I have three vivid memories of watching Return to Oz as a child: once at school, once at a cabin in the woods, and once at my cousin’s house. I remember being sort of scared each time, but I also remember an increasing exhilaration and being totally mesmerized each time I saw it. I was a weird kid. Re-watching the film this week, however, I was mostly just scared. How is this even children’s movie? Within the first ten minutes, a wife is disgusted with her lay-about husband who isn’t rebuilding the family hovel. A ten-year-old girl can’t sleep, a chicken is threatened to lay eggs or die, and said ten-year-old is sent to a clinic for electroshock therapy only to escape and fall into a river during a lightening storm. Let’s not be fooled, dear readers. Even at a PG rating, this is no kids’ movie. Also, it’s hardly a sequel. There are elements that echo The Wizard of Oz, and by “echo“ I mean the fading cries of a lost childhood, but to really see the beauty (yes, beauty) of Return to Oz, director Walter Murch’s only feature film, one must try and see it for what it truly is, a dark comedy of fantastical errors.
But first, we simply can’t ignore the elephant-of-a-different color in the room. Because I’m a living, breathing human being, The Wizard of Oz takes up around 9 percent of my waking consciousness. I can’t get through the day without tripping over references to MGM’s 1939 ultra-classic. There was even a tribute (its millionth) at the Oscars this past Sunday. References sprout up in pop culture all day, every day, and frankly I’m getting sick of it. Return to Oz is a well-deserved rebuke of the Oz-haze American culture has been under since Dorothy dropped a house on the Wicked Witch of the East, taking the sugary mystique of The Wizard of Oz and twisting its nipples into kinky, purple submission. It hurts so bad, yet it’s intriguing and strangely enjoyable.
But, let’s return to Oz. See what I did there? It’s been about six months since the dreaded twister schlepped Dorothy Gale over the rainbow. As you know, with the help of her stolen ruby slippers, she finally returns to the splendor of the Kansas plains. Back home, however, her only real friend is a chicken named Billina. Toto’s been very stand-offish since they got back. Also, she’s having trouble sleeping. That’s when the over-burdened Aunt Em and Uncle Henry decide to give her electroshock therapy, which is clearly the only option.
Alone in her cell at the clinic, Dorothy hears the cries and screams of other patients (foreshadowing the taunts of the wheelers) and the piercing creaks and squeaks of a stretcher’s rusty wheels (again foreshadowing the wheelers.) Her lunch box, which is really just a bucket, is taken from her by Nurse Wilson, who is clad head-to-toe in Victorian black, referencing the original Wicked Witch of the West. Don’t worry about Dorothy’s lunch box being confiscated, though. She finds a tree ripe with them once she gets to Oz and travails the deadly desert which turns any living thing that touches it to sand. The machine administering her electro-therapy is a face, foreshadowing TikTok, Oz’s one-robot army. The vapid ghost girl who appears in Dorothy’s cell to tell her how to escape is holding a jack-o-lantern for no real reason other than to foreshadow Jack the Pumpkinhead who appears later in the movie.
With all these plot seeds planted, all that’s needed is a natural disaster to get Dorothy to Oz. Cue the electrical storm! One lightening strike and a chase through the woods later, Dorothy and the vapid girl ghost fall into a river and survive only by the grace of the floating chicken coup they find in the raging rapids. Dorothy passes out only to awaken in Oz! Tada! Billina, the aforementioned Chicken, has replaced the vapid ghost girl and can now talk, turning into a wise-cracking, sassy sidekick with lines like, “Glad it isn’t fried chicken,” and, “All this way to see a bunch of stiffs.” You can rewatch the movie yourself for the contexts of those gags, which, honestly, are pretty funny.
Dorothy finds her way out of the deadly desert, gets her lunch box from the lunch-box tree (Billina: “What happened to breakfast?”), and she discovers her aunt and uncle’s house the original twister swept away. But, this is no longer Munchkinland. This is a forest, an actual, on-location forest. No more popping technicolor or lolly-pop guilds, just an empty, broken-down house in the middle of the woods. It’s not unlike The Blair Witch Project. Anyway, the yellow brick road has been turned to rubble, and all Dorothy wants at this point is to see the Scarecrow, the Tinman and the Cowardly Lion. Following what’s left of the yellow brick road, she finds herself in the ruins of the Emerald City. Here’s where it begins to really sink in for the viewer. Everything you loved about The Wizard of Oz has been literally destroyed. Return to Oz should have been called The Wizard of Was. It’s in the Emerald City where we meet the Wheelers.
