Return to Oz (1985)


Famed Oscar-winning film editor Walter Murch co-writes and directs this dark but lovingly created sequel to the classic The Wizard of Oz. Of course the sequel fails to compare to the original, but if you take Return to Oz on its own merits, it’s an inventive, charming, extraordinarily well-crafted film.

Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) has been back from Oz for six months, but is suffering from nightmares and sleeplessness. So Auntie Em (Piper Laurie) takes her to a doctor who plans to give her electric shock therapy to fix the problem. But just as she’s about to be electrocuted, a mysterious young girl helps her escape the hospital during a rainstorm. The storm sweeps her away… and back to Oz. Only the yellow-brick road is ruins and the Emerald City’s inhabitants have all turned to stone! Dorothy must befriend a new team of sidekicks to defeat an evil Princess (Jean Marsh) and a seemingly all-powerful Gnome King (Nicol Williamson) to restore the land of Oz to its former glory.

Return to Oz can’t compete The Wizard of Oz‘s beloved characters and memorable performances. But it stacks up pretty damned well in artistry and craftsmanship. The sets are gorgeous and David Shire’s lush, dynamic score is one of my favorites from the ’80s. What’s perhaps most remarkable about the film is that Dorothy is the only human actor in most scenes. Her co-stars are mechanical creations brought to life by off-screen crew. There’s Tik-Tok the robot, Jack the pumpkin-headed marionette, a talking chicken, and an anthropmorphic sofa with a taxidermied reindeer head stuck on it. When I imagine what it must have taken to bring this motley group to life — a child actor and who knows how many effects artists and puppeteers — Return to Oz becomes a remarkable cinematic achievement indeed.

I also love how dark the storytelling is. I mean, they’re about to electrocute little Dorothy at the beginning! And the villains in this movie are really far more frightening than the Wicked Witch and her flying monkeys ever were. Jean Marsh’s Mombi character has a collection of over 30 different heads she wears. In one scene, Dorothy is trying to steal a magic potion out of Mombi’s hiding place — the cabinet that houses her original head. When she knocks something over, the head’s eyes flash open and it screams, “Dorothy Gale!” All the other heads in the room wake up and start screaming from their display cases while Mombi’s headless body rises out of bed and dashes after Dorothy. It’s delightfully spooky stuff!

Oscar Nomination: Best Visual Effects

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