Oz the Odd
"Return to Oz" has a few problems but one major problem, a problem which would dog any movie and that problem is that it is seen as a sequel to the timelessly brilliant "The Wizard of Oz". I suppose technically it is a sequel as it carries on the adventures of Dorothy Gale with a blend of stories from L. Frank Baum's "The Marvellous Land of Oz" and "Ozma of Oz". But it also feels wrong to call it a sequel as not only are there 46 years between MGM's iconic movie and this Disney movie but it has a very different feel to it than the original. And in many ways it is a shame it's known as a sequel because as a stand alone movie "Return to Oz" works.
It's been 6 months since the tornado struck Kansas and both Aunt Em (Piper Laurie - Carrie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) are concerned about Dorothy (Fairuza Balk - The Craft) who doesn't sleep and talks about this strange place called Oz. So concerned are they that Aunt Em takes Dorothy to a doctor who plans to treat her with electric shocks, but before he does Dorothy escapes and in the midst of a storm ends up floating down a river asleep from exhaustion. When she wakes Dorothy finds herself back in Oz and with a talking chicken but Oz has changed, her friends are no where to be seen and the Yellow Brick road has been torn up. And so starts Dorothy's adventure to find her friends and restore Oz taking on the wicked Mombi (Jean Marsh - The Eagle Has Landed) and The Nome King whilst making new friends such as TiK-Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead.
So as already mentioned "Return to Oz" is built around various stories and characters which feature in L. Frank Baum's "The Marvellous Land of Oz" and "Ozma of Oz". Having never read either I imagine that those who have and cherish the books will find this mergence of the two wrong but it does work. What is nice is from a storyline point of view it has that familiarity to the original with Dorothy heading back to Oz and meeting various people along the way but it also changes things. So this time we have the Emerald City destroyed, the yellow brick road torn up and the Scarecrow prisoner of the Nome King and so Dorothy's quest is to simply rescue the Scarecrow, defeat the Nome King as well as Mombi the witch and in doing so restore the Emerald City.
But whilst we have a similar sort of storyline which feature imaginative creations such as the Wheelers and TiK-Tok "Return to Oz" is also very different to "The Wizard of Oz" and most notable is the fact it is not a musical. For me not being a musical is not much of an issue but for those who think of it as a sequel will struggle with this simple fact. They will also struggle will the fact that it is not an epic movie and most certainly not as luscious as the 1939 tale. And yes to be honest the budget limitations do border on the laughably poor as whilst TiK-Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead are good creations the Scarecrow most certainly isn't with its unsettling fixed face. And it's not just the creations as the sets are also often quite shaky and lack the glamour of "The Wizard of Oz".
But what is probably the most significant issue for some is the completely different tone and it has to be said that director Walter Murch has crafted a movie which is darker, at times full of atmosphere and often genuinely scary. Just the opening in Kansas as Aunt Em takes Dorothy to see a Doctor who plans to use electric shock treatment on her borders on the terrifying especially when in effect this is a children's movie. But at the same time Murch draws you in to what is happening and has you on the edge of your seat almost screaming at the movie to stop. It's the same later on as there is a lot of darkness to many of the movies elements which I will be frank will be frightening for a young child.
Whether the styling and atmosphere is right or wrong one thing which is very right is the casting of Fairuza Balk as Dorothy. Let's be honest Dorothy Gale will always be Judy Garland but Balk makes her something different and there is this haunted quality she gives her which is so right in the opening Kansas scenes. And it is this quality plus a good dose of fragility which makes her feel right especially as she embarks on a new adventure in Oz.
And it's not just Fairuza Balk who is well cast as Jean Marsh is one seriously scary woman be it as Nurse Wilson or as Mombi. She may be a little over the top at times but watching her wail like a banshee as Dorothy and friends attempt to escape is memorably frightening.
What this all boils down to is that if you think of "Return to Oz" as a sequel then it is no where near as good. But watched as a standalone movie which takes on Dorothy's further adventures it does with its very different atmosphere, darkness and wonderful new creations. But where as "The Wizard of Oz" was very much a family friendly movie "Return to Oz" is darker and at times quite frightening especially for younger audiences.