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RetrOZpective: Return to Oz (1985)

Disney has had a lengthy connection to the Oz books. In 1954, Walt Disney bought the film rights to the books, intent on producing The Rainbow Road to Oz, which was to star the Mouseketeers. The project was promoted on the Disneyland television show, with plans for an attraction to be built at Disneyland. However, the film was shelved due to presumed budgetary concerns. It was not until thirty years later would Disney get to make their film: Return to Oz.

Released in 1985, Return to Oz is very loyal to the books, being a composite of The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz. The film was the work of film editor, Walter Murch, in his lone director’s credit (aside from an episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars). What no one counted on was how terrifying the film would be, considered amongst the most frightening family films. It taps in to the darker moments of the books, presenting a sombre and tense film. It lacks the same merry whimsy as The Wizard of Oz, which likely was a contribution to its box office failure. However, it has since become a cult classic amongst both Oz and 80s fantasy film enthusiasts.

Return to Oz had a stormy history; faced with budgetary issues and was almost canned until George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola stepped in to keep it going. To connect to The Wizard of Oz as an unofficial sequel, the Ruby Slippers were included with MGM’s permission. Along with the Disney prequel, Oz the Great and Powerful, this makes an unofficial Oz trilogy across nearly sixty years.

Dorothy Gale is played by a then-young Fairuza Balk; suffering from insomnia six months after her first trip to Oz. She is depressed and a little obsessed with proving Oz is real. Balk had little acting experience when cast, but she does a wonderful job; capturing the character’s unexplored forthrightness. Aunt Em takes Dorothy to a therapist named Doctor Worley (Nicol Williamson), who specialises in using electroshock therapy to “cure” his patients. He is aided by the terrifying Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh), who could give Nurse Ratched a run for her money. Dorothy is approached by a mysterious girl (Emma Ridley), who warns her of the clinic’s dangers.

They soon become apparent when a blackout reveals Worley injures his patients, trapping them in the cellar to hide his failures. Dorothy and her new friend flee, fall into a river, where the girl seemingly drowns. Dorothy wakes up back in Oz, accompanied by Billina; a flighty, talking chicken (Denise Bryer). However, Dorothy’s joys are dashed when she finds the Emerald City in ruins and its citizens petrified. The Scarecrow, now king, has been kidnapped by the Nome King (Williamson) who wishes to destroy Oz. The city is patrolled by the maniacal Wheelers, who have wheels for hands and feet. Forget flying monkeys; these cackling, screaming fiends are twice as scary.

Dorothy and Billina soon find a friend in Tik-Tok; a clockwork robot who serves as the Royal Army of Oz. The character was one of the first robots portrayed in literature; powered by three keys that charge his action, thoughts, and speech. Tik-Tok is voiced by Sean Barrett, whilst the late Michael Sundin played the role onscreen. As a television presenter and trampolinist, he walked upside down in the costume to move it about.

Fending off the Wheelers, the characters confront their leader Princess Mombi (primarily played by Marsh); a vicious witch who can swap her head for others. Mombi is an amalgamation of two characters: the witch Mombi, and Princess Langwidere, the head-swapping ruler of the Land of Ev.  She locks Dorothy in an attic to later take her head. Dorothy plots an escape, aided by Jack Pumpkinhead (Brian Henson), a timid character brought to life by Mombi’s Powder of Life. Dorothy steals the powder to animate a chimeric flying machine that sports the head of the moose-like Gump (Lyne Conway). However, in the film’s most nightmarish scene, Dorothy disturbs Mombi’s original head, who shrieks insanely; alerting her headless body to come after Dorothy.

The group successfully escape, flying across the Deadly Desert, which turns anyone who steps on it into sand. The movie makes no attempt to shy away from the gruesome elements of the books. Dorothy even explains the Tin Man’s hack-and-slash backstory to Dr. Worley. We soon meet the Nome King, a charismatic figure, brought to life through clay animation to begin with. His aim remains shadowy, at first claiming he wishes to reclaim the “stolen” emeralds from Oz, and kidnapping the Scarecrow as punishment. However, his true goal is to erase Oz and become human. It has been suggested that Dorothy’s adventure is symbolic for mind control experiments, with Dr. Worley being the handler to control Dorothy’s brain.

The Nome King gives Dorothy and her friends the chance to rescue the Scarecrow, who has been turned into an ornament. But, when a character loses, they are turned into objects whilst the king grows more human. When alone with Dorothy, the Nome King gleefully reveals his schemes have happened thanks to the Ruby Slippers. Left behind by Dorothy on her way home, the slippers become symbolic of Dorothy’s guilt and disregard for those in both worlds.

After the king tempts Dorothy to return home, she ventures into his collection to rescue her friends. The Nome King is confident enough to underestimate Dorothy, so much so that when she frees the Scarecrow, the king transforms into an enormous cyclops to eat her. That is until Billina lays her egg directly down the King’s throat, poisoning him, as Nomes are allergic to chicken eggs. Cue the Nome King slowly rotting away as only a giant rock monster can.

In the end Oz is saved, but Dorothy makes the choice to return home. Luckily her mysterious saviour from the clinic appears in the mirror, revealed to be the long lost Princess Ozma. In the books Ozma was the heir to the throne, smuggled away by Mombi and the Wizard to either protect her, or remove her in a quiet coup d’état. She was then turned into a boy named Tip, unaware of his true identity until told so by Glinda. So, in some respects, Ozma is a transgendered character introduced in 1904.

Although a box office bomb and undeniably frightening, Return to Oz is a legitimately good film. The production was fantastic, with Murch’s well-known editing and cinematography shining through. The score by David Shire is hypnotic, working well with the often surreal visuals and tone. The movie fully embraced the hidden weirdness and darkness of the Oz books, but perhaps pushed them a little too hard. The movie may not be suitable for young children, with Disney trying to their best to market the film as similar to The Wizard of Oz. It remains one of the most faithful adaptations, being worth the watch for its atmosphere, performances, and special effects.

What are your thoughts on Return to Oz? Too terrifying or just enough? A cult classic or a shadow on the franchise? Leave a comment below, or on our Twitter feed.

About the author

Mark Russell