Wheelers and chickens and nomes, oh my! Welcome back to the Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia! Today’s Nostalgia post concerns 1985’s Return to Oz, the semi-sequel to the 1939 classic film Wizard of Oz, and based on the books by L. Frank Baum. You’ve probably heard of at least one of the things in this paragraph.
Please note that as with all films covered on the Nostalgia Rewatch, this post will be rife with spoilers, so take whatever precautions appropriate. Unlike the first film I covered, though, Return to Oz is pretty easily available, so it should be no problem to watch the film so you can follow along.
Got all that? Good! So without further ado, click on to see what I thought after all these years!
So, since this is going to come up a lot in the MRGN (which is not the greatest acronym, is it. Oh well), I might as well explain now to all you infant whippersnappers how a girl and her sisters went about being child movie geeks in the 80s-to-early-90s, before all this newfangled Internet stuff started happening.
…Okay, yes, technically Internet or proto-Internet stuff had been happening since the 70s, but it wasn’t until the mid-90s that it started having any impact on my life personally, so whatever with your historical accuracy blithering. It certainly had no importance whatsoever in terms of how child-me acquired movies or television, I’ll tell you that.
Back then, young grasshopper, there was really just one giant advance in media technology that was of importance, and that, of course, was when video cassette recorders became widely available (and, more importantly, affordable) for use in the home. This is as opposed to Laserdisc players (also known as DiscoVision, because the 70s), which a friend of ours owned and which we envied mightily, but we discovered our VCR was even better, because not only could it play movies, it could—gasp—record them as well. Right off the TV! OMG WHAT IS THIS SORCERY
I don’t remember exactly when our house got its first VCR, and neither does my mother or sisters, but it was probably right around the same time we first got cable television as well. So, sometime between 1980 and 1985 at the absolute outside, but probably more like 1982 or 1983. God, I feel old just typing those dates. This coincides (roughly) with the emergence of premium cable channels like HBO and, much more importantly from our point of view, The Disney Channel. And even though it wasn’t until years later that my mother finally caved to the pressure to pony up for them, the premium channels served our nefarious youthful geekdom purposes anyway, by dint of providing this wonderful thing called free previews.
The Disney Channel especially did these all the time: every couple of months the channel would become unscrambled for a few days (ha, scrambled TV, what memories) and anyone with basic cable could watch the content. This was intended to tempt people into paying for the premium service, of course, but my mother regarded it instead as a golden chance to tape as much stuff as she could off of it, so we could watch it all anytime we wanted and not have to pay for it.
This led to some interesting consequences. First, that 95% of the movies my sisters and I watched as children had a ticker running along the bottom advising us to Call This 1-800 Number To Order Now!, and also that we frequently did not have the whole movie, as my mother would either have missed the beginning, or the tape would run out before it got to the end. Sister Liz also reminds me that sometimes we would try to stop and start the recording in order to skip the commercials (yes, The Disney Channel was a pay-for-subscription premium channel which also had (Disney) commercials, because Disney), and consumer-grade VCRs not exactly being precision instruments, especially not in the 80s, this meant we often lost bits and pieces of the middle of the movies as well.
It was the like the Wild West of movie-watching, y’all. Yee haw!
One such casualty of completeness was 1985’s Return to Oz, the focus of today’s Nostalgia post and which I will now finally talk about.
For years I didn’t know how this movie ended, or at least I thought I didn’t. I think it wasn’t until Blockbuster video stores became a widespread thing and I rented the movie on professionally produced VHS that I realized we had literally only missed about 15 seconds of the end. Basically, what I had missed was: Dorothy runs out of the door with Toto to play in the yard. The End, credits roll. I was so mad. Heh.
Anyway. When I told my sisters which movie we were doing next, the following conversation happened:
LIZ: Why are we doing this movie?
ME: …Uh, because we loved this movie? We watched it like 500 times.
LIZ: Yeah, but, no one else liked this movie.
ME: Pfft. That’s just the Hook problem.
ME: Return to Oz is like Hook. They were both sort-of sequels to much-beloved adaptations of turn-of-the-century works which alienated modern audiences because no one understood that the differences were because they actually adhered much more faithfully to the source material than the first films did.
KATE: I have to say, I didn’t like the way Tin Man and Scarecrow looked either. It was only okay because they were barely in the movie anyway.
ME: …Okay, I didn’t really like them either. But it was FAITHFUL.
KATE: You don’t know that. You haven’t even read any of the Oz books.
ME: I have s—
KATE: Reading the Christmas ornament Mom gave you that year doesn’t count.
ME: Well—well, the Internet said it was, so it must be true!
