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Disney's RETURN TO OZ is a misunderstood masterpiece

Dorothy and the gang.
Dorothy and the gang.
Disney

Disney’s Oz: The Great and Powerful was a huge smash, raking in over 478 million dollars worldwide so far. However, this isn’t the first time that Disney has tackled L. Frank Baum’s beloved Oz series.

Return to Oz film still
Walt Disney

Fantasy films were all the rage in the eighties, what with Ridley Scott’s Legend, Jim Henson’s Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, as well as Return of the Jedi, among others. At some point, Disney decided to contribute to the craze and, before long, Return to Oz was in pre-production. Disney had acquired all of the rights to L. Frank Baum’s Oz books and many attempts to begin a project had failed, until now.

As word began to spread, fans of the original Oz film were reluctant to celebrate at first, but quickly joined in the hype once film stills began to show up. A return to Oz! Something that many had been anticipating for years! And to top it all off, Walt Disney Productions was at the helm! What joy! Another magical, musical romp for all ages!

They had no idea.

Film editor Walter Murch was signed on to direct the $25,000,000 project – his first feature film ever. Disney gave him the go ahead to write the script, and even though the executives were quite nervous about the bleak approach to the material, they proceeded and filming was set to begin in late December of 1983. Murch set out to find his Dorothy, and after an enormous casting call, he found her in nine year old Fairuza Balk. She was perfect for the role. Walter Murch recounts his discovery of Fairuza in this quote from an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1985: “There were so many that we looked at who tried to be as much like Judy Garland as possible, and I discounted them for that very reason. From the beginning, Fairuza was very aware that this would be her Dorothy. I encouraged her to become herself.”

After a new studio head was hired at Disney, production was temporarily halted, as the film was exceeding the original budget. Murch cut the script by twenty pages, but retained the dark tone of the material. Murch was eventually fired and a new director was assigned to the project, until George Lucas came to his aid. Lucas looked over the production schedule, which he claimed was “ridiculous”, and looked over the material that had already been shot, calling it “wonderful”. Soon, Steven Spielberg, Phil Kaufman, and Francis Ford Coppola flew in to support Murch – and before he knew it, the disheartened director was attached to the project once again.

Return to Oz was released on June 21, 1985. All of the waiting was over. People from all over the world flocked to the theatres to see the film – and many of the children that were present would never be the same. The film was considerably darker than anyone could have ever imagined.

Return to Oz opens in Kansas, shortly after Dorothy’s first trip to Oz. The young girl cannot sleep through the night, and Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are more than a little concerned about Dorothy’s mental state. So they send her to Doctor Worley, who is known for his “electric healing” treatments – also known as electro-shock therapy. Left in the hands of a terrifying nurse and the quack of a doctor, Dorothy prepares to undergo treatment that very night, and as she is wheeled down the hallway strapped down on a stretcher, she hears the screams of “damaged” patients echoing down the halls. Through a random occurrence of events, a storm approaches and lightening knocks out the power in the building. The doctor leaves the room to remedy the problem, and almost immediately, another young girl comes to the aid of Dorothy, removing her straps. The two escape the building, with the nurse following after them. They jump into the river to escape; only Dorothy manages to survive by clinging on to a decrepit chicken coop. The other girl vanishes underwater.

Fun times for the family, right?! You haven’t heard anything yet.

Once Dorothy arrives in Oz, she soon realizes that the yellow brick road has been demolished, and that the Emerald City and all of its inhabitants have been turned to stone – and to add to the creep factor, some of the ladies are missing their heads. As Dorothy wanders through this post-apocalyptic wasteland, she encounters the Wheelers – strange little steam-punk creatures who have wheels where hands and feet should be, and skate around on all fours whilst cackling and barking out threats. She also meets Billina the talking chicken, Tik-Tok, a lovable, rotund clockwork robot who considers himself “the Royal Army of Oz”, and Jack Pumpkinhead – who is much like the scarecrow, only he has a jack-o-lantern for a head. He’s a clumsy, tall and lanky, albeit precious creation that takes a liking to Dorothy – he calls her “mom”. Sounds sweet, huh? Yeah, well, Dorothy also meets Princess Mombi – an evil witch who works for the Nome King, and has a room full of glass cabinets, each one of them containing a different head – each head possessing a different personality.

Let the screaming begin! (This is terrifying stuff. Don’t believe me? Watch this clip.)

Mombi temporarily captures Dorothy and her friends, and they manage to escape with the help of a magical flying sofa-Gump. They head out to the Nome King’s castle to rescue the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man – all three of whom have been turned into green ornaments. In case you were wondering, the Nome King is a terrifying rock demon, who just so happens to be allergic to chicken eggs.

Needless to say, parents around the globe were furious. Word of mouth spread, and parents and children stayed away in droves. The film disappeared out of the collective consciousness for years, until it garnered a cult following, and was released on DVD. Walter Murch has yet to direct another feature since the film failed miserably at the box office, and the executive producer went bankrupt.

Truth be told, this is a fantastic film in every sense of the word. Walter Murch’s direction and writing is solid, the acting is wonderful from all involved, and David Shire’s score is nothing short of magical. The darker tone of the film is true to L. Frank Baum’s original vision, and it fits like a glove.

Personally, I have always preferred Return to Oz for a myriad of reasons, and it was a special part of my childhood. I know whereof I speak. I was one of the many terrified children, scarred forever from the images onscreen. My mother carried me out of the theatre, my face buried in her shoulder, tears stinging my face. I had nightmares for years afterwards, and this film was forbidden in my home for quite some time. I have always been attracted to things that, for whatever reason, have damaged me in some way. I sought after the film for a few years, as it was nearly impossible to find. Anchor Bay finally released the film in August of 1999. I purchased it right then and there, as well as the official Disney release some years later. I love it dearly to this very day, and consider it one of my favorite Disney films.

Although it was heavily misunderstood upon its release, many have reevaluated it since, and have finally embraced it for what it is – a curious oddity, the first Disney horror film, but most especially, a small masterpiece.