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Haunted Childhood: Disney's Return To Oz

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

The wonderful world of Oz, regarded by many as the most magical land ever created, was a lush landscape, vibrant with life and bursting with imagination. But when Disney decided to tackle an unofficial sequel to the 1939 Judy Garland classic, nobody could quite envision the dark depths to which the audience would be pulled into.

“There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”

It really can’t be understated just how important the original ‘The Wizard of Oz’ film was and still is in the history of cinema. Directed by Victor Fleming and based on the legendary series of novels by L. Frank Baum, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ follows farm girl Dorothy Gale as she is transported from her working-class, bleak surroundings of her family owned Kansas farmland to the over-saturated, sparkling land of Oz. It was a musical fantasy, the likes that had never quite been seen before. While the original film had its fair share of horrific moments, it was generally a film that celebrated whimsical enchantments rather than the stuff of nightmares. The dynamic contrast between those early black and white scenes and the technicolor buoyancy when Dorothy travels via the tornado to Oz was sheer genius. It was a game changing storytelling device and a visual masterstroke.

Speaking of contrasts. There’s nothing more contrasting than the tone, both visually and thematically, of the original 1939 film and Walter Murch’s bizarre but equally brilliant and twisted 1985 sequel ‘Return to Oz’.

Dropping the musical numbers in favor of a more visceral and at times nightmarish narrative, ‘Return to Oz’ shocked audiences on it’s release back in 1985 and was a financial failure for Disney. However, despite a flux of negative reviews and depleting the company of much needed revenue during a highly arduous time financially and creatively, we regard Murch’s contorted fairytale as a misunderstood gem that absolutely deserves it’s retrospective plaudits. It haunted our childhood and that’s exactly why many 80s and 90s kids now place it on it’s very own pedestal.

The Walt Disney Company had purchased the rights to the Baum novels in the early 50s, hoping to produce a television show and subsequent feature film. Unfortunately the proposed feature ‘Rainbow Road to Oz’ never materialized however various musical numbers were recorded for segments to be placed in the ‘Disneyland’ TV show. By the early 80s the rights were due to expire and Disney set in motion a project spearheaded by Walter Murch, a Hollywood sound editor who had previously worked with Francis Ford Coppola on ‘The Conversation’ and ‘The Godfather’. One of Murch’s first gigs was working alongside a young lad by the name of George Lucas, who wanted to develop his short film into a feature film to be produced by American Zoetrope and released by Warner Bros. Murch rewrote Lucas’ original feature draft and handed it into producer Francis Ford Coppola. Despite it not making very much money for Warner Bros it was received well by critics including Roger Ebert, who praised the film’s visuals and ambition. ‘THX 1138’ helped launch the career of George Lucas as a filmmaker extraordinaire (releasing ‘American Graffiti’ in 1973 and a silly little space opera called ‘Star Wars’ in 1977) while Walter Murch would continue to work alongside Lucas and Coppola in sound editing and mixing for many years.

An accidental revelation by Murch during a brain-storming meeting with Disney producer Tom Wilhite in 1980 led to the initial development of a brand new Oz adaptation. Murch declared that he was interested in developing a much darker version. He was given the green light and a small budget with the idea that Disney’s film would work more as an adaptation of the second and third books in the Oz series rather than a direct sequel to the Judy Garland classic. The inclusion of the ruby slippers (which were silver in the novels) required a fee to be paid to MGM, who produced the original film.

While Walter Murch was clearly an expert in the field of sound editing and mixing (he was nominated for an Academy Award for ‘The Conversation’ in 1975) and a competent writer, ‘Return to Oz’ would mark his first foray in the directors chair. He struggled with the colossal responsibility of carrying a feature film solely on his own shoulders and was fired by Disney five weeks into production. Luckily for Murch he was rehired at the request of pal George Lucas who had a great working relationship with Disney at the time.

Make no mistakes about it, ‘Return to Oz’ is a quasi-horror film disguised as a children’s fantasy. It may have been made by Disney and rated U but it is absolutely the most horrific U rated film you're ever likely to see. Hell it’s even set during Halloween season and much of the opening scenes take place in a children’s asylum where Dorothy (now played by Fairuza Balk) has been committed by her aunt and uncle after continually fantasizing about Oz, reaffirming her disconnection from her own reality. Dorothy is set to receive shock treatment, sorry “electric healing”, in an attempt to dispel her over-exhausting imagination about this so-called make believe land. Yes you read that correctly. A 9 nine year old girl is getting zapped in the temple because she...daydreams.

Not only is the subject matter terrifying but the way in which these asylum scenes are filmed bring a sense of disquietude to the viewer. The walls are dank and grimy, the lights flicker eerily and the creepy, atmospheric sound design sends a chill up your spine. Long but tight corridor shots share the screen with close ups of Dorothy’s worried but resolute expression. And all accompanied by the disturbing squeaking of a loose gurney wheel. Perfectly foreshadowing the horrors we’re about to witness without ever really giving us time to prepare.

Like the 1939 film, the opening scenes, or prologue to the main story, features many of the villains of Oz as characters in the “real world”. The amazing Jean Marsh gives a staunch and intimidating stint as Nurse Wilson at the asylum before turning up as the venomous Princess Mombi later on. More on her lip-curling performance soon. Scottish thespian Nicol Williamson doubles up as Dr Worley and The Nome King, now the evil ruler of Oz. Some of the asylum orderlies even turn up as the hair-raising Wheelers.

