Given the success of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, it seems perhaps surprising that filmmakers did not immediately rush to make a sequel—especially given that they had at least 13 more stories very readily available, not to mention a still living Royal Historian of Oz, Ruth Plumly Thompson, actively pushing for film versions of her Oz tales. And yet, no sequel appeared for 46 years—apparently a record for film to sequel in Hollywood.
In part, this was because the 1939 film had made only a small profit on its original release. Any sequel would be, like the original film, and enormous financial risk, and if the original film had proved anything, it was that Oz did not come cheaply. (The eventual decision to limit the budget of Return to Oz does show, to the film’s detriment, in several scenes, and even at that, it was not cheap to film.) In part, this was because the original film hardly seemed to call out for a sequel, ending, as it had, with the firm statement that Oz was only a dream, and Dorothy would never be going back. And in part, it was because the books themselves presented problems: certainly, the second book of the series continued the story of the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman—but not Dorothy or the Cowardly Lion. The third book brought back Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion, but also added several characters and a back history from the second book that might confuse any movie viewers.
And of course, by the time the 1939 film did start reaping huge profits (thanks to the annual television broadcasts, beginning in the 1950s) it was an established classic that no one wanted to tinker with (er, until this year, when a vocal and highly negative reaction from the internet demonstrated that viewers still don’t want the original tinkered with.) And although the L. Frank Baum books were moving into the public domain, the movie decidedly was not, forcing any filmmaker to pay huge fees for the rights to use certain images and concepts (notably the Ruby Slippers).
So perhaps it’s not so surprising that it took 46 years for a sequel to appear (alas, far too late for the hopes of Ruth Plumly Thompson), financed by Disney, who also paid a small fortune for the rights to use the ruby slippers. What is more surprising is that although it was billed as a sequel (and still is marketed that way, based on the cover) it both is and is not a sequel to the original film—serving more to showcase just how much films, and the vision of Oz, had changed in 46 years.
Return to Oz starts, more or less, to the same place where the earlier film ended: Kansas, except in color. But this time, Dorothy refuses to accept that Oz is just a dream—partly because she keeps coming across odd Oz-like things like keys in the chicken feed.
Time for some electric shock therapy!
Thanks to a bad combination of incompetent doctors, unreliable electricity, major thunderstorms, and Dorothy’s continued inability to respect bad weather and stay indoors, Dorothy ends up, seemingly not electrocuted, but back in Oz, via, somewhat inexplicably, what seems to be the Gulf of Mexico (the timeline and filming of this makes little sense, but it is, after all, Oz), and accompanied, even more inexplicably, by her pet hen from the farm, who had not—I think this is significant—gone with her to the asylum.
But this is not the Oz of the previous movie, nor of the books. Rather, this is a barren, terrifying land, its original inhabitants turned to stone, filled with terrifying Wheelers, a clunky if well meaning robot, and a witch fond of changing her heads. It is even more fearsome than the 1939 movie Oz ever was, if filled with considerably fewer flying monkeys. In this land, no one sings, or dances, or changes colors: indeed, some of the dancers are shown frozen in place, hands uplifted, in a rather horrible parody of scenes from the earlier film. And anyone wanting to know what happened to the Wizard or Glinda or those farmhands is out of luck. (I continue to believe that the movie farmhands headed somewhere safer for small dogs and with fewer cyclones, but I have no evidence for this.)
This second, and far more interesting, part of the film draws from The Marvelous Land of Oz, Ozma of Oz, and, well, Labyrinth. (The final few Oz scenes also draw from the later Oz books, featuring cameo appearances from several characters who shouldn’t actually be there yet—the Shaggy Man standing next to the brightly colored Patchwork Gil, the Braided Man, Santa Claus, someone I believe and IMDB confirms is a brave attempt to represent Polychrome, the Frogman, and others, even, I must admit, that horrible clown, although I’m kinda hoping the filmmakers just threw in a generic clown. I must admit I squeeed a little and made extensive use of the pause button.)
Abandoning any hope of retelling the two books, the filmmakers instead took characters and a few plot elements from those two books, and created a new tale of a destroyed Emerald City and a Dorothy as a destined savior who must work her way through Oz.
It is, and it isn’t, a sequel to the earlier film, and is, and isn’t, the books: often confusing, often dreamlike, often emotionally powerful. Some elements are definitely meant to reflect the earlier film: the decision, in a film mostly visually based on the John R. Neill illustrations, to give Dorothy Judy Garland’s brown hair (she’s blond in those illustrations); and, of course, the focus on those ruby slippers, here a central plot point again. But, even apart from the decision to eliminate the singing and the dancing of the 1939 film, this film takes a different take on Oz altogether.
