Welcome back to 80s Bits, the weekly column in which we explore the best and worst of the Decade of Shame. With guest writers, hidden gems and more, it’s truly, truly, truly outrageous.
Return to Oz (1985), directed by Walter Munch, is the unofficial Disney sequel to the 1939 all-time classic history changing The Wizard of Oz. Return to Oz is based on Ozma Of Oz, the third story in the L. Frank Baum Oz book series. Almost 50 years on from the Victor Fleming original, this film in no way matches its cinematic impact but does feed the question of what happened to Dorothy and the mythical creatures after she returned to Kansas. Dorothy’s return to the magical land in this film is portrayed in a dark and horror based light, which is created by the introduction of sinister characters and underlying themes of insomnia, depression and mental illness. For this reason this children’s fantasy is perhaps not as suitable for young kids as one would expect.
Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) is taken to an institution after suffering from insomnia and terrors following her returning from the Land of Oz. She is convinced that something is not right in her parallel world and that she is being called back to help. Running from her immediate horrors she escapes reality back into a land where lunch pails grow on tree and chickens can talk. Dorothy retraces her steps down the not-so-yellow brick road back to the Emerald City to save the world and all living creatures from being turned completely into stone.
As with the original Wizard of Oz, the characters that Dorothy meets in the fictitious land are reflections of people in her Kansas life. Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson) is transformed into the dominating, power hungry Nome King who grows with each living creature turned into inanimate objects. Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh) is imagined as the evil Mombi who, with The Nome King and her collection of numerous beautiful heads, plan to rule Oz. Dorothy challenges these villains with Tick Tok, a mechanical man that runs on clockwork that learns how to feel, and Jack Pumpkinhead, a scatterbrain creation originally made to scare the witch Mombi. Together with The Gump, a moose head tied to a couch with palm leaves as wings, and Billina the chicken, they conquer The Nome King and save Oz. The Scarecrow, The Tinman and The Lion all reappear as inferior depictions of the 1939 characterisations.
This film was Walter Murch’s directorial debut, only to be followed with the TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars. The majority of the legendary Murch’s film credits have been in sound and editing, which is clear through his instinctive directorial skill with a variety of impressive backgrounds and editing of sound to scenes. The larger clay animation effects used for The Nome King are particularly spectacular and effective for the mid 80s.