Return to Oz Review
Okay let me start off by saying how I ended up watching this movie in the first place. A few months ago I got this book from Seven Seas publishing which included both the original Wizard of Oz and it’s sequel the Marvelous Land of Oz with brand new manga style illustrations. I strongly recommend picking it up as the illustrations included are adorable and full of charm (and don’t worry the story is kept entirely intact). While I had read the original Wizard of Oz book a couple of times before this, I had never read any of the books after that for some reason I just never thought of looking at the rest of the series, but since Marvelous Land was included in this book I decided to give it a read and surprisingly I think I enjoy it more than the original Wizard of Oz book. I still love the first book but Marvelous Land just has so much more in it, there’s more characters, more humor, more of Oz is explored, and we get to see what happened after Dorothy went back home. This then brought up my curiosity about the Disney film Return to Oz. This movie has earned quite the reputation as being one of the most horrifying children’s movies of all time, which is particularly why I avoided seeing it for most of my life considering I was a complete fraidy cat. However after reading Marvelous Land I remembered reading that this movie took elements from both Marvelous Land and the third book Ozma of Oz to create the story, and being the one of the biggest Disney nuts on the planet I was curious to see how Disney would adapt Marvelous Land to the screen, though before seeing the film I did read Ozma of Oz so that I see how elements of that book were done as well.
Before I go into detail about the film one thing I want to make perfectly clear is that despite what several reviews and websites might tell you this is NOT a sequel to the 1939 MGM movie musical. Actually while I’m on the subject of the MGM adaptation I still love that movie. While it isn’t completely faithful to the original books it still does it’s job well as an adaption, and manages to stand on it’s own. It’s a fun, uplifting, and charming movie and definitely a classic. However there’s a bit of a problem with that. Nowadays when people mention Wizard of Oz the first thing to come to mind isn’t the book but actually the MGM musical, because of that there seems to be some unwritten law in Hollywood that states all adaptations of Oz must be as close to the MGM musical as possible, leading to some pretty mediocre Oz films. Fans of the books don’t enjoy them because they aren’t faithful to the books, and fans of the MGM musical don’t like them because they all feel like cheap imitations of the movie, and to fans of both they’re bad for both of those reasons. There is so much more to the land of Oz that a lot of people aren’t aware of today and it sucks that most movie companies are like “Nope, it has to be like the MGM one.”
This movie on the other hand does not follow that trend. Okay a few elements are lifted from the MGM musical such as Dorothy’s braids and darker hair and the red ruby slippers (Which Disney had to pay MGM big bucks for because originally they were sliver in the book), but that’s pretty much it. Instead of being a sequel to the MGM musical its a sequel to the original book (well mostly anyway), this causes a few problems in case you haven’t read the original book but I’ll get to that later.
The story begins with Dorothy being depressed and having trouble sleeping because she can’t stop thinking about Oz. This worries Uncle Henry and Auntie Em, who end up taking her to a Doctor that can help her sleep and “get rid of those pesky dreams” through a brand new process known as electric shock therapy… Yes. That is mentioned, and actually almost happens to Dorothy while being in the most unsettling hospital in family film history. Luckily the power goes out before they can start the process and another girl helps Dorothy escape, only for Dorothy to fall into a river during a terrible storm almost immediately afterwords (jeeze, Kanas sure has a lot of bad weather in these stories). Later she wakes up in the land of Oz with a talking chicken named Billina, however when Dorothy gets to the Emerald City she finds it in ruins with everyone being turned to stone and the Scarecrow nowhere to be found, the land said to be ruled by an evil character known as the Nome King. Throughout the movie Dorothy meets up with more unusual characters such as Tik Tok the mechanical man, Jack Pumpkinhead, and a flying couch with a Gump’s head on it (Why are you giving me that weird look), and with her new friends they go on a journey to find the Nome King, rescue the Scarecrow and restore Oz back to it’s former glory.
The story is very well written, it’s not completely accurate to the books it was based on, but out of all of the big screen Oz adaptations I’ve seen this honestly feels the most loyal to the original books. A lot of the new dialogue feels very much like something L. Frank Baum would write. I especially like how the movie handles all of the characters, once again staying true to their original book versions. I absolutely love the characters of this movie, Tik Tock, Jack Pumpkinhead, Billina, the Gump and pretty much every single character that was included. It makes me wish that budget cuts didn’t limit the appearance of other characters in the film as I would have loved to see more of this movie’s versions of the Lion, Tinman, and Scarecrow.
