The 1985 film, Return to Oz, induced terror in me the first time I saw it. This was nothing like the happy Judy Garland musical that my grandparents loved and played during my visits. Return to Oz explored a dark world where little Dorothy narrowly escapes electroshock therapy at a sinister asylum only to wake up in a more terrifying Land of Oz. Emerald City’s citizens have been turned into stone and the rightful leader, Scarecrow, has been kidnapped by the evil Nome King.
In this Oz, she is hunted by the creepy wheelers (these guys haunted me in my youthful slumbers) who must capture her for Princess Mombi. Princess Mombi is a nightmare to behold. She has removed all of the beautiful girls’ heads and wears them according to her mood. She works for the Nome King who plans on destroying Dorothy and her companions in an attempt to become human and rule Oz. Dorothy’s companions lean more towards the grotesque than the cute characters from the 1939 musical. First, there’s Tik-Tok, a steampunk-ish wind-up soldier that has the ability to remain conscious without movement. Then there’s Jack Pumkinhead, who fears his head will rot before he has the chance to really live. Lastly, the Gump is made up of an amalgamation of inanimate objects brought to life by Mombi’s magical life powder. Dorothy and her macabre misfits go on a journey to defeat the Nome King and save Oz and the Scarecrow.
While Return to Oz is seen by many to be an inferior film to the original, I believe this is unjust. It currently has a 53% on Rotten Tomatoes. The poor reception of the film is largely due to the beloved 1939 musical. Despite that Return to Oz is set to take place six months after the tornado took Dorothy to Oz, the film has a completely different aesthetic and tone and should be viewed as a unique film rather than a sequel to the Wizard of Oz. Return to Oz created a nightmarish world that was a closer reflection to the one in L. Frank Baum’s books. It’s actually surprising that Disney created such a dark film, but I love this Oz. I continue to love it more in my adulthood than I do the happy, singing Oz that I watched with my grandparents. The attention to detail in set and costume design is astounding and the special effects were ahead of its time. This is reflected in the 28 million dollar budget. Unfortunately, the film only grossed less than half of that at the theatres.
Despite its poor performance and reviews, Return to Oz has gained its fans. I am one of them. I highly recommend this film to anyone who enjoys dark fantasies. I think to really enjoy this film you need to view it as its own film that’s completely removed from the original Wizard of Oz’s universe.