’s short-lived but fascinating series Carnivàle (2003 – 2005) occasionally came close.
Disney had another pop at Oz with the intermittently entertaining extravaganza Oz the Great and Powerful in 2013. Sprinkled with the toothless jump scares typical of director Sam Raimi, Oz the Great and Powerful isn’t scary in the same way Return to Oz is – although it does arguably encroach further on adult territory by concocting a hokey “origin” story for the Wonderful Wizard that hinges almost entirely on sexual jealousy. More recently again, the MGM original enjoyed a cinema re-release this year, its charm undimmed by a needless 3D conversion. Meanwhile, there are plenty more stories to be gleaned from Baum’s 14 “Oz” books. Personally, I’d like to see a film of the remarkable second book, The Marvellous Land of Oz (1904). While Return to Oz does borrow the Jack Pumpkinhead character and Powder of Life device from this story, it skirts the central plot device, in which Mombi imprisons Ozma by changing her sex. In the final scene, the boy Tip is transformed into the girl Ozma, who tells her friends “I hope none of you will care less for me than you did before. I’m just the same, you know; only…” Jack Pumpkinhead finishes her sentence: “Only you’re different”. The strange and awkward sibling to the universally loved The Wizard of Oz and the slickly merchandisable Oz the Great and Powerful, Return to Oz is itself an example of how we can sometimes care less for something simply because it’s different. Hopefully its own happy ending of serious reappraisal isn’t too far off.
David Turpin is a screenwriter and occasional academic, and a musician under the name The Late David Turpin. His web-site is www.thelatedavidturpin.com. Read his previous Spooool.ie contributions here.