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RETURN TO OZ

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh, Piper Laurie
Director: Walter Murch
Audio: Dolby Digital surround 5.1
Subtitles: none
Video: color, non-anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 or full-screen 1.33:1
Studio: Anchor Bay
Features: Fairuza Balk introduction and interview
Length: 109 minutes
Release Date: July 23, 2002

"Why did they bring you here, Dorothy?"

"Because I can't sleep.  And I talk about a place I've been to but nobody believes it exists."

Film *** 1/2

Poor Disney!  While the company was spiraling towards near-bankruptcy in the 1980's, it still managed to produced some of its finest dramatic films ever.  But, nobody went to see such excellent films as Never Cry Wolf or The Journey of Natty Gann.  Nowadays, when the Disney company is filthy-rich and routinely produces more utter film garbage than not, it makes millions at the box office.  How ironic is that?

One of Disney's more regrettably-ignored films from the 1980's was Return to Oz.  A disappointment at the box office, it was nevertheless a sequel (of sorts) to the original MGM film, The Wizard of Oz, one of the most universally beloved classics of all time.  The Wizard of Oz would be a hard act for any film to follow, with its great tunes, lively production numbers, and magical atmosphere, and Return to Oz could hardly hope to match the original in the memories and hearts of so many filmgoers.  And yet, in many ways this underrated sequel is quite a good film and is much more faithful to the original L. Frank Baum stories than was the 1939 MGM film of Dorothy Gale's adventures in Oz.

The original Oz of the Baum tales was a dark and rather foreboding place.  It was decidedly void of merry munchkins and Technicolor vaudeville acts.  Return to Oz bravely adheres to this original vision, and so, when Dorothy returns to the magical land of Oz, she finds it sinister and instead filled with treacherous dangers, lacking in songs or lively dances.  In fact, Return to Oz is not a musical at all but a dramatic adventure film that draws its storyline from the books Ozma of Oz and The Marvelous Land of Oz.

Return to Oz commences approximately six months after Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) has returned from Oz.  She lives with her Auntie Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry and still has Toto as her faithful pet dog.  The repercussions from the tornado which ruined the farm in the first film are still being felt.  Her uncle is trying to complete a new barn in time for the winter even as his broken leg is mending.  To complicate matters, Dorothy is constantly melancholy, fretting over what her Auntie Em considers the whimsical fantasies of a young girl while ignoring the reality of the family's plight.  Auntie Em is concerned enough about Dorothy's fixation upon Oz that she decides to bring Dorothy to a local physician.  That doctor is Dr. Worley, a specialist who has embraced the new technological wonder of electricity.  He has used it to develop a new technique of shock therapy with which he hopes to remedy the ailments and mental illnesses of his patients.

Auntie Em leaves the frightened Dorothy in the doctor's care overnight.  But as night falls, a lightning storm interrupts Dorothy's first shock therapy session.  While the doctor and his staff attend to the generators, a mysterious girl appears and helps Dorothy to escape from the repressive environs of the doctor's office.  In their haste, both girls run into the storm and get washed away by a raging river into the night.  When the morning arrives, Dorothy awakens to find herself alone on a floating raft with a chicken.  They are decidedly not in Kansas anymore.

In fact, the storm has magically brought Dorothy back to Oz, but it is not the same lovely world that she remembered.  Oz is now seemingly devoid of inhabitants, and the Yellow Brick Road lies shattered and partially overgrown with weeds.  Dorothy retraces its broken trail hopefully back to the Emerald City but finds the city ravaged and empty, its sparkling gemstones stolen and its people frozen in a vast gallery of stone statues.  Everywhere, this is an eerie sensation of unseen sorcery in the air.

Dorothy has yet to meet anyone on her journeys, but she is not really alone.  Her progress is monitored by shadowy creatures of earth and stone.  The trickling echoes and distant cackles of laughter through the Emerald City hint at the presence of further dangerous stalkers.  In fact, the Emerald City is no longer ruled by Dorothy's good friend, the Scarecrow, but rather by the mysterious Princess Mombi.  Sooner or later, Dorothy must confront this Princess Mombi to discover what fate has befallen her friends and the Emerald City.  And once again, it will be up to Dorothy to save Oz, albeit without the assistance of any Good Witches or Munchkins.

Fortunately, Dorothy will have new friends to help her.  This time around, instead of Toto, Dorothy's pet companion is Billina, a chicken from her family farm which has acquired the gift of speech.  Dorothy will also meet new companions in Oz, too, including Tik Tok (the "Royal Army of Oz"), Jack Pumpkinhead (a stickman with, well, a pumpkin for a head), and the Gump (a flying sofa-thing...you have to see it to believe it).  In a nod towards the first film (in which many of the Kansas characters had counterparts in Oz), the doctor and his staff also re-appear in a more ominous transformations in Oz.  Jean Marsh, who plays the doctor's Nurse Wilson, also portrays Princess Mombi.  Nicol Williamson (who was the effervescent Merlin in Excalibur) portrays Dr. Worley and another enchanter, this time the nefarious Nome King, a subterranean monarch with command over earth and stone.

