Return to Oz (1985) Directed by Walter Murch. With Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson and Jean Marsh.
Six-months have passed since Dorothy’s adventures in Oz. In that time, she has become depressed and is having trouble sleeping properly, so it’s decided by her Aunt Em that it’s high-time her niece is whisked off to a mental hospital, whereby an experimental form of electric shock treatment is administered to erase her troublesome memories. Hardly the introduction you might expect to a sequel to one of the most loved family films ever made, but it sets the tone for what is a bizarrely nightmarish second trip to Oz. So, what has changed? A lot.
One of the smartest decisions is not to include any song or dance numbers, although it’s surprising not to hear even the slightest nod in the orchestral score to the celebrated music of the original. To its credit, this is a film that aims to stand on its own two ruby slippers and oddly, it somehow just about pulls it off. Make no mistake, this is dark stuff with its roots firmly planted in horror territory. Tonally, it’s reminiscent of Evil Dead era Sam Raimi in places – especially so with the usage of the charming Claymation effects procedure.
In-keeping with the Judy Garland version, this is sure to have created its fair share of nightmares in younger viewers and it’s often surprising how creepy it is. After an unusual Kansas introduction, Dorothy – a slightly too-young looking Fairuza Balk – inevitably finds herself back in Oz, a place that appears to have been bereft of life for many years. It’s like Alice in not-so wonderland as Dorothy discovers to her horror, that evil rules and her friends are long gone.
So starts the quest to find answers. As in the 1939 film, we meet a host of unusual characters to help along the way. We have a talking chicken, a Moose head attached to a bed and variations on ‘Tin Man’ and ‘Scarecrow’. Where before, our travelling helpers had a story arc of their own, this time they are simply along for the ride, which again, is a prudent move from the makers. It’s particularly pleasing just how little repetition there is from the ’39 film, and although Oz doesn’t look as colorful or inviting this time around, it’s still a magical land where all seems possible.
Although released as an unofficial sequel, the film has garnered cult status over the years with a solid fan-base of appreciators. In the end, it’s no classic, but it’s an enjoyable enough fantasy ride, set in a land that sparked the creative imaginations of so many and deserves credit for using the legacy of Oz to create a new adventure without resorting to out-and-out plagiarism.