LIZ & KATE: Uh-huh.
Sisters, man. No respect.
I am aware, by the way, that not having read the Oz books is a travesty, and one I totally intend to correct in my copious spare time. And upon doing some actual research, I learned that Return to Oz was in fact a mash-up of two different Oz books, The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, one of which apparently didn’t feature Dorothy at all. So whether this movie was more faithful to the source material than the 1939 Judy Garland film is probably a matter of opinion, and one which I should probably leave to people who have actually read said source material. If you would like to school me on this subject in the comments I would most appreciate it!
Either way, though, Liz is correct in that Return to Oz did not do all that well at the box office. But as kids, naturally, we neither knew nor cared about what anyone else thought; we adored it with unabashed enthusiasm regardless.
And do we still adore it, you are clearly dying to know?
And, well. I think the answer is: Yes. But also, No.
“Yes”, in that there are many many individual elements of Return to Oz that I loved as a child and still find fascinating and/or hilarious now. The running gag of having multiple characters utter the word “CHICKEN” in the same dire tones of horror one might apply to, say, “Ebola Cockroach”, for instance, has been an in-joke among the three of us for decades:
C’mon, that is comedy gold.
Also the character of Tik Tok, who is basically Clockwork Teddy Roosevelt, and was steampunk way before any of the rest of you posers thought of it:
Sister Kate in particular loves Tik Tok and will hear no criticism of him. Naturally, this declaration led to relentless commentary from Liz and me pointing out all the ways in which he is a ridiculous character just to rile her up, as is our sacred duty.
LIZ: I guess the Army of Oz doesn’t do stealth commando raids. THONK THONK THONK THONK—
KATE: His walk is adorable, go away.
ME: But how can he cry, if he—
KATE: IT IS OIL SHUT YOUR FACE
On a more artistic level, I was enthralled both then and now by the production design:
(Many years later, my mother owned an antique shop on Magazine Street, and Kate comments that she would wander about and pick out all the green things in it, and grin to herself, remembering Dorothy in the ornament room.)
I loved the visuals, but I was even more enamored of the sound. The director, Walter Murch, is in fact a celebrated editor and sound designer with three Academy Awards under his belt (Return to Oz is his only directing credit), and he obviously had a marvelous time playing with the sound on his own film. The entire aesthetic of the film’s sound design revolves around echoes, something I don’t think I’ve ever really seen (or noticed, anyway) anywhere else.
It’s really marvelous, in my opinion. If you watch the movie again, pay attention to the echoes, and how Murch uses them throughout the film to create very different atmospheres: the vast, serene emptiness of 1890s Kansas, the disquieting desolation of a ruined Emerald City, or the deep, deep creepiness of the shadiest mental institute this side of the rainbow:
(Sorry about the quality, this was the only clip of the scene I could find.)
And oh yeah—holy crap some parts of this movie are hair-raising, even now. Even more so now, in fact, as I am much more aware as an adult that shit like that actually really happened in mental hospitals in that time period (not to mention much more recently than that). Yeesh.
Liz, however, believes the hospital scene doesn’t hold a candle to the creepiness of Princess Mombi and her hall of heads:
We did not actually remember until we started watching, by the way, that doing Return to Oz immediately after Willow meant we were doubling down on Jean Marsh evil queen awesomeness:
When we realized Mombi aka Nurse Ratched Wilson was Jean Marsh, all three of us laughed our heads off. Er, no pun intended.
(Okay, I totally intended it, sue me.)
And as in the 1939 film (and, I presume, the original books), another great thing was how the characters and objects in Oz reflected people and things Dorothy encountered in the real world. Everyone loves a parallel, y’all. There was the very pointy Mombi/Wilson combo:
The sonorous and really pretty effectively scary Dr. Worley aka the Nome King:
Dorothy’s jack o’ lantern gift becomes the should-be-scary-but-is-strangely-endearing-instead Jack Pumpkinhead:
And my favorite, Tik Tok aka the Clockwork Brain Zapper Machine:
I was so proud of myself for making the connection between those two when I was a kid, y’all. Maybe it was silly, but I felt terribly clever about it.
We did think it was weird, this time around, that pretty much every other new Oz character had a real world representation… except, apparently, the Gump.
I even went back and checked to see if there was a moose head or something mounted on the wall in the hospital scene, but there was not. There was a deer head in one shot, but Liz opines that that is really weak, if that was meant to be the reference. It really should have been a moose head if they wanted anyone to make the connection. Even the divan Dorothy sits on in the hospital scene isn’t one of the divans used to make the flying Gump thing (yes, I actually checked), and I just don’t get why they wouldn’t have gone ahead and made that happen when it’s such an easy fix. So, kinda dropped the ball there.