Don’t get us started on those bloody Wheelers.

Pure nightmare fuel at it’s finest, the Wheelers might be (they definitely are) one of the most terrifying aspects about the entire film. The squeaking of the wheels (foreshadowed previously in the asylum), the iron helmets that are actually (awesome but still creepy) face masks, the elongated arms, the dishevelled hair and the stage musical style make-up. The Wheelers are horrifying in every imaginable way. Their design is exceptional. Gorgeous bohemian-like costumed jackets with a hint of steampunk about them. Squealing and squawking like freshly released animals from a cruel prison, they hunt Dorothy down without a hint of empathy or the slightest understanding that she is in fact a frightened minor. They’ve essentially taken the role of the flying monkeys from the first film (also nightmare fuel) but are more brutal in their mannerisms and language.

We meet the Wheelers soon after Dorothy has landed in the new Oz with her pet chicken Bellina, who can now magically communicate with Dorothy perfectly. I call it the new Oz because it’s very different from the last time we saw it when Judy Garland tapped her heels together all those years ago. This Oz has had the life stripped out of it substantially and is kind of just existing, languid and ruined. It’s all very depressing. The once great and magical land is now decrepit. We’re instantly warned of this new Oz’s danger when large rocks grow faces and bring word of Dorothy’s return to The Nome King.

“But where are all the munchkins..?” Dorothy exhales as she discovers the once pristine yellow brick road torn up into pieces. The terror continues when Dorothy and Bellina arrive at the Emerald City, completely empty save for a bunch of statues, strangely human and positioned in unlikely places. And of course the high pitched squeak of those pesky Wheelers who arrive like a pack of ravenous wolves. Giggling like madmen. The lead Wheeler is strangely reminiscent of cross between an evil Pee-Wee Herman and Howling Mad Murdock. No wonder parents had to take their kids out of the cinemas when this was released back in 1985.

Giving the Wheelers a run for their money is Princess Mombi and her room of floating heads. This particular scene was the cause of many recurring nightmares and is still ridiculously terrifying. When Mombi’s original (Jean Marsh) head awakens and screams bloody murder all the other heads awaken simultaneously as Mombi’s headless body runs around in a panic. Genuinely horrific for younger audiences.

After Dorothy meets her group of misfit friends including Tik-Tok (a sort of steampunk R2D2 with a robotic Hercule Poirot humanoid face) and Jack Pumpkinhead (an early goofball version of Jack Skellington) they soon devise a plan to escape Mombi’s palace so they can pay a visit to the Nome King in an attempt to restore some sort of peace to Oz. We get a little backstory here about Mombi and Ozma and we find out that the Nome King stole all the emeralds and turned everyone into stone. The entire sequence at the Nome King’s stone castle is incredible. Using unforgettable claymation (a staple of 80s filmmaking) and aided by a Shakespearian voice performance by the mercurial Nicol Williamson, the last act turns into one huge puzzle game where Dorothy has to try to find the Scarecrow, who has been turned into a green ornament. Everytime one of the group guesses incorrectly the Nome King becomes less stone and more human. This is where Williamson truly excels and we discover just how evil the Nome King actually is. Mombi bows before him like a cowardly wench until he slowly transforms back into a giant scowling rock face. A devilishly sinister version of 'The Neverending Story'’s Rockbiter from the year prior. Just as he is about to devour Dorothy’s pals (yes he really is going to eat them alive) Bellina lays an egg and the most random thing happens. The Nome King stops dead in his tracks, revealing that eggs are poison, and he decomposes into dust. Dorothy quickly clicks the heels of her ruby slippers together wishing that Oz be restored to its previous glory and that everyone be unfrozen from their stone state.

The Scarecrow takes his rightful place beside Ozma. Oh hell we didn’t even mention the creepy-ass Scarecrow that looks like an extra from 'Rainbow' who’s been up all night snorting lines of coke with an 80s version of Ozzy Osbourne.

While ‘Return to Oz’ is undoubtedly a bizarre, twisted fairytale, oozing with horror goodness, it’s also bursting with amazing talent too and it should be remembered fondly for its creativity and technical marvel. The set designs are gorgeous and the sound design is top notch too. Fairuza Balk shines in her very first feature role. Jean Marsh was so good in this that she bagged another similar role in Ron Howard’s classic fantasy ‘Willow’ three years later. The puppetry is exemplary, especially the clumsy Jack Pumpkinhead, portrayed by Stewart Larange and brought to life by the legendary Brian Henson. It won numerous Saturn Awards and was nominated for Best Visual Effects at the 1986 Academy Awards.

It may have been a financial bomb and it may have given many children nightmares, scarring them long into their late teens but ‘Return to Oz’ firmly deserves its place in 80s fantasy (almost horror) lore besides the likes of ‘Dark Crystal’, ‘Labyrinth’, ‘Legend’ and ‘The Neverending Story’. If you haven’t seen it since you were a kid, go back and watch it as soon as you can, I dare you.

- Gavin Logan

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1 Comment

Jun 01, 2023

A lot of reason this movie was so dark is it was closer to the books as written by L Frank Baum. The 1939 movie omitted a lot of the scary stuff featured in the first book to make it a more lighthearted musical.

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