Return to Oz Revisited

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

Picture it: a time when the head of Walt Disney Productions said, what if we tried to appeal to more than just families? What if we make a series of boldly innovative films that challenge the notion that we only do one type of film? If that sounds incompatible with the company today, you’d be right, but this was when Ron Miller was in charge during the ‘80s, as he set out to expand the sort of films Disney produced, trying to appeal to a broader and older market. The result was a terrible decade for Disney’s box office, but a fascinating time for filmgoers.

We’ve covered how The Black Hole was sort of the beginning of a series of Disney’s dark, strange movies with a lot of ambition but poor audience reception. This came to a head in 1985 when Disney released two box office bombs that nearly ruined the company. One is an animated movie we’ll cover at some point. The other was a sequel to one of the most famous and beloved movies of all time. That’s right: it’s time to face the wheelers, tap our heels and say ‘There’s no place like a Victorian mental hospital’ as we revisit Return to Oz

The Pitch

In 1980, Walter Murch, the Oscar-winning film and sound editor behind such films as American Graffiti, The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, pitched a movie based on “The Land of Oz” and “Ozma of Oz” from the “Land of Oz” series of books. It turned out that Disney owned the rights to the books, which they intended to adapt for the TV show Disneyland, but nothing came of it. Instead, they decided to go with Murch’s idea for Return to Oz before the rights ran out. Though this was going to be Murch’s first directorial effort, Disney went ahead with the project, even increasing the budget after a change of leadership at Walt Disney studios and paying a large fee to use the ruby slippers from the first Wizard of Oz movie as they were created specifically for the 1939 film and did not originate in the novels.

Murch eventually started falling behind schedule, and after Disney executives became unhappy with what they had shot, they fired Murch after five weeks – only to reverse the decision once George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola personally vouched for Murch, and even giving Murch final cut of the film. 

The Movie

After The Wizard to Oz ended on a happy and optimistic note, Murch’s Return to Oz picks up in Kansas, six months after Dorothy’s first visit to Oz. She’s apparently still dreaming about the magical land and the friends she left there, but her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry think she’s disassociating from reality. Their solution? A merry old trip to a Victorian-style mental hospital, where Dorothy is hospitalized and about to get electroshock therapy – you know, kids’ stuff. The first 15 minutes feel straight out of Mulholland Drive as Dorothy sort of divides herself into two personalities and is plagued by images of electricity. Making matters worse, this version of the tale features a much younger Dorothy than the previous adaptation, and Fairuza Balk makes the scene where Dorothy is staring at the machine that’s about to send shock-waves through her brain look like straight out of a horror film.

From there the film only gets more bizarre, as a little girl who may or may not be another hallucination frees Dorothy, which leads to Dorothy being knocked out and once again awaking in what may or may not be the land of Oz. That’s right, Murch’s script, co-written by Walk the Line’s Gill Dennis plays with the idea that Dorothy may indeed be hallucinating the entire thing, and it never gives a concrete answer. 

Where the original MGM classic made Oz look like a technicolor piece of cinematic candy, Return to Oz makes Dorothy’s second journey look more like a nightmare. There is no bright Emerald City full of life, but a city in ruins full of the statues of its citizens and Dorothy’s friends. Dorothy isn’t greeted by Munchkins, but by terrifying Wheelers, a half-human, half-scooter cyberpunk gang that wear creepy helmets with faces all while maniacally laughing as they chance down Dorothy. 

Of course, this is still a film for those who grew up on the original The Wizard of Oz, so Dorothy once again collects a party of quirky companions. Joining her adventure this time along is Tik-Tok, a living clockwork, the enchanted Jack Pumpkinhead, and the improvised flying machine that’s also just a mounted horse head named Gump. It’s as close to the original trio as they could get without being too insulting, even though the film does eventually show us the original Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, only this time they look like terrible knock-offs.

Rounding up the nightmare fuel is the Nome King. This is an evil entity made entirely of stone, who wants to steal the life force of the citizens of Oz to become human. Oh, and who could forget Princess Mombi, who is replacing the Wicked Witch of the West, and has a thing for collecting women’s heads to change them out with her own like a pair of shoes.

Return to Oz is similar to other dark fantasy movies of the ‘80s like The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth in that it embraces the darker, almost horror-like aspects of fantasy while combining them with a sort of whimsy that invites the younger audience in. The result is a film that may not be entirely appropriate for kids, but one that dares them to watch and treats them with more respect than many family-friendly movies. 

What Murch does really well is make the threats of Oz reflect the horrors of Dorothy’s life in the real world. The screeching sound the Wheelers make is the same one from the hospital trolley wheels, and when we see Nome King’s actual face, it’s that of the doctor in charge of Dorothy’s treatment. It’s an interesting idea, but one that flew over the head of audiences at the time and simply gave children nightmares for days.

The Legacy

Unsurprisingly, Return to Oz was met with mixed reviews when it premiered on June 21, 1985.  Critics who were familiar with the Oz books praised the film for being faithful to L. Frank Baum’s work, but many critics considered the film’s tone and content way too dark and intense for young children. Roger Ebert called it “a complete disaster.”  

The film opened in seventh place on its opening weekend, behind Cocoon. It didn’t help Disney that just a month later they’d release their most expensive animated movie at the time, The Black Cauldron, right as Back to the Future was blowing minds and box office expectations.

And with the disappointment of Return to Oz, so came an end to Walter Murch’s directorial career. Though he would continue working as an editor and sound editor (earning Oscar nominations for his work on Ghost, The Godfather: Part III, and Cold Mountain and winning for The English Patient), Murch’s only other directorial credit is for “The General”, a season 4 episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

Though Return to Oz never got it its full due by Disney back in the ‘80s, the film is finally widely available on Disney+, giving you a chance to judge for yourself whether this was a huge mistake on the company’s part or one of the most bold decisions they ever took. One thing is certain: this is unlike anything Disney has done since.

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