A Review of Disney's Return to Oz (1985)
I have been a fan of the Oz series since I was a very little girl; I had 1939's The Wizard of Oz completely memorized when I was three years old, down to the pacing of each line. I read the books on loan from our local library when I was maybe seven or eight, speeding through all fourteen of them in a matter of a couple of weeks, absolutely fascinated by the strange and sometimes creepy world they presented which was far different from the shining colors of the movie.
Around this time, on Vault Disney in the middle of the night when I'd snuck out of bed to watch, the 1985 movie Return to Oz entered my awareness. It was everything that the 1939 movie wasn't: dark, creepy, terrifying, and exactly what I loved about the books.
Return to Oz captures the story of the book by the same name, the sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The movie mixes it slightly with another book in the series, Ozma of Oz, to tell the tale of Dorothy's not-so-triumphant return to the Emerald City. She discovers it devoid of its shining namesakes, littered with statues that used to be the friends we've come to know and love including the Tin Woodsman (called by his book title) and the Cowardly Lion.
To make matters worse, the abandoned city is infested with terrifying humanoid monsters called Wheelers under the control of the dread Princess Mombi. How it came to be that way and how it can be saved brings Dorothy on a completely new adventure featuring new companions and a villain that is far scarier than any Wicked Witch.
Utilizing the Power of Original Designs
Return to Oz is brilliant for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it takes full advantage of the disconcerting original illustrations of the book, using the preset designs of these exaggerated drawings to really bring the characters to life onscreen in a way that feels authentic.
It relies on the more realistic and yet unsettling depictions of these inhuman characters with unmoving faces. This, to me, makes the voice acting work all the more brilliant as it brings them all to life despite their stiffness in appearance.
My favorite application of this is in the characters of Jack Pumpkinhead, whose static carved face is intimidating until he speaks in a soft, almost childlike voice, and in TikTok, the metallic "Royal Army of Oz," who, despite his stiffness in both appearance and voice, is still loveable for his quick quips and expressive tone.
These characters feel very real even though they are fantastical because they follow uniform in-universe rules of functionality that allow us to suspend our disbelief without having it interrupted by inconsistencies.
Paralleling the "Real" World and Oz
Return to Oz also draws some excellent parallels between the "real" world of Kansas and the land of Oz. This is done in much the same way that the 1939 film does it, by duel casting various characters in both Kansas and Oz, making their connection obvious to the audience. Return to Oz does have a significant advantage in these parallels, though. The filmmakers chose to spend a relatively long time in Kansas before we're brought to Oz, exploring the effects of the twister on not only Dorothy's family and their home, but on Dorothy's mental health as well. It drew direct focus on a few characters to make their counterparts all the more obvious later on.
Specifically, the first part of the movie focuses on the asylum's staff, Dr. Worley and Nurse Wilson. In charge of Dorothy when Aunt Em returns to the farm for the night, they cut intimidating figures in the darkness and eerie silence of the hospital, especially when contrasted with the unnamed girl patient that helps Dorothy to escape in the middle of the night's storm.
These people become The Gnome King, Princess Mombi, and Ozma, respectively, when Dorothy enters Oz. Their roles remain relatively unchanged; the Gnome King and Mombi are trying to get rid of Dorothy while Ozma is trying to help her reclaim the Emerald City.
These direct connections leave it up to the audience as to whether Oz is real at all, or simply a figment of Dorothy's imagination as she loses consciousness in the flooding river. It can be interpreted as a child's nightmare or a real fantasy adventure, and either way, it's a fun story to watch.
Respecting Its Audience
The makers of Return to Oz knew that they were never going to completely remove the influence of the 1939 movie, and they didn't try to. The movie references the events of The Wizard of Oz without having to spell them out directly; it assumes that the audience knows who Dorothy, her family, and her original trio of friends are and that they know what happened when Dorothy went to Oz the first time, but it still gives context with a few well-placed lines and visual cues.
It also wonderfully blends the book and movie audiences. It explains many of the points from the original book which were different from the movie, including the Scarecrow and Tin Woodsman becoming the rulers of Oz and the effects of the twister on Dorothy's real life. There are also many well-placed points of reference for the audience to catch up on how the events of The Wizard of Oz happened in this obviously different universe to the movie; we're shown Dorothy's original house, and have her arrival in Munchkin land explained as she laments the deterioration of the Yellow Brick Road.
This lets the new story unfold without being bogged down in exposition. We're given context quickly and succinctly, while also being introduced to the film's main driving problem. This means that the story calls back enough that even new viewers can enjoy the story, while still leaving room for viewers familiar with the books to enjoy it.
Relating to Dorothy's Adventures
The Oz of the 1985 movie is clearly not the perfect dream that it is in the 1939 version. It's significantly darker and more serious, a realistic place beset by its own internal problems of war and devastation. In this movie, there is no sudden switch to technicolor, song-filled film sets. The tone remains consistent, and therefore all the more terrifying, especially when viewed through the eyes of a child.
This, to me, is very in keeping with the tone of the original books. They're fairytales, yes, but they are also believable views of the world through a child's eyes. Dorothy isn't some perfect little angel sent to save Oz; she's just a little girl trying to go home, witnessing the destruction of the world only she can access and the renewed loss of the friends she had to leave behind. She experiences the familiar struggles with being disbelieved by the adults in her life about the serious things she's witnessed, even if those things are taken to their extreme for the sake of a good fantasy story. Dorothy is relatable in this version of events; she's a kid, just like you, doing things you could do and making choices you could make.
I think this is why this version resonates with me so much. Return to Oz will always be one of my favorite movies, even if it does still keep me up at night, imagining the sounds of Wheelers screeching and laughing at my bedroom door.