The Bottom Line
A dark and compelling 1985 sequel to the sappy Technicolor classic, featuring Dorothy (a young Fairuza Balk) and several new anthropomorphic companions in a fight to save Oz from an evil witch and the Gnome King.
The Rest Of The Story
(Return to Oz is somewhat faithfully based on the second and third books by L. Frank Baum in the Oz series, The Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz.)
The movie begins with Dorothy back on her Kansas farm (and, more appropriate for the book, looking about 11 years old) and seeing a psychoanalyst about her trips to the wonderful Emerald City. The doctor recommends she stays overnight in the insane asylum, when a freak storm hits, the end result being Dorothy is once again back in the land of Oz.
Dorothy's not alone, though! Her loyal pet hen Billina has come along for the ride - and she can talk. Dorothy is jubilated to be back in the place she loves so dearly, but when she arrives at the Yellow Brick Road, she finds it's broken down and out of service. Dismayed, she follows it to the Emerald City; instead of finding a vibrant town, she finds an overrun and decrepit ghetto. She also finds her friends the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion - and they've been turned into stone!
Things turn even more for the worse when she is accosted by the Wheelers - evil man-like creatures with wheels instead of hands or feet. They chase her into an abandoned room where she meets Tik-Tok, a small but stout metal man and The Official Army of Oz. With a little winding up, Tik-Tok comes alive and helps scare off the Wheelers.
Dorothy heads off to pay a visit to Mombi, the resident Witch, to see what has happened to her friends and Ozma, wise ruler of Oz. Mombi (who wears different heads for different occasions) responds by cordially imprisoning Dorothy in a tower, where she meets Jack Pumpkinhead, who fittingly has a pumpkin for a head. Jack tells Dorothy that he came to life when Mombi used a special powder. So Dorothy steals the powder and she, Tik-Tok, and Jack bring to life the Gump, a creature with the head of a taxidermized moose and the body of a Victorian couch. He also has wings (palm fronds) that help the trio escape the clutches of Mombi.
Dorothy has now learned that the Gnome King is running Oz, and he is the one who turned everyone to stone. So the group heads off to his underground cavern castle in the mountains for a final confrontation to save Oz once and for all. Will Dorothy rescue her friends? Will Bilina's presence become a salient plot point? Will there be a happy ending?
This movie ranks up there with Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Black Cauldron as some of the darkest work ever to come out of Walt Disney Studios.
Growing up in West Germany, my sister and I had little choice but to watch the same meager collection of videos over and over again. From that small list comes a treasure trove of childhood memories, but this movie is the bet of the lot. The sheer imagination and vivid imagery that went into this production is just staggering. From the Wheelers to Mombi to the spectacular animation of the Gnome King in the final sequences (he becomes one with the rocks), everything here has been given a fantastic touch, albeit a bit on the harsh side.
The acting is up to snuff, especially by Balk, who delivers her lines with a dignified Kansas propriety mixed with a "curiouser and curiouser" Alice in Wonderland approach. Director Walter Murch (more known for his sound editing in such classics as Apocalypse Now, THX-1138, and The Conversation) did wise to let the production design do most of the footwork, and with a plot straight out of the children's book annals, the movie is a pleasant treat in every regard.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspects of the movie, besides the effects, is the story's approach to Dorothy and Oz. Here, whether or not Oz is real becomes a moot question - it's whether Dorothy might actually have done Oz harm on her first trip there. The psychoanalysis at the beginning of the film plays well for the postmodern crowd, but at the heart of the story are real issues about Dorothy visiting Oz. In the end, all's well that ends well, but it becomes more and more apparent that Dorothy's visits to Oz are the most troublesome for the people of the fine world.
Another great part of this film is the crossover between Kansas and Oz. Much like the original, what Dorothy sees and hears in the real world (especially at the hospital) transfers over to Oz with ingenue clarity. For example, when she is first taken into the hospital, she is strapped to a rolling bed and wheeled up to a machine. Murch (the classic sound editor that he is) left the scene completely quiet except for the wheels, interspersed with a few shots of the nurse pushing Dorothy around - who later turns up as the head Wheeler. The best part, though, is when Ozma comes to free Dorothy and the head nurse (later Mombi) spies her with a look of hissing recognition, suggesting that the bonds between the worlds are thinner than we imagine.
In closing, I think this review from IMDB.com sums up my thoughts on the film nicely:
This film looks as if David Lynch wrote and directed it.
My Rating: 10 out of 10. Buy it for your hip teenager nieces and nephews, and then borrow their copy.
L. Frank Baum (original story)
Fairuza Balk .... Dorothy Gale
Nicol Williamson .... Dr. J.B. Worley/Nome King
Jean Marsh .... Nurse Wilson/Princess Mombi
Matt Clark .... Uncle Henry Blue
Sean Barrett .... Tik-Tok (voice)
Denise Bryer .... Billina (voice)
Brian Henson .... Jack Pumpkinhead (voice)
Lyle Conway .... Gump (voice)