With the forthcoming and highly anticipated spring 2013 release of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ prequel ‘Oz: The Great and the Powerful’ directed by Sam Raimi (Spider Man, The Evil Dead) it would be worth reflecting on Disney’s forgotten 1980’s predecessor ‘Return to Oz’ which was dismissed by audiences and critics alike when it was released back in 1985 but has since gained a strong cult following over the years from loyal fans of the L Frank Baum’s Oz books and of films from the 1980’s. It has since inspired the Scissor Sisters to write a song, ‘Return to Oz and numerous blogs and tributes have been written by fans all over the world. Here we look at how a film with such promise became a massive box office flop resulting in one of Hollywood’s greats Walter Murch never directing a film again and why it deserves to be considered a cult classic of the 1980’s.
The idea and for making another Oz film initially came from Murch himself in the early 1980’s who had previously won an Oscar for Best Sound Design in 1979 for Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’. Disney owned all the rights to the Oz books at the time and despite Murch never having directed a full length feature before Disney wanted to proceed and bought into the idea of making another Oz film.
Murch’s script was adapted from Baum’s books, ‘The Marvellous Land of Oz’ 1904 and ‘Ozma of Oz’ 1907 but his own ideas were clearly shaping the story. He saw his film as ‘one side’ of Oz and as un-official sequel of the beloved ‘Wizard of Oz’ and not a direct sequel and his Oz was a very different Oz to what Disney and film audiences had originally anticipated. There were strong connotations to the original Oz film such as the yellow brick road, the ruby slippers, Dorothy’s friend such as Tik Tok (Tin man) and Scarecrow, the Emerald City. However, Murch’s story was a much darker re-interpretation of Baum’s stories. Firstly it wasn’t a musical, this film was much more sombre in tone with much more dramatic realism throughout the film. Within the first twenty minutes we see Dorothy (played by 9 year old Fairuza Balk) unable to sleep as she keeps dreaming of Oz. She is subsequently whisked off to hospital by her Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) for electric shock treatment by creepy Dr Worley to help her sleep and this was only the beginning! Once Dorothy escapes and is on her way to Oz, she finds the yellow brick road all destroyed and cannot find her friend Scarecrow who has been turned into an ornament by the evil Nome King so she sets out to find him. Making new friends on the way she encounters the nasty Wheelers who were simply petrifying for the average 8 year old at the time. Dorothy is then imprisoned by the wicked Princess Mombi who has over thirty inter-changeable heads in her castle so for young fans of the original Wizard of Oz this ‘sequel’ would probably be remembered more like a childhood horror film.
The film was marketed by Disney as a sequel and child-friendly fantasy but had been given a PG rating instead of a G. Essentially the film wasn’t suitable for very young children so for those who went to see it at the cinema and were expecting a sweet Disney fairy tale like the ‘The Wizard of Oz’ found it petrifying. Critics at the time were centering more on how sinister the story was given the age group that the film was targeting instead of focusing on the real quality of the filmmaking and screenplay so the film performed poorly at box office. Murch’s production was massively mismanaged and ended up so over budget eventually leading to bankruptcy and Disney made a massive financial loss.
Despite all the production troubles, financial woes, and criticism ‘Return to Oz’ is a hugely entertaining film for those who like their fairy tales a bit more spooky and should be seen as a stand alone film and not a direct sequel to ‘The Wizard of Oz’. The stop motion effects are excellent and deserved far more recognition at the time of release. It is hauntingly imaginative full of quirky characters, such as Pumpkinhead, Tik Tok, Bellina (the talking chicken) and Scarecrow who all have a wonderful friendship with Dorothy. It is full of energy and creativity with a beautiful melancholic score composed by Dave Shire. The costumes, the sets, and lighting also attributed to making this a compelling and irresistible fantasy. Along with other 80’s classics such as ‘Dark Crystal and ‘The Never-ending Story’, Return to Oz’ is highly recommended deserves the 80’s cult classic following which it has gained amongst older children and adults over the past twenty seven years.