Halloween doth approach, so I’m celebrating by watching all the Halloween-ish films I have (and some that I don’t have) and writing about them in the hopes that maybe it will inspire someone to check out something they haven’t seen. Today I’m going to write about a film I’ve been watching since I was a kid but only recently bought for myself: the sadly underrated Return to Oz.
This is yet another one of those films from the “dark age of Disney” (like Something Wicked This Way Comes and TRON) which the company sort of ignored afterwards, which is a damn shame since it’s probably one of the most accurate film adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz books (specifically The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz).
If you haven’t read either, Marvel’s comic book adaptations are a good way to start.
Unfortunately, most audiences even today are much more familiar with the fantastic MGM film The Wizard of Oz (1939) than they are with the original book it was based on, let alone the whole series of books that followed. So a lot of people who’ve seen this film were probably expecting something much more like the upbeat MGM film than the original stories, which could occasionally get kind of dark and bizarre. How bizarre? Well, let’s dive into the film and find out.
The film opens sometime after the events of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Now that Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) is finally back in Kansas all she does is talk about Oz, which causes great concern to Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark), who both believe Oz is just a figment of Dorothy’s imagination. In an attempt to bring her back to reality (and help Dorothy sleep again, which she’s been having trouble with ever since the tornado) Aunt Em takes her to a clinic practicing the new electroshock therapy, which everyone seems convinced will truly help. Dorothy, however, has her doubts.
I wonder why.
Just as the clinic’s head doctor and nurse are about to administer the electroshock, a raging thunderstorm knocks out the power and Dorothy escapes with the help of a mysterious girl in white, who claims that “damaged” patients have been locked in the cellar of the clinic. The pair run into the storm outside as the head nurse chases them, and they eventually escape by jumping into a river nearby. Dorothy and the girl are separated, and Dorothy climbs aboard an empty farm crate to ride out the storm.
When Dorothy awakens the next morning she is accompanied by Billina (Denise Bryer/Mak Wilson), a hen from her farm who is now able to talk, and the crate has somehow made its way to the border between Oz and the Deadly Desert surrounding it. Dorothy and Billina make their way into what apparently must be Munchkinland because they stumble upon Dorothy’s old house, which was dropped there by the tornado. But the whole place is completely deserted, and Dorothy soon discovers, to her horror, that the yellow brick road is all broken and torn up. She begins to follow it to the Emerald City, but unbeknownst to her she and Billina are being watched by a strange creature who can appear inside the rocks and go elsewhere to report to a mysterious monarch.
WHO WROTE THE GRAFFITI?
When Dorothy and Billina reach the Emerald City they find it in ruins. All of its inhabitants – including the Cowardly Lion and Tin Woodman – have been turned to stone, and some have even been decapitated. Dorothy worries about the safety of the Scarecrow, who was left in charge of the Emerald City, but soon fears for her own life when she and Billina are attacked by terrifying creatures called the Wheelers, who have wheels in place of hands and feet.
Dorothy and Billina hide from the Wheelers in a nearby room, where they come across a large copper robotic man called Tik-Tok. After they wind Tik-Tok up, he explains to them that he had been left behind by the Scarecrow – who was captured by the Nome King during the Nome King’s destruction of the city – to wait for Dorothy to return so they could save Oz together. Tik-Tok helps Dorothy and Billina fight off the Wheelers and capture one of them, who leads them to the home of Princess Mombi (Jean Marsh); we soon discover she is able to switch between dozens of different heads at will. Mombi, who is in cahoots with the Nome King, decides to lock Dorothy and Billina in her attic until Dorothy’s head is “ready” to take; Tik-Tok tries to save them, but his action spring winds down at exactly the wrong moment and he’s left frozen in place.
You don’t want to know what happens when the pumpkin rots.
In Mombi’s attic Dorothy and Billina meet Jack Pumpkinhead (Brian Henson/Stewart Larange), a man made of sticks with a pumpkin for a head. He was put together by an unknown person trying to scare Mombi but then brought to life by Mombi, who wanted to test her new Powder of Life, and heartlessly locked in the attic afterwards. He and Dorothy concoct a plan to escape the attic by having Dorothy break out, send Tik-Tok up, and retrieve the Powder of Life while Jack and Tik-Tok build a creature/escape vehicle out of the junk in the attic. Dorothy accidentally wakes Mombi’s original head while stealing the Powder of Life, but she makes it back to the attic and brings the creature, called the Gump (Lyle Conway/Stephen Norrington), to life and uses him to fly everyone safely out the window before Mombi can catch them.
