RETURN TO OZ (1985)
Directed by: Walter Murch
Written by: L. Frank Baum, Gill Dennis, Walter Murch
RETURN TO OZ in one sentence:
Yourself: Take a good look at that poster, concentrating on the "all-new", the flying sofa palm-tree moose head, and the shell-shocked look on Dorothy's face.
Golem: If you had to choose between electroshock therapy and the Deadly Desert, wouldn't you choose the Deadly Desert?
Here's a story about me and RETURN TO OZ:
Yourself:Well I had no idea this movie existed until a few days ago when I saw an episode of Siskel & Ebert that called it the scariest children's movie ever made. My mom likes THE WIZARD OF OZ a lot, which probably seeped into my subconscious somehow.
Golem: FIGHT CLUB spoiled the twist at the end.
Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: It's hard to tell if this is a problem with the writing or the direction, but after Dorothy gets captured by Princess Mombi midway through act two, things slow down a lot. This Oz is a land of mystery, particularly considering its juxtaposition with the 1939 rendition, so I want to see more of it. I want more overgrown Yellow Brick roads and Emerald Cities turned to stone and Bewaring Wheelers, but most of that is jammed into the first half of the second act.
Given her surroundings, Dorothy being trapped in Mombi's tower is about the dramatically flattest thing that could happen. You're locking the viewer away with her from all that's cool in the movie. The discovery of Jack Pumpkinhead and the Gump hints at what could have been happening - Dorothy exploring the tower and finding strange artifacts - but instead it's confined to one room that heavily revolves around sofas.
That would be more forgivable if the escape wasn't equally boring. Flying off on the sofa-Gump could be a strange, magical moment - if we were in the real world. But this movie is set in Oz, and discovering that Oz's cloud cover looks exactly the same as Earth's cloud cover isn't exciting. I couldn't help but feel Dorothy was flying over the movie I wanted to be watching.
The climax in the Gnome Kingdom takes it safe too. The movie tries to create the illusion of this vast underworld by letting Dorothy fall through a trippy 2001-esque gem-shaft, but the trippy 2001-esque nature of that fall detaches it so far from the concrete that it seems to reflect more on Dorothy's state of mind than on the size of the underworld, especially when the Gnome throne room where the action takes place is such a regular Star-Trekky looking cave set. The Gnome King's ornament parlor was really ordinary, whether or not that was the point.
Ultimately, there are a lot of one rooms that contain everything important. The movie feels small.
Golem: The lingering cast from the first film gets set aside; the Lollipop Guild, the Tin Man, and the Lion all get one cameo at the very end. Except for the Scarecrow.
The film answers few of the questions it raises. For instance, how does Dorothy overcome her crippling mental state? By finding some green glass in a dream? The Scarecrow for me became emblematic of that aimlessness: a statement of how the movie works on a figurative level of associations without saying anything meaningful. When Dorothy saves the Scarecrow, she saves her Inner Brain, or her Sanity, or what have you. That's great, but what growing has Dorothy done to reach that point?
THE WIZARD OF OZ already works on kind of a shallow figurative level (that's half the magic of it), but RETURN TO OZ doesn't hit the same stride, and it provides no closure unlike the prior film.
The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: The scariest children's movie ever made, I suppose. The story is thematically centered around enlivening and delivening, so naturally it's full of inanimate objects come to life. The first hint at this might be the lunch pails growing on a tree; continuing on we've got faces that travel through rock, people turned to statues, disembodied heads come to life, pumpkin-men, a sofa with palm fronds for wings, and so forth. Maybe I was the only kid horrified by Pee-Wee's Playhouse, but I find something irrevocably creepy about regular stuff coming to life. I don't want my laptop to talk and my phone to do a dance and my action figures to have battles while I'm sleeping. That feels like paranoid schizophrenia. Which is why it's great material for a movie! Just... not a kid's movie.
Perhaps this is the best time to mention how drastically this movie departs from THE WIZARD OF OZ. Basically, take everything you know about the cloying technicolor musical, drop an atomic bomb on it, and set a movie in the radioactive fallout. That is this movie. The cheery bombast of 1930s Oz has been supplanted by a mysterious whimsy; a tree growing ham sandwiches is juxtaposed against masked four-wheeled jesters hounding Dorothy for stealing from it.
For all my negativity about the script, I should remark that the aesthetic is so unpredictable and idiosyncratic that I was along for the ride anyway. There's a lot of great stuff here, even lacking the structure to make a great film. It is a movie you need to see to understand.
