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

Ron Howard’s Willow


Who doesn’t love Ron Howard’s Willow? Hopefully nobody, because it’s a brilliant fantasy classic that’s aged like the finest wine. From a story by George Lucas (vague Ewok vibes abound), it’s just a rollicking picture, oriented towards the little ones whose sense of wonder hasn’t dimmed, yet eager to include a very real sense of danger and darkness, the perfect recipe to make a film like this noteworthy and nostalgic. In a village inhabited solely by dwarf-like creatures, a secret has been unearthed by the family of young would-be sorcerer Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis). In their little Hobbitsville of a town on the edge of a vast fantastical realm, a human infant has floated down river like Moses, a special child with the power to defeat a nefariously evil witch (Jean Smart) who has terrorized the land for ages. After the baby attracts danger to their village, the council gives Willow the task of bringing the child out into the world so it can fulfill it’s potential and bring goodness back to the realm. So begins a dazzling big budget journey into the heart of sword and sorcery darkness, a well woven blend of humour, heart and magic that is never short of thrills or visual splendour. Val Kilmer steals the show as rambunctious Madmartigan, a fiercely funny rogue of a warrior who protects and guides Willow through a harsh, threatening world, while Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton score comic relief points as two pint size little pixie things with vaguely European accents, which they use to hurl many a colourful insult in Kilmer’s general direction. Val’s real life wife Joanne Whalley plays sultry Sorshia, daughter to the villainous queen and badass beautiful warrior princess with dark sex appeal for days. There’s just so much to love about this film, from the wildly boisterous score by James Horner that gets our pulses up, the gorgeous production design and attention to detail, the story itself full of wondrous magic and peril, to the reliance on practical effects as per the times. It’s adorable that the filmmakers went out of their way to cast hordes of actual little people as opposed to relying on camera trickery, right down to Willow’s tiny, impossibly cute dwarf children. Highlights I will always remember from this one are the impressively staged sled race down a snowy peak using shields as careening vehicles and the surprisingly gory attack from giant worm/gorilla hybrid creatures that seriously disturbed seven year old Nate for years after. You simply can’t go wrong with this one. 

-Nate Hill