The beloved 1939 film The Wizard of Oz clings to the public consciousness like few other films do. You’ve seen it even if you haven’t seen it — the vibrant iconography, the lovable characters, the iconic lines and the songs sung in Judy Garland’s dulcet warble. Director Walter Murch knew this when he set out to make Return to Oz (1985). He knew exactly what audiences expected and wanted from a sequel: to be transported with Dorothy Gale back to a Land of Oz still preserved in the glowing amber of musical innocence.
But that wasn’t the Oz that Murch envisioned. He had no intention of being slavishly faithful to the sugary ebullience that made the original film such an eminently popular classic. That sort of world might have been suitable for a story about a young girl who’s knocked unconscious and wakes up to find that she’s somewhere over the rainbow, but Murch wasn’t interested in retreading old territory. The story that he wanted to tell was much darker — about that same young girl whose life is violently torn away from its foundations, trying to come to terms with the idea of her own insanity. So, in order to plumb those abyssal thematic depths, Murch turned away from the temptingly warm embrace of nostalgia, and instead sought to wield the eerie and eldritch elements lurking beneath the surface of L. Frank Baum’s source material. That meant doing away with the musical numbers, draining away the Technicolor and turning what was saccharine into something more dreadful and harrowing, more nightmare than reverie.
The result is a strange, mangled beast of a film — charming, melancholic, eccentric and terrifying. Return to Oz picks up six months after the events of The Wizard of Oz, as Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) hasn’t been able to sleep since the tornado, and has been talking fixatedly about her experiences in a magical realm. Her Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) interpret tales of talking tin men, walking scarecrows and ruby slippers to be the delusions of a child whose brain has become warped and unstable. Concerned and desperate, they decide to send Dorothy away to a mental hospital, where she’ll receive a primitive form of electroshock therapy that they hope might jolt her back to the way she was before.
There’s an aching sorrow that permeates Return to Oz’s early scenes; the sorrow of a child whose particular way of perceiving and dealing with the world around her is so deeply misunderstood that’s she’s made to feel like she’s crazy. It’s not that everybody actively wants to do her harm — it’s just that even good adults seem deaf to the meaning of her words. The fact that Aunt Em obviously means well makes it all the more upsetting to see how unequivocally she dismisses Dorothy’s stories of Oz, a place replete with friendship and adventure, as malignant obsessions that need to be purged. For some reason, nobody can seem to engage with the imagination of a little girl whose home was destroyed, and who might find genuine solace in a conjured inner world.
In Return to Oz, Dorothy’s departure for the clinic serves only to further exacerbate her sense of wrenching displacement. Just when she most needs to be supported in a reassuring, sympathetic environment, she’s ripped away from home and thrust into the indifferent dominion of pseudoscientific practitioners. The sight of Dorothy’s dog Toto being left behind on the farm, forlornly howling as his companion is gradually swallowed by autumnal mist, is among Return to Oz’s most distressing images, instructing viewers to abandon any suppositions of cosy familiarity. That distress is doubled as Dorothy looks out of her window at the asylum to watch Aunt Em riding away, leaving her alone and at the mercy of towering, stony-faced strangers. Each new separation deepens the bleakness of Dorothy’s world. Even something as seemingly trivial as her lunch pail being prised from her hands feels like part of her selfhood being lacerated. She’s been separated from her family, her animal companion and now even the smallest of comforts. All that Dorothy has left is her mind, and even that’s in jeopardy during Return to Oz.
Once Dorothy is utterly isolated, Return to Oz begins to feel less like children’s fantasy, and more like science-fiction horror. The asylum is a frigid and forbidding place, dreary and decaying, awash with muted greens, grays and browns. Metallic screeching and the tortured screams of patients echo through the gloomy, funereal corridors. In preparation for her therapy, Dorothy is strapped down to a gurney by a nurse who barely seems human — staring with impassive eyes, speaking in stern monotone, like an uncanny automaton. The electroshock machine itself is a menacing contraption; a flickering, buzzing mishmash of light bulbs, dials and levers, arranged in a manner that bears a cartoonish resemblance to a human face. Then, just as the shock treatment is about to be administered, a lightning storm causes a power outage. In the ensuing confusion, Dorothy is freed from her bonds by a mysterious little girl, with whom she flees into the night.
Waking up in Oz, Dorothy is immediately confronted by a realm that’s become not only more desolate since her last visit, but also grimmer and more grotesque. Her very first challenge is to navigate the Deadly Desert, which turns every living thing that it touches to sand. Then, in the obliterated Emerald City, where all of Dorothy’s old friends have been turned to stone, she has to evade a horde of Wheelers — ghastly tangles of metal and flesh, like humans spliced with the remnants of a car crash. They’re deformed, cackling creatures, with freakishly long limbs, wheels where their hands and feet should be, and masks frozen in monstrous expressions. Return to Oz is practically Cronenberg for kids.
