Film Review

Disney’s Return To Oz

Return To Oz is not a film that’s held in very high regard at all but after watching it I have to say I’m a huge fan and that, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, it’s far closer to the source material than The Wizard Of Oz ever was. Here’s the thing: L. Frank Baum wrote an entire opus of Oz novels, fourteen to be exact. They were incredibly strange, terminally bizarre otherworldly fables with borderline dream/nightmare logic and a nebulous ecosystem of odd, surreal nonsensicality that was a world you could get lost in. While Wizard Of Oz is a lovely film with its classic musical numbers, doe eyed, iconoclastic turn from Judy Garland and turned darker, more menacing aspects into more accessible sensibilities, I’ve got to be honest as a childhood fan of the books and say I prefer Return because it feels more akin to Baum’s vernacular, intangible aesthetic and topsy-turvy world building. Additionally, Dorothy in the books was supposed to be between the ages eight to twelve and while seventeen year old Garland was wonderful in the role, Fairuza Balk at age ten fits the character more congruently and she’s terrific in a debut role that’s a perfect precursor to her own career full of edgy, intense and very ‘Oz-esque’ acting creations of her own. Dorothy returns to Oz in far less of a spectacle than the tornado before, and finds it conquered and ruled over by a tyrant called the Gnome King (Nicol Williamson). Dorothy must battle his minions as well as an evil witch named Thrombi (Jean Marsh, also effective as the evil witch in Willow). She’s helped by a new host of fantastical beings including clockwork robot Tik Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead, a talking chicken, a sentient Moose head and others while her old friends the Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man remain largely in captivity but make some comforting cameos later on in the film. This is one of those blessed 80’s children’s fantasy films that isn’t afraid to get dark, genuinely menacing and has an overall edge and bite to its narrative and tone, which the books had as well. The special effects are utterly spellbinding from shifting rock faces, a flying couch, the gnome king’s fearsomely gigantic final form and all manner of phantasmagorical eye candy. Balk is wonderful as Dorothy and even at an early age it’s easy to see why she went on to become such an accomplished actress and beloved cult film star. As someone who cherished the books as a kid I have to say this is as close as it’s ever come; Baum’s stories were meant to be illogical, disorienting dark fantasies full of subconscious imagery and dreamlike storytelling, not syrupy Hollywood musicals that took all that edgy atmosphere and filtered it through a golden age, tame prism of sunny optimism. That’s not to say I don’t like Wizard Of Oz, it’s a fine film for what it is and a cherished classic to many, it’s just that if we’re acknowledging and paying tribute to the extensive lore behind it all, Return To Oz it’s where it’s at and I would have loved to see a continuing series with Balk as Dorothy again.

-Nate Hill

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