“Why did they bring you here Dorothy?” – Ozma.
This movie is a sort of unofficial sequel to MGM’s The Wizard of Oz. On the surface, trying to make a sequel to the Wizard of Oz would seem like a pretty obvious fool’s errand. Oz is a beloved, wildly original film that doesn’t suggest the possibility of a sequel in its ending, and such films are probably best left alone. So up front, the expectations placed upon this film were probably unreasonable and unattainable. But even if we set aside the legacy of the MGM classic, I still think this movie is a pretty dull film.
The movie's plot is a combination of L. Frank Baum's novels Ozma of Oz and The Marvelous Land of Oz, written as sequels to the original novel. Dorothy, played by nine-year old Fairuza Balk - Judy Garland was seventeen when she played Dorothy - can’t stop thinking about the Land of Oz and the friends she made there. The Kansas of Return To Oz is far more realistic than MGM’s version. Not only is Dorothy really a little girl, but filming for the Kansas scenes took place on what appears to be a real farm, filmed under real sunlight. From the first scene, Return To Oz eschews the overwhelming dreaminess of the MGM treatment, but doesn’t replace it with anything interesting or special.
Aunt Em, played by the terrifying 80s bitch-queen Piper Laurie (perhaps best known as Carrie’s mother – “They’re all going to laugh at you!”), takes Dorothy to a mental hospital to get her cured of her crazy Oz visions. The sequence of events in this hospital is too boring to recount, so we’ll just say that Dorothy escapes from electroshock therapy during a thunderstorm – a tepid stand-in for the psychological maelstrom of the MGM Technicolor tornado – and winds up in Oz with a talking hen named Billina.
Oz is a post-apocalyptic shambles this time: Dorothy isn’t welcomed by munchkins or a good witch or anything other than a bunch of rocks and the shattered remnants of the yellow brick road. She finds the Emerald City vacant and desecrated. All its inhabitants, including the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion, have been turned to stone, and the Scarecrow has apparently been kidnapped by the Nome King. After being chased around by a gang of cyberpunk rollerblade mutants known as The Wheelers - they look like Genesis P-Orridge after a bad drug trip, and are this film’s lame substitution for flying monkeys – Dorothy finds herself imprisoned by the wicked Princess Mombi, who can switch around heads from a massive collection cut from the necks of Emerald City residents.
While imprisoned, Dorothy meets up with a mechanical man named Tik-Tok and a talking dummy named Jack Pumpkinhead. Tik-Tok explains that her friends have been turned to stone by the evil Nome King, who is planning to conquer all of Oz. Using a magic powder that breathes life into inanimate things, they build a creature called a flying Gump and escape. Everything after this point is too tedious for me to bother recounting, so watch it yourself if you’re still interested.
This movie is rife with problems in storytelling and cinematic language. Part of the timeless charm of MGM’s Wizard of Oz is the way in which it employs cinematic language. It takes advantage of every filmic device at it’s disposal. It’s rich with dreamy dissolves, ingenious uses of color and editing that create a consistent and powerful dream. By contrast, Return To Oz feels cobbled together, and is almost entirely without dissolves or any special attention paid to light and color – all the filmmakers’ attentions seem to have been lavished on the Jim Henson creatures that populate the film. But even these fail for me. Dorothy’s clumsy peers are saddled with fixed, mechanical expressions that rob them of the appeal that might have been achieved by a talented actor in grease-paint. None of the Muppets are anything near human, and Fairuza Balk herself is one of the most wooden child actors ever to carry a film – but we can’t be too hard on her, after all, since she’s been given the nearly impossible job of acting against a bunch of expressionless props. To make matters worse, most of the movie takes place in a dark cave beneath the emerald city, so these expressionless props and wooden little girl are mostly left to shuffle around in the dark.
Even with all these flaws, the film didn’t necessarily need to wind up a dud, but the story is utterly leaden, mostly a series of negotiations between Dorothy and the tepid villains who populate the post-apocalyptic Oz. The Nome King and Princess Mumbi are without much personality, and don’t really do much of anything interesting. It’s never even clear what anyone in the movie wants, and this is the greatest distinction Return to Oz from The Wizard of Oz – want. It’s clear what each and every character wants at every moment in the Wizard of Oz, and there is no question about whether or not home is where Dorothy ought to be. Dorothy's objectives are unclear throughout the whole movie - how is Dorothy supposed to yearn for home in this film, when her return to Oz was made possible by an escape from electroshock therapy? The script for The Wizare of Oz allowed Judy Garland’s a broad range of emotions – she was ecstatically happy, utterly terrified, laugh, cried, and had reactions to the amazing things happening around her. Fairuza Balk’s Dorothy, however, is written as a little Vulcan who stays steadfastly rational and calm. Her presence is not much more than an anchor for a bunch of expressionless Muppets to congregate around. The Muppets themselves seem like a violation of the basic principles of Muppetry – rather than simple expressive designs, these over-hyped props are without the capacity for reaction and expression.
This movie is worth watching if you’re obsessed with The Wizard of Oz; or obsessed with Henson-related fantasy movies from the 1980s; or if you are engaged in some kind of sick, obsessive pact where you’ve agreed to watch every Disney film ever.
Like too many Disney productions, the DVD for this movie is awful. The image quality is terrible and there are no good special features other than an interview with a grown-up Fairuza Balk that doesn’t include any archival materials.