Return to Oz - DVD movie review

From September 10, 2013

SCORE: C- / D+
I've recently been getting into Oz pretty heavily. I bought the 4-disc DVD edition of the 1939 MGM film and have watched all the documentaries about the making of the film and the life and times of L. Frank Baum, who seemed like an amazingly interesting person. I also bought giant-sized, 1500-page book that has all 14 of the original Oz novels by Baum (yes, he wrote 14 of them). Anyway, I’ve gotten through the first 3 books, so I feel I know the world of Oz fairly well at this point. At least well enough to really judge the 1985 Disney film, ‘Return to Oz’, which is an adaptation of the second and third Oz books; ‘The Marvelous Land of Oz’ and ‘Ozma of Oz’.

‘Return to Oz’ didn’t do well in theaters, making only around $11 million of a $28 million budget. It’s almost always on movie critics’ lists of children’s films that are not appropriate for children. And I whole-heartedly agree. There’s a lot wrong with this film, even though the supposed cult following that has grown around it in the ensuing years claim that it’s a more faithful adaptation of Baum’s books than the 1939 MGM film.

CONS (and there are many):
This film is not fun at all to watch. There’s no whimsy in this film... until Dorothy walks on the stones in the Deadly Desert. Until that time the movie is either boring or just plain creepy, even for adult viewers. 

And the music is either dull or sad in the beginning in Kansas or it’s really threatening-sounding in the insane asylum scene. That’s right, Dorothy’s aunt takes her to a insane asylum where patients scream in the background and a doctor prepares to put Dorothy through electroshock therapy. Wow, good choices Disney people. Kids won’t be terrified over these things at all. 

And what’s worse: none of that shit is in any of L. Frank Baum’s two books that Return to Oz is supposedly based on (‘The Marvelous Land of Oz’ and ‘Ozma of Oz’). Why did the people at Disney in the mid-80s decide to make a movie like this? It’s only ever threatening or melancholy. Even at the end, when Dorothy goes back to Kansas it’s not treated as a happy home-coming, like in the 1939 MGM film. It’s treated as a solemn event where no one smiles and everyone is sad that Dorothy is leaving. And Kansas, well, it’s shown to be a dreary place (that’s kind of overcast and looks like it just rained), which is weird. I used to live in Kansas. I’d certainly describe it as desolate, but dreary? No. 

What the fuck was going on in the 1980s? With the exception of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, every film, cartoon, or comic book from the 80s was dark, scary, gritty, etc. Think ‘Masters of the Universe’, ‘The Beastmaster’, ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, etc. Even sound sounded the same in the 80s. All music had voices that echoed and synthesizer... always synthesizer! And in films and TV everyone had voices that echoed, too, as they do in ‘Return to Oz’. I don’t understand what the hell people making films and TV were thinking back then, but I’m glad it changed.

Princess Langwidere and the witch Mombi are combined into a single character, which I did not like. And she she’s so creepy and evil that she makes the Wicked Witch of the West from the 1939 film look like a kitten. 

The character Tip from the books is not even in the film. 

In fact, in the book 'Ozma of Oz', all the events take place in the Land of Ev, a neighboring land to Oz. None of that is mentioned either.

The Scarecrow is really creepy-looking... I mean, really creepy-looking...

Also, the stop-motion in the film is pretty amazing. However, it’s pretty jarring when the Nome King goes from a stop-motion character to a man in makeup. Both were done well, but going from one to the other is too jarring.

All that being said, I like Tik-Tok a lot. He looks exactly like the John R. Neill drawings.

As I said earlier, the stop-motion in the film is pretty amazing. 

Speaking of the Nome King, he’s got Dorothy’s ruby slippers (which were silver slippers in the original book, but changed for the 1939 film), instead of a magic belt like in the books. I know why they made that change, to be more in line with the 1939 film. However, when Disney made Oz the Great and Powerful in 2013 they supposedly not allowed to show or mention certain things because MGM still owned the film rights. One of those things was supposedly the ruby slippers, so I was surprised to see Disney allowed to use them in this film.

Jack Pumpkin-Head is also a very well-done character. I really enjoyed his character in the books and he’s pulled really well in this film. (I’m convinced that Tim Burton was also a fan of the character because when Jack Skellington first shows up in ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’, he looks an awful lot like Jack Pumpkin-Head. But I never made the connection before because I didn’t know much about Oz or the plethora of books written about it.) I was glad to find out that Jack was voiced and puppeteered by Brian Henson, Jim Henson’s son.