The group fly over the Deadly Desert towards the Nome King’s mountain, but just before their arrival the Gump falls apart and they all crash-land on the mountain. Billina hides inside Jack’s head and the Nome King (Nichol Williamson) forcibly brings everyone inside, where he explains that the emeralds used to make the Emerald City had been stolen from him, and that he used the power of the ruby slippers (which fell on his mountain when Dorothy returned home the first time) to conquer Oz and capture the Scarecrow. Dorothy explains that the Scarecrow wasn’t the one who built the city, and the Nome King allows each person to try and find the Scarecrow, who has been turned into an ornament in the Nome King’s collection; if they guess wrong three times, they will be turned into an ornament themselves.
You know what this room needs? More gilded crap.
One by one Dorothy’s friends guess wrong, and when it’s Tik-Tok’s turn he pretends to wind down so that Dorothy can follow him inside and see what he turns into. But the plan fails and Dorothy is left alone to figure things out for herself. She finds the Scarecrow almost by accident and together they realize that people from Oz turn into green objects, and together they find Jack and the Gump.
But just as the pair is about to find Tik-Tok, the Nome King bursts in and angrily refuses to let them continue. He starts devouring the members of the group one by one, starting with the Gump’s body. But just as he’s about to swallow Jack, Billina lays an egg which falls out of Jack’s head and down the Nome King’s throat. It turns out that eggs are poisonous to Nomes, and the Nome King and his mountain begin to fall apart. Dorothy retrieves the ruby slippers and uses their power to return everyone to Oz safely and restore the Emerald City and all its inhabitants to their former state. When they arrive, they discover that Tik-Tok also escaped safely, in the form of an army medal; they soon change him back into his normal form.
I’m having major flashbacks to the end of The Black Hole…
Back in the Emerald City, Dorothy turns down the Ozians’ offer to become Queen of Oz. Noticing a strange reflection in a nearby mirror, Dorothy approaches it and manages to free Princess Ozma – the rightful ruler of Oz and Jack’s creator – who had been trapped in the mirror by the now captured and powerless Mombi. Ozma takes the throne and uses the ruby slippers to return Dorothy home at Dorothy’s request; Billina opts to remain in Oz.
A dissolve takes us back to Kansas, where Dorothy is lying alone on the shore of the river the morning after the thunderstorm. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em, worried that Dorothy had drowned, discover her there and take her home. They explain that the clinic was struck by lightning and burned down, but that everyone escaped safely – except for the doctor, who tried to save his electroshock machines. Dorothy, Aunt Em, and Uncle Henry return home, where all is well – and Ozma is able to check in on Dorothy through the mirror in her room and return Dorothy to Oz whenever she wants.
And possibly move there forever once the bank repossesses the farm.
Now as I said at the beginning I’ve been watching this film ever since I was a kid, mainly because one of my immediate family members is a huge fan of the original Land of Oz books. I’ve heard a lot of people say this movie scared the hell out of them when they were a kid, but honestly I don’t remember having that kind of experience. (Then again, I’m the kind of kid who grew up laughing at Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining so I’m probably just a weirdo.) Again, it seemed kind of dark and bizarre, but at heart I’m sort of a dark and bizarre person so I was on the same wavelength as the film.
That said, I can see where they’re coming from. This movie can be pretty intense, especially for younger children. And frankly, the books have their dark moments too, which is kind of ironic considering that Baum was trying to write children’s stories that weren’t as horrifying as stuff like the Grimm fairy tales. That’s why it annoys me so much when people go out of their way to make Oz stuff that’s dark and gritty without making any mention of the dark and gritty stuff that’s actually in the books.
I mean for goodness’ sake, the Tin Woodman accidentally hacked his body apart piece by piece until he was entirely made of tin, and do you know what happened to the body parts afterwards? They were glued back together with another person’s body parts to make a new person who then married the girl the Tin Woodman had been in love with. I’m serious, look it up. And don’t get me started on how the Wizard deposed the rightful king of Oz, seized power, and got Mombi to hide Ozma. That’s a crazy story right there.
Way better than this hot batch of nonsense.
All that said, you might be wondering why I count this film as “Halloween-ish.” I mean it can be creepy and everything, but does it really count as a good Halloween movie? Well, I think so, for a few reasons. One is that the frame narrative is set shortly before Halloween – the mysterious girl even mentions it in the clinic. Another is Jack Pumpkinhead. He’s a walking, talking, childlike jack-o-lantern man; what’s more Halloween than that? And finally, well, the whole thing just feels Halloween-ish in a way that’s difficult to explain – much like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. It’s sort of spooky and dark, but not so much so that a kid can’t enjoy it, and sweet at the same time; it’s like devouring your trick-or-treat candy while watching an edited-for-TV horror film. It may not have been intended to be a good film for the Halloween season, but it fits the bill nonetheless. I’d highly recommend checking it out.
That’s more than enough for today. Until next time, have a very merry Hallow and a happy new Ween!