Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Return to Oz (1985)

Starring Fairuza Balk, Nichol Williamson, Jean Marsh
Directed by Walter Murch
Rated PG: Some Frightening Images
Based on The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum

The film opens to Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) lying awake in bed staring up at the stars. We learn from Auntie Em and Uncle Henry's late night exposition that Dorothy hasn’t been able to sleep since the tornado from “The Wizard of Oz” and can’t stop talking about Oz, which no one believes really exists. They are also considering taking Dorothy to a clinic to receive electroshock therapy. What puzzles me is why Dorothy would be unable to sleep after triumphing over evil in another world, making such strong friendships and returning home safely. I would think she’d sleep more peacefully than ever after such a happy ending, but such is not the case. We also learn that the house hasn’t been rebuilt since the tornado, the harvest has been poor, money is tight, the chickens aren’t laying eggs and Uncle Henry has hurt his leg and can’t work. Dorothy and Aunt Em’s ride to the clinic only emphasizes the gloominess of the whole situation, as they travel through a vast, empty landscape capped by an imposing gray sky. Everything in the movie thus far has been filled with dread and apprehension, and it doesn’t get much better.

Arriving at the clinic, Dorothy talks to Doctor Worley (Nichol Williamson) about her trip to Oz with such astonishing detail you really have to wonder why no one has considered that she might have actually been there. Anyway, the doctor prescribes his shock therapy and turns Dorothy over to Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh), who wears a long black dress with spiked shoulders and more buckles than Edward Scissorhands’s suit, just in case you didn’t realize you were supposed to be intimidated. Also during this time, we are shown things for the express purpose of seeing them as characters in Oz, such as when Dorothy receives a Jack-o-Lantern because “Its almost Halloween.” It would have been subtler if they said “This will become an anthropomorphic character later.”

Anyway, Dorthoy escapes with the help of a mysterious blonde girl, but gets washed away by a rushing river and finds herself back in Oz. However, this is not the Oz she remembers as Munchkinland is destroyed (even thought Dorothy’s house is still standing), the yellow brick road has fallen apart and the Emarald City has collapsed, and its citizens turned into stone by The Nome King (Nichol Williamson) and the evil witch Mombi (Jean Marsh) While evading Mombi’s soldiers, the cackling Wheelers, Dorothy gains some new friends to help her; the robot “Tick Tock”, the Scarecrow-esque Jack Pumpkinhead and the talking chicken Belinda. Eventually they are captured by Mombi and locked in a tower, but manage to make an easy escape thanks to a moose-headed flying sofa called “The Gump”. No, really.

They arrive at the land of the Nome King and plead for the city’s emeralds and the return of The Scarecrow (as he was the king of Oz apparently). The Nome King refuses to give them up and gives them a challenge. Presenting them with a room full of ornaments and the challenge to guess which one he turned the Scarecrow into. Eventually Dorothy guesses correctly, which enrages the Nome King as he turns into a giant stop motion monster threatening to devour them all, but is defeated by Belinda laying an egg in his mouth. No, really. All is restored and Dorothy learns that the blonde girl who helped her is in fact the rightful ruler of Oz, Ozma. Dorothy returns back to Kansas and for a more or less happy ending.

Everything about this movie is dull and dreary, even when we get to Oz there is no joy at all. There are no colorful landscapes, no charming characters and enjoyable elements of escapism to endure us to Oz or to their quest. Even in the end when all order is restored, there is a monotone reaction by everyone. Dorothy’s friends from the original “Wizard”; Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, appear in a cameo when all is made right, but they don’t do or say anything, and serve only to remind us of how much more enjoyable the original was to us. The scale of the barren Kansas we see at the beginning is more spacious than the sets we see in Oz which seems limited to castles or caves and lacks the scale of how big Oz really is and resulting in a discomforting claustrophoic feeling. While there is some spectacular stop motion animation for the Nome King and his rock people as well as some good animatronics for Dorothy’s new friends, it just feels like the film is exploiting the talents of these artists and craftsman to do all the heavy lifting for a movie that doesn’t hold out any hope. It reminds me of what Tick Tock said at the beginning of the film; “I have always valued my lifelessness.” That sentence seems to sum it all up.

Final Score:

Two and a Half out of Five. Lukewarm.

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