Golem: Because color saturation is such a big deal in THE WIZARD OF OZ, it's no surprise that it plays a role here. The first act is utterly dreary, with muddy yards, dead trees, a half-built house, and the nigh on grayscale hallways of the institution. (The kind of visuals that would have put me to sleep as a kid.) Oz itself doesn't dramatically improve things (Dorothy spawns in a desert), but you gradually get greens and reds, and every now and then something pops like the ruby-red lunchpails. Contrast gets jacked towards the end of the film, after the Gnome King's defeat, and Dorothy's peace of mind brings color to her everyday life. It's gratifying to compare her home at the beginning and the end of the film.
There are also tons of mirrors (my favorite color). RETURN TO OZ spends some time thinking about the notion of self: how a mirror can present an immaterial form of oneself. I don't know where it goes, but I do know it looks cool. Mombi's house in particular has one room that is entirely made of mirrors.
Performances to speak of?
Yourself: Four of our five heroes and one of two villains are puppets, so it's a little weird to talk about performances. It certainly strengthens the connection to the Henson (LABYRINTH) family of fantasy though. Then again, the puppets didn't feel on par with Henson quality, particularly the floppy and awkward Jack Pumpkinhead (who clearly switched between a puppet and costumed actor at frequent intervals). That is extremely nitpicky though. I shouldn't be saying that like it matters.
The voice cast was altogether fine, although Dorothy's sassy chicken Billina is the obvious stand-out. There's no reason for a line like "How's m' grammar?" to be as funny as it is, but the way Billina sort of mumbles her dialogue ponderously, like it's just her thoughts echoed on speaker, carries the implicit humor that chickens just wisecrack to themselves all the time. I know Golem could write a dissertation on how much he loves the snarky wiseacre trope, but I typically can't stand it. Luckily the context and delivery make Billina work.
The Scarecrow is played by a man named Justin Case. So there's that.
Golem: *Has written a dissertation. Anyway, can I talk about puppeteering as a performance? Because man oh man Tik-Tok was a joy to watch. 'Tok lacks joints in his hips, but his legs are spring-loaded. In order to walk, he bounces one leg, swivels, and plants the other leg on the ground. It's an ungainly waddle that matches his stout, round body. He also gets most of the action in the film, which is to say he rapidly spins his upper torso, pummeling anyone who gets too close. Finally, he has three separate gears: thinking, speaking, and acting. Predictably, different ones run down at different points in the film, creating cool moments (and even a cool fakeout, the only moment of intrigue during the film's climax).
A really cool shot or sequence:
Yourself: I can't pretend I was particularly inspired by the direction of RETURN TO OZ, possibly to be blamed on the fact that director Walter Murch had been and has since been strictly an editor. Shot compositions are fairly arbitrary, giving the movie a "filmed in front of a live studio audience" feel. In particular the few bits of action are extremely underwhelming - Tik-Tok fighting off the Wheelers by swiveling as they run into him is funny, but it takes me completely out of the movie. Later, the flight sequence is a considerable snore.
That said... the scene where Dorothy sneaks into Mombi's hall and steals the Life Powder is nevertheless fantastic. As soon as she tiptoes past those rows of heads, you know exactly what's going to happen, but you've still got your fingers crossed she'll get out okay. I mean, physically dangerous or not, screaming disembodied heads are exactly the kind of thing that would traumatize a little girl forever (incidentally, that's why they probably shouldn't be in a children's movie). So when the heads start wailing and headless-Mombi comes lumbering in, there's no tension release at all. The worst happened and it is a fucking scene from RE-ANIMATOR. I'm only disappointed that, presumably to slightly lessen the childhood trauma factor, the soundtrack buries the wails of the heads under dramatic music.
Golem: Dorothy's struggle comes together when she's tied down to a stretcher and rolled down the halls of the asylum. She's strapped down and powerless, mimicking the way her insanity renders her incapable of helping her mother repair their home. She lands at the mercy of Dr. Worley, a crisis interrupted by a freak power outage and resumed at the film's climax with the Gnome King. (IMDB says it's spelled "Nome King.")
The wheels of the stretcher--and even the staff rolling her stretcher--are revived in the land of Oz as fearsome goons, the Wheelers. They block off her path forward. She bursts through, or rather, Tik-Tok bursts through for her, and then they can't keep up when she (er, I should say Tik-Tok) devises her own vehicle, the Gump-couch.