As for Dorothy's old friends, fear not!  The Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man will all make brief appearances eventually in Return to Oz, although their designs are based upon the original illustrations for the Oz stories, not the vaudeville costumes of The Wizard of Oz.  While this may confuse some fans of the first film, it was a courageous decision by the filmmakers in order to remain faithful in spirit to the original tales.  On a related note, near the film's conclusion, there are brief glimpses of many other Oz characters from later books in the series, too.

Return to Oz showcases many location shots, as opposed to the staged and studio shots of the first film.  The opening and ending sequences have a rustic, turn-of-the-century feel and do a fine job of anchoring the storyline in a realistic setting.  Some sequences in Return to Oz are actually quite frightening, though.  The decor of Princess Mombi's palace is sparklingly beautiful yet rather nightmarishly surreal; it is reminiscent of Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast.  The climatic sequence in the mountain realm of the Nome King is also quite gripping.  The cramped, dark, and twisted caverns of his kingdom are almost prescient of scenes from the decidedly not-for-children space thriller Aliens.  It is really that intense.  Perhaps the precocious youth of today's culture will not be perturbed by Return to Oz, but in a more innocent time, these scenes probably would have scared the wits out of many children.

But for all the care that went into the design and appearance of the film, its success hinges upon the audience's acceptance of character of Dorothy Gale.  Who would wish the unenviable task of following in Judy Garland's ruby slippers?  Again, the filmmakers decided to be faithful to the original vision of the Baum tales and chose an actress of Dorothy's age in the books - Fairuza Balk.  This was her first starring role in a feature film, and Fairuza Balk was only age nine when she was cast out of many hundreds of children who auditioned for the role.  It is all the more amazing how comfortably she interacts with the other characters in the film, especially since Jack Pumpkinhead, the Gump, and Billina are almost entirely portrayed (quite realistically, too!) by animatronics robots.  Fairuza Balk is in practically every scene, and while she doesn't sing or dance, she creates an absolutely believable and charismatic young Dorothy.

Interestingly, the repercussions of Dorothy's actions in the first film have a great deal to do with the current mysterious state of the land of Oz.  Those actions tie the two films together and also lend an ambivalent nature to the film that deepens its resonance and elevates the story beyond a simple good-vs.-bad scenario.  Similarly, there is a darkly psychological undercurrent throughout the film with its dissociative imagery (the fugue state or the multiple personality state being most evident in the film).  Much of this symbolism will certainly fly right over the heads of most viewers, but awareness of its existence in the film does add a more intriguing twist to the tale.

In the end, Return to Oz, while technically a sequel, cannot be judged next to The Wizard of Oz, for the films are too fundamentally different.  The Wizard of Oz is a light-hearted and timeless classic of the musical genre.  Return to Oz is a surreal adventure film with darker themes and is a more mature work.  But in the test of time, Return to Oz will surely emerge from the shadow of its famous musical relation and will be recognized as a classic fantasy film in its own right.

Video **

I have no idea why Anchor Bay is releasing this Disney film.  But anyways, this disc offers an option for watching the film in either non-anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) or full-screen format (1.33:1).

For the most part, the transfer quality is fair but looks like a good VHS print rather than a DVD-quality transfer.  Colors are bright with good clarity, although the image can be mildly soft at times.  The source material could have used a lot of clean-up work, though, as the film has a large amount of dust and debris, particularly in the opening reel.  This improves somewhat as the story progresses.  While some of the special effects are a bit dated (the matted work and the blue screen/processed shots in particular), the film still does a fine job of creating the illusion of the land of Oz.  The animatronics work is simply spectacular, which is not surprising considering the huge production budget of the film.  A lot of love and craft went into the art design of the film, and much of that is appreciable on-screen.  Alas, it is a shame that the transfer only does an average job of bringing these visuals to DVD.

Audio *** 1/2

This is where the DVD truly shines!  Return to Oz is presented in Dolby Digital surround 5.1.  The audio is newly remastered from its original Dolby stereo with split surrounds.   The overall effect is quite immersing, particularly during a storm sequence early in the film, and sounds very impressive for such a modest DVD.

Features *

There isn't much here.  The introduction is over in a flash, and an 11-minute interview with Fairuza Balk, in which she talks in detail about the film's production, is too short.  Apparently, the presence of both widescreen and full-frame versions of the film on the DVD left little room for much else.

Summary:

Return to Oz is one of the lost gems of the fantasy genre.  It is a heartfelt yet adventurous tale, lovingly-crafted and beautiful to behold.  It may not be a musical, but it is still far superior to most of what passes for children's films nowadays, fantasy or not.  Highly recommended for the entire family!