Brian Henson (voice)
RETURN TO OZ
The only film to date directed by Walter Murch, Return To Oz is a Disney-produced late sequel to the classic The Wizard Of Oz. Though it performed poorly at the box-office, it received an Oscar nomination for Visual Effects and has enjoyed a cult following since then.
Picking up soon after the original film, Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) is still living in Kansas but the farm is destroyed, her Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) are struggling financially and worried about her mental health as she keeps talking about the Land Of Oz like it's a real place. Leaving Toto behind, Em takes Dorothy to a hospital where a doctor promises to make her well using electrotherapy. Another young girl, who is a patient in the hospital, warns Dorothy about the dangers of this kind of therapy and, following a power cut, they escape together. They get lost floating down a river and Dorothy is finally transported to Oz, or rather... what's left of it.
Dorothy quickly finds that, not only is she not in Kansas anymore, but Oz is a very different place than she remembers. All the people have turned into statues, a frightening gang called The Wheelers roam the kingdom doing a (mostly) headless witch called Mombi's (Jean Marsh) bidding and Oz is ruled by the Nome King (Nicol Williamson) who has laid claim to the emeralds that made up the Emerald Kingdom. Dorothy is taken aback by what has become of her beloved magical land but, with the help of new friends Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead and the Gump, she sets out to find a solution.
It's a shame that Return To Oz didn't enjoy much success financially back in the day as director Walter Murch, who mostly worked as an editor since, might've then be inspired to work on more Oz films or more films in general. This is a surprisingly clever sequel that doesn't aim to redo a classic, instead taking this universe into a completely different direction while still, of course, keeping a good amount of magic and wonder intact. This isn't a musical, for one, the overall tone is much darker and we are closer to L. Frank Baum's vision than ever.
There are references and obvious parallels to the original film as Dorothy is facing another potentially life-threatening disaster and finds herself in Oz out of sheer desperation. But her challenges here are a lot more frightening: the electrotherapy threat, not to mention the creepy hospital she finds herself in, is very unsettling so you can definitely understand her need to lose herself in her own imagination. In Oz, however, things are just as scary and that's something she's going to have to accept and deal with. This is a film about growing-up, after all, and taking on grown-ups who might want to harm you, despite their possible good intentions.
Much has been said about how scary the film is for young viewers and, indeed, this one may prove too much for some. The witch Mombi waking up without a head, her many disembodied heads displayed behind glass cases all screaming in unison, alone should cause one or two nightmares. And The Wheelers are no help at all! But this film encourages children to face their fears and look deeper into things so they can understand and, ultimately, defeat them so the message is an important one. And the film isn't all horror, it's heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal parts as well. Dorothy's new friends are immediately lovable and their relationship feels a lot more powerful than her bond with Scarecrow etc. in the original film.
Return To Oz is an ambitious film that took on the task of following one of the greatest movies ever made and somehow, miraculously lived up to it. This is a film that kids will certainly be challenged and fascinated by but it's one that adults will have a great time dismantling and exploring as well from a completely different point-of-view. The cast here fits so well: Fairuza Balk is a revelation being a much more convincing little girl than Judy Garland, giving a natural performance with a good amount of depth to it. Nicol Williamson and Jean Marsh have the time of their lives hamming it up as the villains, the voice cast, which includes Denise Bryer, Brian Henson (Jim Henson's son), Sean Barrett and Deep Roy are simply wonderful, the puppeteering is top tier and it makes perfect sense that Henry Selick was on storyboard duties for this one seeing how inventive the shots are in this movie.
It may sound like an overstatement to say that this sequel to The Wizard Of Oz surpasses its predecessor in a lot of ways but it really isn't, though the sheer scale of the original is hard to match. Both are charming films but Return To Oz is a lot less comfy and, because of that, it engages the viewer to really think about the beauty of imagination, the idea of leaving a tough reality, whether that's the ultimate solution or not and what growing up is all about. The look of the film is not as cartoony as the original classic but it still looks great, boasts some nifty stop-motion animation, stunning practical effects and its grittier approach makes the fantasy of it all feel a lot more real.