It's not a creatively-shot sequence, with claustrophobic shots that 1) make the hallway feel tight, 2) make the stretcher feel small and constricted, and 3) put the asylum staff right in your face. But that's not to say it didn't creep me out anyway.
Yourself: You remind me that I think the main reason I was on board for such a long intro in the asylum is that it is more skillfully directed. The long angles dwarfing Dorothy in her cell, the onset of a storm merely glimpsed through the window, the echoing screams of the patients, the low angle on the head nurse-witch - as you say, it's textbook, but it's textbook because it works. There is a lot of atmosphere in that sequence and it really exposes Dorothy's mental state on the frame.
What does it all really mean?
Golem: Dorothy pines uncontrollably for Oz, and the film teaches her self control. Ozma, her mirror self, basically says, look--you can have Oz whenever you want, but leave it in the mirror already.
One step along that path is Dorothy's struggle with Mombi. Female parental figures want to exert power over her and lock her fantasy away (keep Dorothy in a prison, keep Ozma inside the mirror world). She retaliates by using life-imbuing dust to create the least practical or possible thing, a creature formed of sofas, palms, and a Gump head. By this reading (have I ventured into the realm of BS?), it would make sense that her escape from prison leads to a fantastic journey. But, like Yourself said, she flies over the movie. Cruelly, the flight sequence feels almost as tight and uncomfortable as the stretcher sequence; the camera zooms in close, and the set feels fake and small rather than free and open.
Anyway, her boundless imagination crashes her on the Gnome Kingdom's mountain, right into the Gnome King's grasp (the same way that Dorothy's fantasies landed her in a stretcher before Dr. Worley). It's about here where I stop following the film, as it raises questions of personal responsibility and answers them in a seemingly arbitrary, trivial, and boring way (the guessing game). Maybe eggs are symbolic of self control.
Yourself: 1985 Dorothy has been infected by the magic of Oz, and isolated from it she's growingly insane. She can't sleep, and as her aunt points out, that means she can't work, so she gets sent to a new home (asylum) where they take away your dreams. Dorothy's struggle is her inability to separate fantasy from reality - she wants to prove Oz exists and unlock it with a key. She's so convinced of its reality that she won't let herself sleep, for fear that dreams will mislead her. The asylum threatens to take away that choice, and Dorothy finds herself forced into Oz, probably by sleep deprivation, for a chance to confront the problem from the fantasy side.
Oz, bearing the afflictions of Dorothy's mind, is no longer an escape. Long neglect has left the land in decay, and, just as the real-world Dr. Worley is reducing Dorothy's dreams to electrical impulses, on this side the Gnome King is snatching up her imaginary friends and turning them into knickknacks. The mundane - the material - is swallowing her fantasy from both sides. As she journeys across Oz, Dorothy gives birth to a new set of children: Tik-Tok, whose gears she winds, Jack, whom she pieces together, and the Gump, who's Frankensteined via Life Powder. The quest culminates in a test of wits against the Gnome King, challenging Dorothy to find Oz within the King's boring, lifeless ornament collection.
Dorothy rather arbitrarily discovers that anything green is sufficient to invoke Oz. She doesn't need gears and Life Powder - her ultimate triumph is using a single word to summon life from meaningless junk. The Gnome King's file compression efforts are undone and Dorothy, now grasping her power to create life from nothing - to imagine, lol - can freely travel between the restored Oz and reality. Realizing that her dreams are her own domain, she abandons her insistence on "proving" Oz and flaunts her new powers by calling Ozma into a mirror (don't forget, mirrors are technically green!). Oh, and the asylum burned down, so no one can take away her dreams again.
[speaking of the ending, I found it a little off-putting that Dr. Worley "died trying to save his machines". While the link to the Gnome King suggests that his evil was in trying to eradicate imagination, he was a child psychiatrist for god's sake. They didn't even give the typical cheap excuse of him being greedy or forceful or anything. A man who dedicated his life to helping children was beyond redemption. Feels inappropriately cynical. Fucking 1985.]
Note to future self on watching RETURN TO OZ:
Golem: Think about colors. Pay attention to mirrors. Make sure you keep your shoes on tight. Watch with a Pink Floyd album.
Yourself: Gotta figure out the meaning of that egg thing - I hadn't caught the mother motifery Golem brought up, but that's clearly some kind of link.