From 1977-1988, the Walt Disney Studios were in what they now call their pre-renaissance period. The animated films they released were not made with the same quality, nor met with the same fan response as those that preceded this period. A number of great minds came through their doors and left, being told their idea were “too dark” for Disney. In time, Walt Disney Studios would go through their beloved renaissance decade that brought us The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and the Lion King. But, it was during that bleak time of the early 80s that Disney decided to revisit a classic literary series in the hopes of capturing some of that old MGM magic. It’s safe to say that 30 years ago, they failed with this one. Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present…Return to Oz.
The Return to Oz was based on the Oz series of books by author L. Frank Baum. In the film, the story picks up about 6 months after Dorothy’s initial return from Oz, post-tornado event. Her Aunt Em thinks she’s crazy and takes her away for what essentially boils down to shock treatment. Dorothy, and her chicken (?), escape from the asylum and wind up back in Oz, only to find that it has been destroyed and all of her old friends have been turned to stone. Dorothy meets some new friends and must brave her way through another adventure to defeat evil and restore the Land of Oz and the Emerald City to its glory. You can check out the original trailer by clicking here.
I’m not going to lie; this movie terrified me as a kid. I grew up watching The Wizard of Oz, with its bright colors and lovely musical numbers. Though, MGM was always criticized for making a film that strayed greatly from Baum’s original works. Return to Oz follows the books much more closely than its predecessor. This film boasts no bright colors and no snappy musical numbers. It is dark. It is lonely. And, it is some sort of psychological nightmare. It is the ‘Steampunk’ version of Oz. The Wheelers, with their creepy masks and wheels for hands and feet gave me nightmares. They are this film’s flying monkeys. I’m not the only one who found the whole thing to be void of happiness; critics panned the film for its dark themes.
But, if the movie followed the books so closely, you can’t fault Disney for the darkness. Baum wrote some pretty profound stuff for his time. These weren’t your typical sweet bedtime stories for children. We were raised on MGM’s twisted view of the stories, and with a 16-year-old Judy Garland, breasts bound, portraying an innocent 12-year-old. Whereas, in Return to Oz, we were introduced to Fairuza Balk, an 11-year-old, facing the dangers of Oz. I think seeing an actual child playing opposite the animatronics and puppetry found in Return to Oz, rather than a young adult playing opposite grown men in costume, was enough to make the film darker. Though, Balk does an eery vocal impersonation of Garland.
Of course, by today’s standards, this movie will look downright silly. To call this a scary bedtime story is laughable when you consider the caliber of a film such as Pan’s Labyrinth. Children today grow up watching the Lord of the Rings series. Seeing a Wheeler would probably bore them. That being said, if you are seeking out a lazy summer afternoon timehop back to an era when fantasy movies were extra cheesy, then give Return to Oz a try. If you are interested in the complete story of Dorothy and the Land of Oz, bypass the movie altogether and do yourself a favor…visit your local library! Read!
Stay tuned next week when we take a look at St. Elmo’s Fire.