Friday, April 12, 2013

Movies You May Have Missed - "Return to Oz" 1985

Everyone flocking to The Great and Powerful Oz this year may have caught some serious Oz fever. If that's the case, check out Return to Oz, the darkest children's film of all time. No, it doesn't star a questionable heartthrob like James Franco, but it does feature the more compelling acting chops of 9-year-old Fairuza Balk, as an innocent but game-for-anything Dorothy.

Marketed as a sequel to MGM's classic Wizard of Oz (46 years in the making!), this film tanked at the box office, but picked up followers when it was released on video. I myself avoided it for nearly three decades, thinking it looked creepy and morose. Also, I was not young enough when it was released to see it in theaters. Lucky me! An overly imaginative child, I would have been thoroughly scarred by the experience. Especially after having watched Judy Garland's Dorothy every year since I was conscious of doing so. I would have found this film too spooky to count as a true Oz experience.

But I have come to the conclusion that although I'll always love Garland's lovely performance and voice, Balk is the more credible Dorothy. Only an actual child, and not a teen made up as a child, could truly believe in the fantastic creatures and situations in this strange, twisted alternative universe. It's a fantasy world that continues to reflect fearful adult doings as well as mundane existence down on the farm. First and last-time director, Walter Murch, digs deep, creating a horror-fairytale hybrid that audiences weren't able to cope with in 1984. But like its obvious influence, The Night of the Hunter (from another one-shot director, Richard Laughton), it's going where no other children's film has gone.

Based on two Oz books ("The Marvelous Land of Oz, "Ozma of Oz"), there's enough rich visual Oz lore here for multiple viewings. I never read the series—as a library-addicted child, I was caught up in Middle Earth, Earthsea and Prydain. And in a way, MGM made Oz uncool, with all the singing, dancing, and pink-clad munchkins. But you don't need to read the books to watch this film—just know that it features multiple new characters and that the holy trio of Scarecrow, Tinman and Cowardly Lion are bumped down to cameos. It's for the best. The puppets of these former Oz stars are not very compelling, and in the case of the Scarecrow—nearly terrifying. This was due to budget constraints and it probably alienated a lot of fans who were looking for continuing characters. This includes Toto, who's replaced by Billina, a no-nonsense talking chicken with practical Midwestern values. I like Billina. She adds balance to the bad trip going on all around her.

Murch, an accomplished editor (Apocalypse Now, Godfather Part II, The English Patient), knows how to wow with scenery and tension. Much of Return to Oz is meant to be suspenseful. And much of it hinges on Balk's performance. Although this version makes Oz an actual place and not a dream, with its own reality, it's still very much an escape from Dorothy's lonely life of toil on the farm with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. Characters repeat themselves from her conscious life to her fantasy world, as in the MGM film, in frightening, genuinely threatening ways. She meets adversity with the wide-eyed openness of childhood, simply thinking of solutions in dream-logic fashion while comforting her flailing companions with a maternal, "It can't be helped!" philosophy. Pretty complex.

What follows will spoil the movie for you if you've never seen it. So if you plan on it, turn away now! Otherwise, let's revisit the genuine freakishness that is Return to Oz.

Nothing opens a children's film like a visit to the insane asylum! After her bout with the tornado, Dorothy suffers from acute insomnia and she keeps going on about this Oz place. So Aunt Em, who's already dealing with PTSD-suffering Uncle Henry, and who could really use more help around the farm, brings Dorothy to a questionable hospital for a cure. Dr. Worley uses newfangled electricity to rid his patients of their delusions. He soothes Dorothy in a fatherly tone, assuring her that his magical machine won't hurt. Not at all.

Aunt Em is not entirely convinced.

Still, she leaves Dorothy for the night with the very cold Nurse Wilson, who advices Dorothy to "take a nap" in her cell-like room. Look at those bat-like sleeves.

Dorothy has found a key marked OZ and she's receiving visits, through reflective surfaces, from a sad girl with a British accent who wants to help her. But she is at the moment, abandoned by her family. Haunting.

"Would you like to go for a walk, Dorothy?" Yikes.

The dank hallways and fitzing overhead lights of a gurney-trip to the laboratory while strapped down aren't scary enough, so Murch makes sure we see Dorothy about to receive electroshock treatment. All kinds of wrong here.

I like Jean March's body language. Dorothy will travel by flash flood this time around.

A reference to Night of the Hunter, another horror-fairytale hybrid, now considered a favorite classic film among many.

Something is very wrong with Oz infrastructure. Just look at this yellow brick road. It gets worse.

Welcome to the Emerald City!

It's been pointed out by fans that Fairuza Balk's line readings are quite lyrical in nature, referencing Judy Garland's mellifluous tones. I like how she asks questions and wonders aloud throughout the film. She was and is a very sharp actress with a lot of presence who I wish worked more in the mainstream. What is a wheeler anyway?

Sorry I asked.

With the Emerald City seemingly overrun by crystal-meth addicts, Dorothy turns to Princess Mombi for answers. The wardrobe wing of Mombi's  new-money cokehead palace may surprise you.

Jesus Christ!

Thank God for my favorite new friend of Dorothy, Tik-Tok, voiced in a militaristic Belgium-like accent by Sean Barrett, and made mobile by a gymnast who was placed upside-down and backwards in the costume, walking on his hands with his feet curled overhead. I told you this was part horror film. Tik-Tok is very funny and endearing though, as the "army of Oz" who experiences paralysis and dementia without a proper winding-up.

Jack Pumpkinhead on the other hand, is terrifying to behold and keeps telling Dorothy he's not even supposed to be alive. Tall and skeletal, he doesn't look like anything that should be alive, so that's in keeping with the laws of physics. He's voiced very gently by Brian Henson. Otherwise, he would be too scary to be a friend. I admit that one of the reasons I stayed away from this film were the posters featuring Jack Pumpkinhead.

Nicol Williamson, last seen as Dr. Worley, returns to the scene as the Nome King. He's fatherly and threatening all at once. A great performance.

The Nome King is every insane, power-mad authority figure you've ever been up against. Dorothy quickly finds out there's no reasoning with him and no hope of fair treatment. Children will understand this situation very well.

All you can do is try not to make him mad, but ultimately, he always gets mad.

If your kid has managed to make it this far into the movie without a nervous breakdown, they're home free. Things quickly start coming together, due to the Nome King's insatiable covetous nature. A lesson for hoarders, with great animation too.

Balk passed out during the big ceremony scene, which was filmed on a soundstage with hundreds of extras in 100+-degree heat. She does look a little sweaty and peaked here. But check out the Scarecrow with his immobile expression—Mary, Mother of God. He moves like a floppy creature as well, just to make him even creepier. A missed opportunity, since Dorothy's entire quest is based on saving him.

Jean Marsh as Mombi, ladies and gentlemen...

Partings are once again sweet sorrow, even for Ozma, Queen of Oz. A melancholy and intensely dark adventure, but childhood can be like that sometimes.


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