“If his brains ran down, how can he talk?” asks Jack Pumpkinhead. Dorothy Gale responds, “It happens to people all the time, Jack.”
For years, audiences clamored for more adventures to the land of Oz on the big screen, and more than 45 years after the release 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, a sequel finally emerged. Walter Murch, the Oscar-winning sound designer of Apocalypse Now, embarked on bringing the world of Oz back to the big screen. A shift in management at Walt Disney Pictures (which was producing and distributing the new Oz film) would result in a slashed budget and an almost non-existent marketing campaign that would end up hurting the film’s box office chances. Murch’s vision for the film was closer to L. Frank Baum’s original Oz books rather than the 1939 MGM musical, and families stayed away from the film when they learned it was more of an adult fairy tale rather than the Judy Garland film. Although a box office failure, Murch’s film developed a cult following over the years and has slowly gained the recognition it should’ve gotten at the time of its release. I got a chance a few months ago to see Return To Oz on the big screen at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City, and, even though I’d seen the film on DVD a few times, it was a wonderful experience.
1985’s Return To Oz follows young Dorothy as she is whisked away to Oz in order to help the Scarecrow but discovers a desolate place that has been conquered by the Nome King. With the help of her new friends Tik-Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead, Dorothy goes on a rescue mission to find the Scarecrow and restore Oz to its former glory while going up against the likes of Princess Mombi and the Nome King. Murch assembled a cast that included Fairuza Balk (as Dorothy Gale), Nicol Williamson (as Dr. Worley/the Nome King), Jean Marsh (as Nurse Wilson/Princess Mombi), Piper Laurie (as Aunt Em), Matt Clark (as Uncle Henry), Brian Henson (as the voice of Jack Pumpkinhead), Sean Barrett (as the voice of Tik-Tok), Lyle Conway (as the voice of the Gump), Justin Case (as the Scarecrow), and Emma Ridley (as Ozma). Balk is terrific in her film debut as Dorothy, bringing innocence and determination to the role. Williamson is a commanding presence as the villainous Nome King and the gentle Dr. Worley. Marsh is simply wicked and cruel as both Nurse Wilson and Princess Mombi (her work here is most likely what got her cast in Ron Howard’s 1988 fantasy classic Willow as the villainous Queen Bavmorda).
Murch’s direction is outstanding in his only directorial effort. The screenplay he co-wrote with Gill Dennis (which was based on Baum’s The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz) is more faithful to Baum’s books than the 1939 MGM musical, presenting a darker story that plays out more as an adult fairy tale (there are a few genuine moments that will give children nightmares, such as Dorothy’s electro-shock therapy, Mombi’s hall of heads, and an action sequence in the Nome kingdom that could be described as Hell). The cinematography by David Watkin reflects the darker tone of the film, Norman Reynolds’ production design was surely Oscar-worthy (the ruined landscapes of Oz are a sight to behold, and I loved the interiors of Mombi’s palace and the Nome King’s ornament room), and Leslie Hodgson’s editing moves the film at a terrific pace.
The Oscar-nominated special effects are amazing, ranging from the matte paintings to the puppeteering that brought several characters to life to the claymation work for the nomes. Raymond Hughes’ costume designs were gorgeous, and Robin Grantham’s makeup design is first-rate. David Shire delivers his greatest score for this film; a rich, memorable dramatic score with thrilling action music and motifs for many of the characters (the chief one being for Dorothy). Murch’s Return To Oz was not the hit it should’ve been when it was first released, but it has grown in stature over the last 30 years. It is a worthy sequel that honors Baum’s original books and features a breakout performance by a young Fairuza Balk. Do not miss the chance to see it on the big screen if you ever get a chance!