Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, January 30, 2017

NO ENCORES: Return to Oz (1985)

1. Return to Oz (1985)
Director: Walter Murch

In the early eighties, Disney was not the unstoppable juggernaut it is today. In an attempt to reach new audiences, the company produced darker films like “The Black Hole,” “The Watcher in the Woods,” “Dragonslayer,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” and “The Black Cauldron.” Each of these films are, to different degrees, cult classics today. Back then, none of them connected with audiences. No film sums up this experimental, edgier era of Disney better then “Return to Oz.” Produced just as Disney's option on several of Frank. L. Baum's “Oz” books were ready to lapse – and pass into the public domain soon afterwards –  “Return to Oz” was the directorial debut of editor Walter Murch. After a fraught production and poor box office, Murch never directed another feature film. In the years since, “Return to Oz” has developed a devoted following for many of the same reasons it flopped back in 1985. 

Several months have passed since Dorothy Gale's first journey to the land of Oz. After listening to her stories, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry worry the girl has lost her mind. She's carted off to a mental hospital. Frightened, Dorothy flees and is caught up in a storm. She awakens in an Oz very different from the one she remembers. The fearsome Nome King and the witch Mombi has taken over the Kingdom, broken up the yellow brick road, turned Dorothy's friend to stone, and destroy the Emerald City. Dorothy must partner with a new trio of friends if she hopes to restore Oz to its former glory.

“Return to Oz” was marketed as, and considered by some to be, a sequel to 1939's “The Wizard of Oz.” However, from the beginning, Murch set out to make a very different version of Oz. His film isn't a musical. The versions of the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion seen here do not resemble their portrayals in that film. Instead, their appearances are inspired by the illustrations from Baum's books. Indeed, “Return to Oz” draws more from Baum's novels then that the most famous film version. The result is a darker, stranger film then audiences were likely expecting at the time. That's right, readers. Studios were making “dark and gritty” reboots even back in 1985.

In many ways, Murch even seems to be deconstructing MGM's “Oz.” We've seen Dorothy awaken from her adventure in Oz so many times, claiming to recognize people from her dream. It was such a story book ending that the next step that “Return to Oz” takes – Dorothy gets thrown into an insane asylum – seems almost blasphemous. Murch's film continues in that unsentimental direction, by portraying the hospital as bleak and dangerous. The script then proceeds to destroy some of the original film's most famous iconography. The yellow brick road, Emerald City, and Dorothy's trio of companions are all gone. There's not a munchkin in sight. Even Dorothy's ruby slippers – this film's sole nod to the 1939 version – are in the possession of a villain. The implication is clear. This isn't your dad's Oz.

In another show of fidelity to Baum's books, Dorothy is an actual little girl, instead of a teenage Judy Garland with strapped down breasts. She's played by Fairuza Balk, in her theatrical film debut. Even years before “The Craft” would transform her into a goth icon, there's something a little different about Fairuza. Her blue eyes, piercing even back then, emphasizes her status as an innocent child. Despite this, Balk's Dorothy is never a shrieking victim. She remains strong, even when faced with terrifying odds. Ultimately, her innate ability to detect the truth and her willingness to love and trust strangers helps save the day.

But none of that is why people remember “Return to Oz” so vividly. Instead, the movie endures as a singular creator of kindertrauma. Lots of kids rented this movie or watched it on TV, probably expecting something more akin to the famous 1939 version. Instead, they got a film full of creepy ass imagery. Such as the Wheelers. The henchmen of the main villains, they are clown-like men with wheels on her hands and feet. They wear helmets with sculpted faces atop their heads. The Wheelers cackle madly as they glide into view. Even watching as an adult, their initial appearance can be startling. The distorted long limbs, the double faces, the creepy laughter combines to make a creatures that wouldn't be out of place in a horror movie.