Ah, the Wheelers, those bastions of childhood nightmares. I remember them being scarier. Don’t get me wrong, they’re frightening as hell, but their their costumes are straight out of Solid Gold. Without the wheels they wouldn’t look out of place at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. That said, they still say things like, “You have to come out sooner or later. And when you do, we’ll tear you into little pieces and throw you in the Deadly Dessert.” Charming. To escape the Wheelers, Dorothy hides in an old storage room where she meets TikTok, the one-robot army of Oz. He’s a kind, steam-punky pile of spheres with no heart and an obligation to protect Dorothy. Of course, he can’t, and they end up in a castle with a headless woman.
Princess Mombi is her name, and decapitating beautiful women is her game. Truly, her big thing is that she has a gallery of heads she interchanges depending on her mood. She’s absolutely terrifying, and her original head (in cabinet 31) is actually Nurse Wilson from the electroshock clinic, played the divine Jean Marsh. Well, Princess Mombi traps Dorothy, Billina, and TikTok in her attic, where she keeps all her antiques. While up there, Dorothy gets really pale and hungry and ends up having sex with her brother. Sorry, wrong movie. More believably, Dorothy meets a stick man with a pumpkin for a head who calls her Mom. To escape, they tie a taxidermy moose head to a sofa, attach to it some palm fronds, and, using Mombi’s powder of life, fly out of the tower and across the Deadly Desert to the mountain palace of the Gnome King.
The Gnome King is angry. You’d be angry too if you were called the Gnome King and there wasn’t a single gnome to be found in all of Oz. He’s had his eye on Dorothy since she arrived, proving that in Return to Oz the hills literally have eyes. The Gnome King, a man made of the mountain rock, is afraid of Billina the chicken, of course, but since she’s hiding out in Jack’s pumpkin head, the rock giant has the all-clear to torment Dorothy with no fear. Dorothy discovers that the Gnome King is responsible for destroying the Emerald City, claiming the emeralds therein really belonged to him. He also has taken the Scarecrow and turned him into a knickknack in his room of curiosities and ornaments. All the villains in this movie are obsessed with objet d’art. In Saw-like fashion, the Gnome King wants to play a game with Dorothy. She has three chances to choose which knickknack is the Scarecrow. If she guesses wrong, she too will be turned into a knickknack. Before she guesses, however, the Gnome King, who reveals he’s in possession of the ruby slippers, offers her the chance to go home and forget everything about Oz. Dorothy, being a ten-year-old girl from the Kansas sticks, gallantly decides to play the king’s game even though it might turn her into a tchotchke imprisoned under a mountain for the rest of time. Given the options, I can’t say I blame her. Naturally, she chooses correctly, the Gnome King freaks out, and Billina saves the day by laying an egg in the Gnome King’s mouth. The vapid ghost girl reappears back in the emerald city, amongst all the celebrations, and reclaims her seat as Ozma, Queen of Oz. With the help of the ruby slippers, which now adorn Queen Ozma’s tootsies, Dorothy returns home to the moderate relief of the Kansas-folk.
While completely insane and totally dismissive of the 1939, beloved classic, Return to Oz, with the right amount of ironic distance, is still a 100% enjoyable experience. Yes, the themes are helter-skleter. Is it about home? Is it about believing in yourself? Is it about friendship? Is it about how the smallest of things (like, an egg) can save the day? Who knows? Who cares? The cinematography is epic, evoking the eerie fantasy-scapes of other eighties classics like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. The sound-editing is masterful. Then again, director Walter Murch was first and foremost a sound engineer. Fairuza Balk, whom I’m convinced basically played the same character with PTSD in The Craft, is actually pretty believable as a ten-year-old able to dodge all the movie’s mishegas. While maybe not able to truly hold up to the magic I saw in it as a child, Return to Oz is still a wild ride and a fun time. The next time you and your friends want to take a trip down memory lane and still get a laugh, pick up this cult classic. And let’s face it, a lunch-box tree would be pretty awesome.