It’s time to talk about one of Disney’s most underrated classics, an unofficial sequel to the beloved 1939 classic The Wizard Of Oz. Return to Oz was the longest live-action sequel gap at 46 years, only recently beaten by Mary Poppins Returns at 54 years.
This film is an adaptation of the second and third books in L. Frank Baum’s series The Marvelous Land Of Oz and Ozma Of Oz. At the time of its release it was panned for being too dark when compared to the original, but has since grown in popularity reaching cult status.
Six months since Dorothy has been back from Oz, she’s been suffering sleepless nights, and Auntie Em is worried that she might need to send her to a clinic. When the doctors attempt a dangerous experiment on her, Dorothy escapes during a storm. She ultimately finds herself back in Oz, but everything has changed for the worse.
The yellow brick road is destroyed, the Emerald City is in ruins, residents including the Tin-Man and the Cowardly Lion have been turned into stone, and the Scarecrow is missing.
She discovers that Oz has been taken over by the evil Nome King with the aid of Princess Mombi and her Wheelers.
It’s very difficult to say if it’s a sequel to the original film because of how different it is. The tone is less colourful and grittier, the location and character designs look completely different, and it’s not a musical. Also Dorothy has grown down as she’s played by a 10 year old Fairuza Balk, while Judy Garland was 16 when she played the role.
Also, Dorothy mentions things about Oz that were established in the first book but not in the film, like the Tin-Man’s origins and the deadly desert. References to the original film are there however, such as the inclusion of the ruby slippers (which were silver in the books) and characters in Kansas being parallels to characters in Oz and played by the same actors. So you can look at as both a loose sequel to the original film and the original book, but best of all it works as film in its own right.
The film establishes previous events well enough for audiences who have no prior knowledge of the Oz series and there are new characters introduced and the story is well contained.
Fairuza Balk was fantastic as Dorothy, very easy to like able to carry the film with at least 95% of screen time. Dorothy is a more interesting character and a stronger protagonist this time, having to deal with confusion of reality and fantasy, her devastation at how Oz has turned out, and her quest to save Oz and her friends.
Dorothy is aided by new sidekicks: Billina a talking hen, Tik-Tok a mechanical man (who is by far the best character), Jack Pumpkinhead (who I’m willing to bet served as the main inspiration for Jack Skellington), and The Gump, a green deer-head attached to a flying sofa.
The villains are pretty scary, even more so than the Wicked Witch of the West, and with even more depth. Princess Mombi is a witch who resides in her own kingdom in the ruins of the Emerald City, who has the ability to swap her own head with 30 others she’s stolen from beautiful women of Oz. She's played effectively by Jean Marsh, who just chills you to the bone when she’s on screen in her duo role of Mombi and Nurse Wilson in Kansas.
The film builds up the Nome King until the third act and it’s worth it as is a great villain with a genuine motive for doing what he’s done and the method to how he achieved it is such a great revelation.
I also love his interaction with Dorothy; he doesn’t just want to defeat her, he wants to play her at her own game and he’s having fun doing so. Nicol Williamson is fantastic in the role, clearly enjoying himself in the role but also has a lot of subtleties that its very difficult to know what he’ll do next.
The practical effects are amazing and still hold up today far more than a lot of recent CGI. The Nome King is made of rock and we see him different forms, which were achieved with stop-motion, rotoscope and make-up, and every form is just as amazing to look as the other.
Tik-Tok was achieved with a gymnast operating upside-down inside of him, which is amazing as it allowed Fairuza Balk to actually interact with something to make her reactions more authentic.
The music is beautiful with the use of violins, creating all the necessary emotions the scenes. I recommend listening to the soundtrack you can feel the tensions and also the triumphs.
There is no denying this film maybe too scary for some children; there are several creepy moments. The climax is so intense it looks like it takes place in hell. I saw this film when I was six years old and I have to admit I had to cover my eyes at a lot of these moments. However, I had to keep re-watching it because I still loved Dorothy and I enjoyed her quest, that I was constantly engaged despite the scary moments.
I think most children will be fine watching this, the scary moments never become too violent and there is never any blood or anything sexual. It’s all well balanced with the fun characters and imaginative fantasy elements. So I believe a lot of children will appreciate it because it will be challenging for them, that’s why a lot of them like being scared like go out for Halloween.
So I highly recommend watching this film, giving it the life it deserves regardless of what film it’s a sequel to. It’s a beautifully creepy fantasy to be enjoyed by the whole family.
Written by Jack Parish