But then, last but most definitely not least, there were the semi-straitjacketed mental hospital orderlies (seen in the earlier clip), whose creepy squeaky gurneys became what is by far the most awesomely freaky part of the entire movie, in my opinion: the Wheelers.
If anyone remembers anything about this film, it’s these guys and this scene, and rightly so. It was memorable, to say the least.
Fun fact: the main Wheeler character was played by Pons Maar, a voice actor and puppeteer who officially has the best crazed laugh I’ve ever heard (sorry, Mark Hamill), and who I did not know until I looked him up also voiced the Noid in those 80s Domino’s Pizza commercials. Extra nostalgia toppings!
I am really, in retrospect, sort of surprised we weren’t more scared by this film as kids, all things considered. But what children fear, I should remember, is frequently not at all what adults fear, nor is it what adults think kids should fear. Kids are contrary that way. This is perhaps why we were not bothered as kids by Dorothy’s general lack of terror at all the bizarre and (let’s face it) highly disturbing crap that happens to her in this movie, but as adults we found her equanimity very strange indeed.
We discussed, afterward, the possibility that Dorothy’s fearlessness was perhaps a deliberate choice, to emphasize the ambiguity of whether Oz is real or something she dreamed (aided by the parallel characters noted above). I suppose that would explain it, but it bothered me that, if it was all a dream, it would indicate that Dorothy is actually seriously mentally ill. Ozma’s presence (or, maybe, “presence”) in the real world alone would prove that:
But of course, that’s not the kind of thing you think about as a kid. Or at least I didn’t.
Two more things before we move on to the “No” portion:
Dorothy Gale was Fairuza Balk’s debut role, and no matter what odd turns her career has taken over the years, I will always love the shit out of her. It is no accident that she stars in at least two more films I would love to cover on the MRGN. I’m just saying.
Second thing: I cannot let a review of Return to Oz pass by without mentioning its score, composed by David Shire. He’s not really a well-known name in the film composer racket, though he had a perfectly respectable career, and I don’t really know if most film score aficionados would think this score is particularly worthy of note, but here’s the thing. Back in the day, I had a Walkman and a small set of cassette tapes that were film scores from a select few movies, and I would listen to these scores endlessly, because I loved them to tiny itty teensy bits, and Return to Oz’s soundtrack was one of them.
Today I have the score on my iTunes, and I still go back every once in a while and listen to it, especially the opening theme and the end credits. Shire’s lovely, strings-heavy score added an air of melancholic majesty to the film that may not have even been entirely deserved, but I care not, for I love it. If you’ve never listened to it, I say it’s well worth your time if you’re a film music buff. Or even if you’re not.
So there’s all that. And now you’re saying, jeez, Leigh, that’s a whole lot of shit you love a whole lot about this film you just listed here. So where does the “No” come in?
But that’s the thing: I love all these disparate elements of it, on an individual basis, but what we discovered upon rewatching Return to Oz is that while these individual aspects are generally awesome on their own, they rather fail to gel together as a whole.
There are just too many plot holes and inconsistencies in the film, ranging from the silly and inconsequential (how does a headless body snore?) to the minor-but-annoying (how does Jack know why his mom built him if he can’t remember anything before he was brought to life, as he later asserts?) to the major: WHY do chicken eggs poison nomes? What’s the logic there?
How did Bellina get onto Dorothy’s crate that washed her to Oz when she was miles away at the farm? If Dorothy’s wish at the end (“I wish I could be in both places at the same time”) frees Ozma, does that mean that she and Ozma are somehow the same person? How does that make any sense?
I think these are particularly adult flaws to find, because while clearly none of this bothered us in the slightest when we were kids, it annoyed me enough now that I found my attention beginning to wander in between my favorite parts.
So, yes, I love this movie. But without the nostalgia factor (i.e., if I watched it today without having seen it before), I have a feeling my critique of it would have been rather harsher than otherwise.
So! On the Nostalgia Love To Reality Love 1 to 10 Scale I have just now invented and shall apply from now on, Return to Oz’s score is:
(Willow’s score ratio, if you’re curious, would have been 9/8. Start your fantasy… er, fantasy leagues now!)
And I’m spent! What are your thoughts, O My Peeps? Tell ‘em to me! And then come back on June 7th, where the intrepid Butler sisters will be covering a suddenly STRANGELY RELEVANT 80s film: an obscure little flick that no one’s ever heard of called Ghostbusters. Yeeeeeep. Until then, I have gone bye-bye. Cheers!