It could be seen through the window of a local video store. It’s VHS cover had a whitish-bluish tint, a sign that the Sun had stolen its colors. After entering the store, the video was located on the right-hand side of an incoming customer’s view. When they made that turn and walked through the first aisle, it could be seen front and center on the shelf. For someone who has never heard of this movie, but had seen its predecessor, they will have so many questions flooding their mind. Why is Dorothy wearing whitish-silvery shoes instead her iconic ruby-red slippers? Why has Toto been replaced with a chicken? Why do the pictures on the back of the VHS cover appear so creepy? These questions may be so overpowering, that the movie could be passed over for another, less odd-looking film. Long after the video store closed its doors, the movie in our discussion has gained a notorious reputation. Whether or not that’s a good thing is open for debate. What reputation has this film garnered? It has been known as one of the creepiest children’s/family-friendly films of all time. If you haven’t guessed already, that film is none other than Return to Oz.
Things I liked about the film:
The acting: When an actor or actress accepts a role that was made famous by another actor or actress, there’s a good chance that comparisons in acting performances will be made. However, that actor or actress could end up portraying that character so well, that they may bring something new to the role. This is the case for Fairuza Balk, who took on the role of Dorothy. What’s so great about her performance is how it wasn’t an impersonation of Judy Garland’s performance. Instead, Fairuza captured the essence of Dorothy’s child-like innocence and demeanor, while bringing a haunted nature to the character. Because Return to Oz takes place six months after the tornado sent Dorothy to Oz, this character is now tainted with trauma. The beginning of the movie presents a good example of this portrayal. Even though Dorothy gets excited when talking about her “friends” from Oz, there are times when she can be seen staring at nothing in particular, like the world around her has disappeared.
The sets: This movie has some of the most magnificent sets I’ve ever seen on film! One that easily comes to mind is Princess Mombi’s castle. The room featuring mirrors wrapped in gold was just exquisite, making the scenes featuring this location appear photogenic. Other scenes were atmospheric, giving the audience the impression that the world on screen had truly come to life. When Dorothy discovers that the Yellow Brick Road has been demolished, that moment created a sense of dread about the fate of Oz. I’d also like to point out that the sets featured outside of Oz looked like an accurate replica of the story’s time-period. From the antique furniture to the machinery, everything reflected the world that The Wizard of Oz had previously established.
The use of Claymation: Claymation isn’t often incorporated into films. When it is, this can lend itself to some interesting film-making. In Return to Oz, Claymation was primarily used for rocks, the Nome King, and his mountain. This creative decision was a unique way to compensate for the limited use and quality of the special effects of the ‘80s. This particular art form did provide some unsettling moments for the protagonists. In some scenes, a face on a red stone background can be seen talking to the Nome King, who is off-screen. When Dorothy and her friends arrive at the Nome King’s mountain, the environment is dark and grey. Little color and light can be seen when the Nome King is around. These examples prove that Claymation can help enhance a film’s tone and a scene’s mood.
References to the predecessor: Return to Oz is the sequel to The Wizard of Oz. I was pleasantly surprised to see that this story made an effort to reference the movie that came before it. For one thing, the tornado that was featured in the previous film is the cause of Dorothy’s trauma. Characters from the predecessor make their appearances, such as Toto and the Cowardly Lion. Familiar places are visited, like the Emerald City and even Dorothy’s house that fell in Oz. Whenever a new place, person, or situation was introduced in the story, Dorothy would admit that she doesn’t remember them or hasn’t heard of them before. All of these things helped the story keep a sense of continuity.
What I didn’t like about the film:
Limited or no screen-time for beloved characters: As I just mentioned, characters from the previous film make an appearance in Return to Oz. However, they’re only on screen for a limited amount of time. Because the Nome King turned the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion into stone, they are frozen in place for most of the film. Since the Scarecrow was kidnapped by the Nome King himself, he didn’t appear in the movie until the climax. As for Glinda, the Munchkins, and the Flying Monkeys, they are nowhere to be found. This decision was probably made to let new characters shine and find their own place in the story. But I don’t think this should have been done at the expense of the previous film’s characters.
Some damaging messages: Another thing that I’ve talked about was Dorothy becoming traumatized by the tornado from the previous film. In an effort to help her move forward from the trauma, Auntie Em and Uncle Henry think it’s a good idea to take Dorothy to a psychiatric hospital where she is scheduled to receive electroshock therapy. I understand that this part of the story represents a belief from the late 1800s to early 1900s. However, presenting this idea to an audience in the mid ‘80s or today could give people the wrong message. This message could be interpreted as how not utilizing the power of imagination and make-believe to help traumatized individuals, especially traumatized children, is a good idea. Another scene where the message could be misinterpreted happens at the end of the movie. Princess Ozma tells Dorothy that she can go back to Oz whenever she wants, as long as she keeps it a secret. Messages like holding back on creativity will help one become “normal” and bottling up ideas and feelings is accepted could also be damaging. Prior to the release of Return to Oz, Disney has been known for promoting creativity. They also have incorporated important themes into their stories, such as honesty and respect. I think that the creative team behind this film should have taken a stance on how imagination and make-believe should be a complimentary component of someone’s journey through healing from a traumatic situation.
My overall impression:
The story from this review’s introduction is my story of how this movie came into my life. Because of something so simple as a VHS cover, I passed on the opportunity to watch this film. Fortunately, because of the Wizard of Oz Blogathon, I was granted that second chance to experience what this movie had to offer. Prior to watching Return to Oz, I had heard about its reputation on countless occasions. Curious enough to find out the truth for myself, I volunteered to review the film for the Blogathon. While there are unsettling moments, they never overshadowed my enjoyment of the movie. In fact, this film was a better sequel than I ever expected! Now that I have finally seen Return to Oz, I feel that, over the years, it has been judged unfairly, to a certain extent. I’m not denying that this movie has things about it that could frighten children. But let’s not forget that Disney films and even the original, The Wizard of Oz, had scary elements to them as well. The idea of someone’s house easily falling on anyone is a terrifying thought. The Wicked Witch of the West had a very unsettling presence throughout The Wizard of Oz. The first Disney animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was so terrifying for some young audience members, that employees at Radio City Music Hall had to change the upholstery on the chairs because of how the children reacted to the scene where Snow White is alone in the forest. My experience of watching Return to Oz shows that you never know what’s in store until you look past the VHS cover.
Overall score: 8.2 out of 10
Have you ever seen Return to Oz? What’s the creepiest children’s/family-friendly film you’ve ever watched? Please tell me in the comment section!
Have fun in Oz!