And if the Wheelers didn't traumatize you, Princess Mombi probably did. A composite of two characters from Baum's books, she makes the Wicked Witch and the Flying Monkeys look quint. Bizarrely, Mombi is naturally headless. Instead, she keeps a collection of separate heads, switching them out depending on what her mood is. The film does not downplay the inherent freakiness of this idea. Mombi lines her hallway with her spare head, which often stare blankly. It builds towards an especially spooky moment where a disembodied head screams at Dorothy, alerting Mombi's headless body to the girl's deception. Murch's direction is simultaneously stark and surreal, emphasizing the horror of this scenario.

“Return to Oz” isn't all headless witches and Wheelers. Dorothy does make some friends on her adventure. My favorite of which is Jack Pumpkinhead. Relating to the jack o' latern Dorothy plays with in an early scene, Jack is a classical example of the thin, pumpkinheaded scarecrow. (Jack Skellington is but one obvious homage.) Despite his towering height, Jack has a child's mind. He sees Dorothy as a mother figure and even calls her Mom. He stumbles into trouble, frequently needing rescuing.  Brian Henson's vocal performance fits the character's child-like personality.

Dorothy's other friends verge along similarly odd lines. Tik-Tok is a rotund robot soldier, who must be kept wound up. If he ever winds down, he begins to speak in gibberish or slow to a stop. Even when functioning, Tik-Tok is a bit of an odd character, such as when he spins around to fight off Wheelers. In lieu of Toto, a talking chicken named Billina accompanies Dorothy. By the far the least interesting of Dorothy's companions, the film still miens an odd energy from the sight of a talking chicken. The oddest of all her friends is the Gump, a moose like creature. Or, at least, the head of one. Dorothy assembles his body out of items lying around Mombi's castle and brings him to life with a magical dust. Later, his flying couch-body falls apart, leaving just the talking moose head. It's such an odd character, further emphasizes by his tendency to reference his previous life.

You don't hear nearly as much about the second half of “Return to Oz” as the first. Dorothy and her friends encounter the Nome King, a entity made of stone responsible for wrecking Oz. After the Wheelers and headless Mombi, even someone as imposing as the Nome King tends to look less threatening. But he's still a pretty great villain. Continuing the film's unreal tone, he first appears as a series of faces appearing in the rock, created via shifting, unearthly stop motion. When he appears in the flesh, it's as a lime stone caked Nicol Williamson. (Though Williamson's voice is so heavily distorted, he sounds more like James Earl Jones.) Like a classical fairy, he likes to play games, transforming Dorothy's pals into emerald ornaments. When angered, he morphs into a moving monster, lit by fiery lava below, threatening to eat people. I'm saying, he's still pretty freaky.

If there's one way in which “Return to Oz” is too faithful to Baum's books, it's the author's love of deus ex machina endings. You know how a randomly applied splash of water was enough to defeat the Wicked Witch of the West? The Nome King, we find out at the very end of the movie, has a weakness to chicken eggs. The film does its best to foreshadow this. The Wheelers make a few grave references to how dangerous the chicken is. But it still comes out of nowhere, providing an easy escape for our lead characters just when their situation looks hopeless.

It's clear that “Return to Oz” was not a cheap production. The set designs are immersive and impressive. The ruined Emerald City is a memorable sight, composed of shattered buildings and leaning structures. Mombi's castle is a similarly memorable sight, stretching in the opposite direction of being so organized it becomes inhuman. Even something as simple as a mountain side, where Dorothy enters the realm of the Nome King, is brought to life with vivid, memorable detail. When the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion appear in the film, they are brought to life as elaborate puppets. They smile but still seem slightly strange, an effect all the elaborate creatures in the movie share.

I first heard of “Return to Oz” in grade school, when the kid I sat next to on the bus described it to me. At the time, I thought the movie sounded so bizarre that I doubted it was real. (It didn't help that my state mate threw in some exaggerated details, like Mombi attaching her head to a giant spider.) Thanks to the internet, I soon learned the film did indeed exist. I don't know what took me so long to catch up with it. “Return to Oz” is, at times, too poised between kid-friendly fantasy and surreal horror movie. Despite its flaws, Murch's film features so many unforgettable sights that I can't help but be fascinated by it. I know why he wouldn't direct another film but sincerely wish he would, if only to see what other indelible images are trapped inside his head. [8/10]

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