Less a sequel to the legendary musical that saw Judy Garland and friends go on a witch killing spree and more an attempt to realise the original series written begrudgingly by L. Frank Baum, Disney combined The Marvelous Land Of Oz and Ozma Of Oz to create quite possibly one of the most entertainingly disturbing children’s movies of the 80’s despite the fact that it’s been virtually forgotten by the world at large.
But not by me… and certainly not by anyone who made the mistake of seeing it at an impressionable age.
You see for people of a certain age gap there was at least one fantasy movie released during that delirious period known as the 80’s, maybe it was Labyrinth, maybe it was The Neverending Story, maybe it was even Krull, but I’m willing to bet cash money that ONE of those sons of bitches snuggled itself into your brain pan and made itself right at home.
I myself had a few but there’s always been something about Return To Oz that always stuck with me. I’d like to say it was the lush, green world and the fact that it’s heroine is so gosh darned well-mannered but I it would be painfully obvious that that would be a filthy lie and that the REAL reason I embraced this movie probably had more to do with the large amounts of truly startling imagery that’s casually scattered around without any care or thought for the unsoiled underwear of it’s young audience.
It’s been six months since young Dorothy Gale from Kansas took an unplanned trip via tornado to visit the far away fantasy land of Oz. While there she made new friends, and racked up a sizable amount of manslaughter charges against women in black pointy hats, but since then she has been experiencing crippling bouts of insomnia as her experience back in the real world has her struggling with a sense of isolation and an inability to reconnect with her normal life . Now if this sounds like the sort of stuff that’s a bit heavy to drop on an audience of kids, brother, hold on to your hat because we’re just getting started. Sick of this “make believe” world that’s troubling her charge so, Auntie Em takes Dorothy to a shifty doctor who immediately prescribes a quick dose of – fucking wait for it – ELECTROSHOCK THERAPY to cure her of her fantasies. Sensing this is somewhat extreme, even for 1899, Dorothy makes a break for it with the aid of a mysterious blonde girl but tumbles into a raging river during a violent storm and eventual wakes up in Oz with a chicken from her farm for company. Thanks to their relocation to a place where scarecrow and tin men can have existential crisis, Belinda the chicken can talk but Dorothy’s excitement is soon cut sort when she sees that the yellow brick road is in serious need of some council funding and the Emerald City is in ruins. The petty culprit is rocky prick known as The Nome King who has taken back his emeralds, turned everyone in the city to stone and spirited away the Scarecrow back to his mountain leaving the evil Princess Mombi and her 31 interchangeable heads (!) to keep the peace with her wheel-limbed watchdogs, The Wheelers. To combat this, Dorothy enlists help of her own in the form of clockwork soldier Tick-Tock, kindly, vegetable domed Jack Pumpkinhead who just wants to find his mom (aw) and the hastily cobbled together Gump, a makeshift creature made out of lashed together furniture and the mismatched, misshapen group awkwardly head off to rescue the Scarecrow, save the people of Oz and make the stone Nome King kiss their asphalt.
While the film strives to create a memorably tangible world from a place where you can grown lunch pails from a tree, by far the most memorable thing about Return To Oz is that it truly seems to not know – or, more likely, not care – exactly how fucking terrifying it actually is. It honestly seems like barely five minutes go by before yet another traumatic vision drifts past to annihilate any shred of childish innocence left within it’s transfixed audience, each one more ghastly than the last.
Take your pick from any one of the mind flaying horrors that relentlessly parade in front of your rapidly dilating pupils and despair. There’s Princess Mombi and her aforementioned head collection (stolen, naturally) that is freakish to start with but when Dorothy is caught stealing an item she needs to escape, not only do all 31 severed heads start screaming but her headless body starts down the hall reaching out to grab her in a scene that somehow combines both Re-Animator and the Pale Man sequence from Pan’s Labyrinth in a movie made by the house that Mickey built. Then there’s her henchmen, The Wheelers; a cackling bunch of lunatics whose long limbs end in screeching tyres and who act and dress like the cast of Starlight Express have turned all Fury Road. Oh, let’s not forget the Nome King, a childish ruler who is partial to spanning around in a pair of ruby slippers made for a pre-teen child whose epic mood swings means that he’s such a sore loser that he’d most likely turn into a rampaging giant, transform his kingdom into a literal fiery hellscape and SWALLOW his guests whole rather than graciously admit defeat (to be fair, I’m the same after a game of Trivial Pursuit).
Balancing out this malformed assortment of would-be paralysis demons is the good guys of the cast, who thankfully are all utterly adorable and amazingly realised in a world before computer generated imagery. Brass, moustachioed Tick Tock in particular is an astounding wonder (an acrobat, bent double and literally grabbing his ankles is somehow piloting that fucking thing) while him and the hopelessly gangly Jack also prove to be unbearably sweet (but blatantly a nightmare to film).
As if to match the menagerie of freakish creatures, the human cast features an offensively young Fairuza Balk (the psycho witch from The Craft), Piper Laurie (the fucking mother from Carrie) as a suprisingly callous Auntie Em and Jean Marsh (Willow) and Nicol Williamson (Spawn) pulling both human AND villain duty, which makes you wonder if the filmmakers tried to prepare you for the oncoming lashings of childhood trauma by deliberately hiring such unsettling actors to ease you in.
Despite never actually kickstarting the fantasy franchise Disney obviously hoped it had in it’s hands, Return To Oz admirably dedicates itself fully to it’s gobsmackingly dark images which ironically not only makes it so memorable, but most likely was the reason for it bombing harder than the Enola Gay. It really is a movie that found itself in a no-win situation and yet includes truly stunning creatures and effects that totally hold up today despite the Scarecrow looking like he has some kind of palsy.
A truly impressive failure wgen it comes to targeting it’s audience (although I expect people proper shit themselves when they saw flying monkeys in 1939 too), Return To Oz has always stuck with me ever since I first clapped eyes on it (it was the third movie I ever saw at the cinema after Return Of The Jedi and Ghostbusters) thanks primarily to it’s carnival of questionable, effed up content.
So if you want a forgotten, children’s fantasy epic packed to the gills with legitimately wonderful beings and a ton of really, REALLY messed up shit, there’s one place you could look – *clears throat* Soooome wheeereeeee ov-er your threshold…