While I’m on the subject of the characters lets talk about the visuals of this movie… I am in love with them. This being before the age where CGI was used for everything (the good old days as it where), every effect here is practical, from the claymation used to bring the Nome King and his minions to life, to the puppetry that brings Jack, Billina, Tik Tok, and the Gump to life. As a puppetry nut I love how the puppets were done here. Their designs look like they walked straight out of the book, heck they even move like how you think they would based on the books descriptions (well okay the Tin Man looks like he could collapse at any second with those skinny legs, but that’s the only issue I have visually). For instance Jack Pumpkinhead was put together with various sticks and ropes, as a result his movements are very off balance. Oh and there’s also this cool effect with Jack where his head can squash and stretch like a cartoon character, I love touches like that! I’ve also gotta give praise to the claymation here. They got special effects master Will Vinton to head the animation on the Nomes it it looks fantastic, there’s this one character who’s just a face on a wall and he’s super expressive, his face morphs with every movement he makes, it just looks so cool!
That being said the movie still has a few issues. Getting the main one out of the way first, I think this movie starts off way too dark and depressing. Not only is Kanas shown as being more boring and colorless, but anytime Dorothy mentions the smallest thing about Oz everybody tells her to stop talking about Oz because they think it’s imaginary. Okay I know adults were more strict with kids back in the time this film takes place, but honestly what’s wrong with a kid having an imagination? Now I don’t mind the dark and spooky stuff that comes later on, but most family films start off a bit more light hearted to ease you into the scary stuff that comes later on (Disney’s Pinocchio is a good example of this). I was actually surprised at how lighter the tone got when Dorothy and Billina finally got to Oz complete with comedic piano music, I was like “well that was a tone shift.” That tone would have been a bit more appropriate to begin the film with Dorothy in Kanas (or at least have her get to Oz sooner). This causes another problem which is with most of the Oz stories you want Dorothy to be able to get back home. One thing the MGM musical did was give Dorothy more friends with the farm hands back in Kanas, which not only made Kanas feel more welcoming but gave Dorothy more of a reason to go back home. Here, I think there’s honestly not much reason for Dorothy going back home except for Toto. Kanas just looks so unfriendly in this movie, even with all the scary stuff that happens in there Oz still seems like the more appealing place and she has a lot more friends there, so… Why go back to the family that sent her to electro shock therapy? However that’s probably my only problem with the story that I can think of off the top of my head.
There’s also the fact that since this is a sequel to the book a few things were referenced in this movie that people wouldn’t nessicarly know about unless they did read it. These elements are given brief explanations so it isn’t too out of left field though. However there’s also the fact that the book and the MGM musical have different tones to the story, thus if people going in expecting something similar to the musical they’re gonna be disappointed and caught off guard. It seems like a lot of studios try to make their own sequels to the original Wizard of Oz while still giving it a new twist or changing elements, but it’s hard for people to get into a sequel story when they haven’t seen the first story and it’s even harder when that universe’s first story doesn’t exist as it’s own movie. Personally I think Disney should have tried to adapt the first Wizard of Oz story before making Return to Oz, but then again I can understand why they went with Return to Oz first as people might just be comparing it to the original MGM musical.
Some people might say, “what about all of the scary stuff that happens in the movie?” and while yes there is a lot of scary stuff I didn’t think it was too horrifying per say. It never went gory or bloody, I felt like a good amount of scary for a family film. I think the reason why Return to Oz flopped back in it’s day was because it just came out before it’s time. Nowadays we have family films like Coraline and ParaNorman, which were much more successful films and featured stuff that was just as scary as what happens in this movie. Now I’m not saying all kids can handle this movie (I would strongly suggest not showing it to little kids), but I think this is the kind of family movie to show to pre-teen crowd nowadays.
Honestly I kind of like when this film gets scary, and I still consider myself a scaredy cat. I particularly like the climax, which is probably the most intense climax I have seen in any Disney movie. While I was watching it I kept on thinking “Come on go quickly” or “Quick around that corner-wait don’t go there!”, its full of suspense even on my second viewing.
Overall I think Return to Oz is a fantasitic movie and I absolutely love it now. It really is a shame that it bombed because I would have loved to see Disney try to adapt more of the Oz books (and I don’t mean new prequels to Oz I mean adaptations of the original stories). I’m honestly surprised that not many studios have tried making more Oz movies in the style of the books. The Oz stories are practically begging to given their own cinematic universe, all of the original books are public domain now so it’s practically gift wrapped for the studios and they do nothing with them except adapting the first book over and over again! -sigh- Maybe someday we’ll get an Oz movie series that gives the Oz books the proper treatment and respect they deserve, until then we’ll always have Return to Oz to return to. If you’re an Oz fan or love family films with a scary edge to them this is certainly the film for you.