Oz here is not an escape, not a place of wonder and brilliance mingled with fear, but a place where the magic and wonder has been frozen and nearly destroyed, where Dorothy, instead of encountering magic, must restore it.
But I can’t quite agree with those who argue that this film’s darker, more violent image of Oz is more true to Baum’s books than the 1939 film. For one, as I noted, that film certainly had more than its fair share of darkness and bleakness; the end of this film actually offers more hope than the 1939 film. For two, even though the film is far closer to the John R. Neill illustrations (in most cases marvelously so), it is less true to the actual characters. Just two brief examples: Jack Pumpkinhead is transformed from a lugubrious, slow, but clearly adult character into a young (if exceedingly tall) child, and Billina, that ever practical but kindly chicken has been made—dare I say it? Annoying.
These character changes have another, perhaps unforeseen impact. At their core, the Oz books featured friendship. No matter what happened to the (usually child) protagonist, or what adventures and dangers might be encountered along the way, the protagonist was certain to find friends in Oz.
Not here. Dorothy’s companions are all inferior in one way or another, forcing her into a leadership role, rather than one of a group of traveling friends. The end of the film, true, does show her reuniting with old friends in Oz (although for budget reasons the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion don’t get to speak), but for the most part, this is a Dorothy isolated and alone. It’s all the more poignant since this is a Dorothy with fewer friends in Kansas; the farmhands and traveling showman have vanished. And because in this film, she is not trying to get home, but rather rescue Oz—her dream.
Because yes, Oz may still be a dream. Or not.
Unlike its predecessors, which put Oz firmly into dream territory (the 1939 film) or reality (the original books), Return to Oz takes a firm middle ground, refusing to reveal whether Oz is real or not. Certain elements—a key, mirrors, final glimpses of Oz, suggest that Oz is quite, quite real. Yet the last scenes, the timing of the electrocution scenes (watch carefully), and the inexplicable appearance of Billina, suggest that Dorothy is only dreaming again, and allowing the people of the asylum (who reappear in Oz, in different roles) to enter her dreams. Given that she’s been electrocuted, hit on the head, and barely escaped a deadly fire, it’s easy to think she might, again, be hallucinating, and this time, more darkly.
The 1939 film managed the neat trick of confronting while simultaneously avoiding the issues of its time. This 1985 film confronts these issues directly, offering dreams that are not bright, not what are expected, and dreams that must be fought for, against the authority of the well meaning. At the same time, the 1985 film, unlike its predecessor, allows the hope of real escape, the belief that bleakness and fear and injustice can be fought against and transformed. At that, despite its generally bleaker outlook and coloring, it is actually more optimistic than the earlier film.
And in many ways the film anticipates what Guillermo del Toro would later explore so brilliantly in Pan’s Labyrinth: the uneasy boundaries between reality and dream, between sanity and insanity, all through the eyes of a firmly believing child.
That exploration, that acknowledgement of thinness of those lines (spoken, I must add, by some of the very real, mundane characters in the first part of the film) helps give this film its many magical moments. It’s well worth checking out by both Oz and fantasy fans alike. (Upstairs, Downstairs fans, on the other hand, should prepare themselves for a severe shock at the sight of Rose taking on such a visibly nasty role.) True, the limited budget shows in far too many shots (particularly after the Scarecrow appears, demonstrating just why MGM was wise not to make their Scarecrow resemble Neill’s illustrations). But the Claymation and puppet work give the fantasy elements a very real, heavy feel, something not quite achieved by most of today’s CGI work. (In the case of the scene with the disembodied heads, perhaps a rather too real, heavy feel.) For the most part, the acting is excellent (the exception is the unfortunate girl playing Ozma, who, in her defense, was not given much to work with and a role that makes little sense). It doesn’t always work (particularly with the generally inexplicable Ozma plot) but it’s almost always visually fascinating. (My viewing partner, though, no Oz fan, hated it.)
Two warnings: one, either the original film was filmed poorly and fuzzily, or this is one of the worst film to DVD transfers ever. I originally assumed something was wrong with the TV, the DVD player or my glasses, but having tested the DVD on different devices and sets of eyes, it’s definitely the DVD. I can only hope that Disney decides to release a cleaner copy, possibly on Bluray.
Second, this film may not be appropriate for small children, with at least three nightmarish scenes: the Wheelers chasing Dorothy and Billina through the ruins of the Emerald City; Dorothy running through a room of disembodied heads (otherwise the most effective scene in the film); and the angry Nome King shaking down the mountain on Dorothy and the gang. If your small inner child or your small children are still having difficulties with Flying Monkeys, you’ve been warned. Older children should be fine.
Mari Ness had to spend some time assuring herself that her head was on her neck and not in a closet after watching this film. She lives, head mostly firmly attached, in central Florida.