The Wheelers are the minions of Princess Mombi, an enchantress who decapitates women and keeps their severed heads in glass cabinets, ready to be worn interchangeably depending on her mood. Mombi’s original head, Dorothy discovers, is that of the sinister nurse at the clinic, and one of the Wheelers wears the face of the nurse’s equally frightening assistant.
And then there’s the Nome King, a diabolical entity made entirely of stone, who has stolen all of the emeralds from the Emerald City, petrified its citizens and is holding Dorothy’s old friend the Scarecrow captive. His ultimate objective, it seems, is to become completely human himself by absorbing the life force of every other living being in Oz — and as he sheds more and more of his mountainous form in Return to Oz, his face becomes recognisable as that of the doctor in charge of Dorothy’s treatment.
It’s through these moments of horror, in which the partition between reality and fantasy is dissipated, that this more ominous Land of Oz reveals its nature and purpose. Oz isn’t more dismal this time around because Dorothy’s neural pathways have somehow been harmfully rewired by trauma — it’s because of the sheer incompetence of the adults in her life, well intentioned or otherwise, who can’t seem to understand or accommodate her own idiosyncratic way of dealing with complicated feelings. How else is a child meant to respond to being alienated and treated as if she’s abnormal, other than to withdraw into herself — to tap into her reservoirs of creativity, and construct her own private alternate world? A world in which she’s able to muster her allies, courageously navigate treacherous terrain and restore normality.
Nobody’s going to save Dorothy other than herself. She has to be her own hero, and it’s by bravely tackling horror that she becomes heroic. In Oz, she’s able to project the madness with which she’s told she’s afflicted onto the deranged, villainous beings responsible for mutilating the dreamland where she felt loved. Dorothy can turn the tables on those in the real world who would subject her to crude experimentation, by condemning their fantasy equivalents to the fates that they deserve. One of the Wheelers is disturbingly reduced to particles of sand by the Deadly Desert, Mombi is imprisoned and the Nome King’s eventual demise is as glorious as it is gruesome — an extravaganza of guttural screaming and sludgy disintegration, set against the backdrop of a smoking apocalypse. The people at the clinic want to take Oz away from Dorothy, so Oz fights back.
By the end of Return to Oz, everything is as it should be. The Emerald City is restored to its former glory, and its inhabitants are brought back to life. The little girl who saved Dorothy from the clinic is revealed to be Princess Ozma, the rightful ruler of Oz, who promises to look in on Dorothy from time to time. Dorothy returns to Kansas, joyfully reuniting with Aunt Em, Uncle Henry and Toto — and now equipped with the knowledge that she can revisit Oz whenever she wants.
Gaining that specific knowledge comes as a watershed epiphany to Dorothy’s young mind. It means that she’s able to harmonise her experience of the real world with her imaginative faculties, making Oz a proactive, rather than a reactive, part of herself. Oz, Dorothy realises, isn’t a delusion, but a prism through which her troubles can be safely refracted and resolved. Significantly, it’s an epiphany that she hasn’t been spoon-fed, but that she’s generated from her own oneiric inventions. Imagination has given Dorothy agency, allowing her to assimilate and overcome the harshness of her reality on her own terms. There’s a sort of stirring beauty to that — to seeing a child take such a meaningful stride, independently, to become comfortable with their own identity, when adults prove to be inadequate listeners.
It’s a shame that Return to Oz suffered the fate that it did, banished to the fringes of film history. Murch had hoped that enough time had passed since the release of The Wizard of Oz for audiences to embrace a sequel with a different vision. But of course, that wasn’t the case — his film was a critical and commercial failure, rejected for its darkness, which was deemed to be particularly unpalatable for children. That seems like a strange accusation, considering the terrifying and depressing currents that flow through a great deal of media made for younger audiences. While a lot of other children’s films are perfunctory in their messaging, Return to Oz earnestly champions the idea that incipient individuality should be allowed to bloom from its creative chrysalis. The magic of Murch’s film is murkier than that of its predecessor, for sure, but no less enchanting or rewarding, and certainly more empowering. At its seemingly lugubrious heart, Return to Oz is an ode to imagination; a celebration of the weird and wonderful worlds of our own making, in which we find sanctuary and satisfaction.
Cian Tsang (@CianHHTsang) studied English Literature at UCL, and is now a writer based in London. He spends most of his time listening to the Twin Peaks soundtrack.
Categories: 1980s, 2020 Film Essays, Adventure, Family, Fantasy, Featured, Film Essays