I really do not know what to say about this one. I’d never seen it before the other night, however I can vividly remember seeing the episode of Siskel and Ebert back when it was originally released where Roger Ebert was aghast at the film for it’s adult situations, most notably the opening sequence where Dorothy, here played by a young Fairuza Balk, is strapped down to a table in a mental institution and almost given shock therapy. Admittedly this isn’t really a kids-friendly moment, however this ability to skirt somewhat darker territory than the first film, which I’m not that fluent on, lays the foundation for Return to Oz’s underlying charm. An underlying charm which is at times faces danger from corny redundancy or flaky use of sets and costume. Still, I liked it and here’s why.
The deal: Dorothy can’t stop talking about Oz, a place none of the adults in her life believe in, so naturally they fear her sick in the head. She is dropped off at the aforementioned mental institution and just before a rather evil-looking woman in a black dress coordinates her shock therapy at the hands of an overzealous doctor (whose likeness later populates the film’s big bad) a storm robs the institution of its electrical power. As the adult characters run off to fix things a mystery girl appears in the room and helps Dorothy escape. The two girls make it outside and down to a nearby river, which in the storm ends up washing them away. The river gives way to an Ocean and that is the first sign that Dorothy (the little girl who saved her has now vanished), all together now, “Isn’t in Kansas anymore!!!”
One thing that bugged me a bit about the film was when Dorothy wakes up in Oz the little girl who saved her is nowhere to be seen yet has been replaced by, of all things, a talking hen. Now, here is where my own personal experience sets in as a bias – the hen, voiced by actress Denise Bryer, sounds exactly like a crazy homeless woman that used to hang out at my old place of employ. As you might be able to imagine if you’ve ever had to deal with the mentally ill on a perpetual basis this is not a good thing to evoke, and her frail, worrisome Ba-Gawking and Dorothies! (pronounced Door-oh-thy!) sawed on my nerves from the beginning. However, the hen is just one component of an otherwise fairly enjoyable cast as just like in the first film Dorothy’s travels through the land of Oz garners her a whole new host of bizarre ‘friends’. There’s Tik Tok the very steampunkish wind-up army officer, who more than a little seems a nod to Sir Winston Churchill. Jack Pumpkinhead is a dead ringer for the character of similar guise and name from Neil Gaimen’s Sandman and later The Dreaming series (Mervyn’s cousin?). And last but not least Mr. Gump, a mounted-trophy moosehead attached to a couch and given palm frond wings by Dorothy and her crew before they sprinkle him (it?) with a magic powder that bestows life to the unliving.
The rest of the plot revolves around the idea that an evil character named the Gnome King has destroyed the Emerald City by taking all of its emeralds and turning all good-natured inhabitants of Oz to stone, leaving only a roving pack of Wheelers, basically a gang of human-like creatures who have wheels at the ends of all their appendages and the evil, head-stealing Princess Mombi. Dorothy of course assembles her army of friends to try to appeal to the evil-doers sense of decency and when that doesn’t work it all comes down to a game of wits.
The one thing I came away with at the end of this film was the simultaneous resolution thread that just like the first film, this could all be a real trip to a far away land or it could all be in Dorothy’s head, which would make her one pretty sick child. More than the fantasy this theme of mental illness fits with the idea that her Aunt would resort to sending her to a mental health facility for the shock therapy, the ‘treatment of the day’. Add to this the fact that all of the Oz characters, especially the evil ones, are mirror images of Dorothy’s real-world persecutors and it lends more than a little credence to the idea that this really is the story of a girl off her rocker. And that, as Mr. Ebert would most likely note, is perhaps the darkest element of them all contained within this ‘kids’ movie.
Return to Oz came off a bit juvenile to me, but then it should, since it was made in the age of my childhood and I am now, for all intensive purposes, grown. However the film also reminded me of the way movies used to approach fantasy – when maybe the audience was a little less sophisticated and the darker sides of fantasy could creep into a kid’s movie. Either way, it was definitely worth the watch*.
* Actually, the biggest enjoyment I got from Return to Oz was in marveling at how much of the Oz-logic permeates Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I mean, there are obvious allusions or incorporations of Oz material into King’s Opus, ie the end of the fourth book The Wizard and the Glass, but there is also a lot of the ambiance of the films, especially Return to Oz’s initial dystopian-Oz with it’s bombed-out and degraded landscape and half-functioning half-lives (tik tok, I’m trying to remember if that character maybe wasn’t exactly portrayed in one of the DT books at some point. I know the name was, but I can’t remember who or what it was).