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RetrOZpective: Journey Back to Oz (1972)

Our journey down the yellow brick road continues in our RetrOZpective. Following the success of The Wizard of Oz in cinema and on television, it was only a matter of time before a new film was made. Disney almost made an adaptation of the novels called The Rainbow Road of Oz,  but it fell through. In 1972, Journey Back to Oz was released; an animated musical that is the first of several unofficial spin-offs of the 1939 classic. Produced by Filmation, the film was not much of a success in cinemas, but later found popularity in television.

The film is loosely based on the second novel, The Marvelous Land of Oz, whilst being a tribute to its predecessor. Judy Garland had passed away several years earlier, so the role of Dorothy fell to her daughter Liza Minelli. The film was in production for a decade, animated by Filmation, best known for their cartoons, including He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. The studio often had limited animation and poor quality, which is present throughout the movie.

Dorothy is back in Kansas, dreaming of her adventures in Oz, whilst being chastised and ignored by her relatives; including Margaret Hamilton appearing as Aunt Em. A convenient twister shows up, Dorothy gets knocked out by a swinging gate, before awakening back in Oz with Toto. After meeting a singing signpost having an existential crisis, Dorothy encounters the newest wicked witch on the block, Mombi, voiced by a delightful Ethel Merman. Mombi plots to conquer the Emerald City with a herd of magical, giant, green elephants. Yes, you read that correctly. Dorothy teams up with Mombi’s slave Pumpkinhead (Paul Lynde) and ex-carousel horse Woodenhead (Herschel Bernardi), heading to warn King Scarecrow (Mickey Rooney) of the pending invasion.

Though The Wizard of Oz had its frightful moments, it remained upbeat and joyful throughout. Journey is often strangely moody and even cynical. The Scarecrow has come to regret having a brain, finding it a liability. He’s not the only one though, as both Tin Man (Danny Thomas) and the Cowardly Lion (Milton Berle) feel like the Wizard’s gifts are a burden. Or at least when it comes to tangling with elephants. After the Scarecrow is captured by Mombi, Dorothy turns to her other old friends for help. However, they all squirm at the very mention of green elephants and bail on her. Glinda (Risë Stevens) provides better help, even appearing legitimately concerned for Dorothy’s wellbeing unlike her 1939 counterpart.

The movie’s songs were provided by the four-time Oscar winners Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen. They are a mixed bag and carry the gloomy tone of the film, with at least six sombre songs. Although Dorothy’s last song is a little bit of a tearjerker. The aforementioned signpost sings about his depressing purpose, Woodenhead sings about his abusive backstory, whilst Dorothy’s friends all lament about their newfound gifts and are too cowardly to save their home from a pack of elephants. Ethel Merman, a veteran of stage and screen, is clearly having fun as Mombi, even if her character is a bit stereotypical. She is accompanied by an evil crow voiced by Looney Tunes actor Mel Blanc.

If one thing carries the whole movie, it must be Liza Minelli’s performance. Her version of Dorothy is a little more proactive and forthright than her mother’s version, making the character her own through her fantastic vocals. Her songs manage to avoid feeling just plain cynical; capturing both the optimism and sorrow that Dorothy experiences in the film. The final song in the film, “That Feeling For Home”, has admittedly made me tear up on more than one occasion. The cast are pretty good, especially Paul Lynde and Mickey Rooney when allowed to have some fun. Though, not even having an all-star cast is enough to salvage the movie.

The biggest flaw of the film has to be the animation. Whilst praise can be given for the fluid animation and the lovely background scenery, Filmation’s infamous limited budgets really drags the movie down. The movie was a box office disappointment, falling into obscurity amongst the many Oz films. Still, I have a nostalgic connection to the movie, being a part of my childhood. Though it hasn’t aged well, Journey Back to Oz still has some charm to it through its performances. Our own journey will continue, as we ease on down the road when we review The Wiz.

Have you watched Journey Back to Oz? Which is your favourite Oz adaptation? Do you find a herd of green elephants terrifying? Leave a comment below, or on our Twitter feed.

About the author

Mark Russell