There was something about the poster to “Return to Oz” that provided me with an unspoken warning. I stood in front of it with my mother, outside of a movie theater in Riverdale, New Jersey. My Mother asked me, “do you want to see that?” I knew that, were I to say yes, we’d be inside and sitting on the cushy, squeaky theater seats within minutes. Yet, despite the film being a Walt Disney Pictures release, there was something about the poster that didn’t sit right with me. The more I stared at the artwork, the less I wanted to see it. The poster made the movie look creepy. “Nah, no thanks,” I said, and my Mother and I continued to walk down the strip mall and continue with our Saturday afternoon. A year or so later, when I caught the film on the Disney Channel, I found my unease with the promotional artwork wasn’t unfounded, as the film itself was really scary.
A few years back, I caught a retrospective screening of “Return to Oz,’ as a print of it showed at the Esquire theater in Denver. Seeing it for the first time on the big screen (after years of revisiting it on VHS and DVD), I was struck by how certain moments of the movie, even for an adult, were really terrifying. I’m not alone in this assessment and have encountered dozens of film fans over the years who expressed a similar impression of the film. However, the odd thing is, even those who acknowledge that the film is too much for children still love it as much as I do.
“Return to Oz” came the year after Disney established its Touchstone Pictures, in which adult-minded, PG-rated or above movies could be released on a separate platform than the Walt Disney Pictures label. This was at the point where the studio was still getting its identity back, after too many live action flops (like “TRON,” “Condorman” and “The Watcher in the Woods”) and underwhelming animated features (my apologies to fans of “The Rescuers,” “The Fox and the Hound” and “Robin Hood”) were sullying its formerly pristine reputation. The studio was a few years away from the animation/live-action renaissance that would get kicked off with “Roger Rabbit, “The Little Mermaid” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” In fact, in 1985, the studio released “Oz” and the animated “The Black Cauldron,” both expensive flops. “Oz” really should have gone out under the Touchstone Pictures, as its one of the most intense films the studio has ever made.
The talent involved is uncanny and proved to be once-in-a-lifetime, as acclaimed editor Walter Murch made the film his directorial debut and never directed again. One of the key special effects creators, the brilliant Will Vinton, provided the film with Claymation creatures both whimsical and chilling. George Lucas was the film’s unspoken godfather (he’s thanked in the end credits but is otherwise never associated with the film) and the versatile, eclectic actress Fairuza Balk made her highly touted (and wonderful) acting debut as Dorothy Gale.
Rather than attempt a direct sequel to the legendary “The Wizard of Oz,” with musical numbers and repeat characters, Murch’s film pulls material from other books by L. Frank Baum. The story picks up with Dorothy visibly troubled by her past adventure in Oz. Her guardians decide, rather than trust she’ll grow out of her nightmares and daytime fantasies, to take her to a clinic. Once there, she’s informed that her treatment will be (unbeknownst to her but obvious to us) a form of shock therapy. The jolting nature of these scenes, which wouldn’t be out of place in a horror film, sets a tone the film bravely maintains. While there are cute characters, adorable moments and a triumphant ending, much of “Return to Oz” has the level of nightmare-inducing imagery found in Disney’s older, scary early animated works. The first time I saw this film, the amount of truly evil characters and startling imagery haunted me, but I watched it from start to finish. Watching the film in a movie theater a few years back, with the disembodied head croaking out “Dooooorrrrrrrrooooootttthhhy Gaaaaaaale,” I was terrified, utterly pinned to my seat. Rather than wag my finger at The Mouse House, I prefer to applaud Murch for taking a real risk (both in tone and subject matter). “Return to Oz” may be a bit much for the little ones at times but it’s such a riveting, beautifully made and striking film, its reputation as a Scary Movie has clouded what a fantastic movie it is.
The sets, costumes, characters and visual effects have the wonder of “Star Wars.” So does David Shire’s great, undervalued score. The screenplay creates a scenario so grim (witness the sad scenes of Emerald City in ruins) that the happy ending isn’t a given, leading a refreshing finale where the hero’s reward and the good feelings are genuinely earned. Nothing about this feels inevitable or mainstream. What Disney released was a film very ahead of its time. In the age of “Harry Potter,” we’ve grown accustomed to children’s fantasies that are dark. “Return to Oz” is, no joke, a “Pan’s Labyrinth” of the 1980’s. Needless to say, it flopped in theaters, left parents and children bewildered by how strong the content is and developed a much-deserved cult following. Looking at it today, I have no reservations about the film, only with who decides to show it to their children. If your kids grew up on “Indiana Jones” and can handle a story where the adults are truly awful and want to inflict harm on children, then proceed with caution. Much of this is tough but it’s also a dazzling, superbly crafted film that rewards Dorothy Gale’s unusually dangerous trek down the yellow brick road.