An Appreciation of ‘Return To Oz’ (1985)

Nick Campbell returns to Oz for a special celebration…

“Fantasy or reality? The film lets us to decide. It is, though, a film firmly allied with children against well-intentioned adults. I think it could be the greatest children’s film ever.”

A rarely-seen Drew Struzan movie poster, depicting the phenomenal Jean Marsh as deliciously evil, head-swapping Princess Mombi, and shows off the movie’s art nouveau aesthetic

It’s thirty-five years since Disney first released Return to Oz, and it’s well overdue for celebration. There was precious little celebrating in 1985, that’s for sure. Critics and audiences were confused and alarmed: what had happened to Judy Garland having a gay old time in a gingham dress and a pair of ruby slippers? Where were the songs? Why was there a new subplot about electroshock therapy? “This is the Oz you haven’t seen before,” promised the movie trailer, with its badge of suggested Parental Guidance. Privately, test audiences showed that children delighted in the film, and after years of watching it on home video and other services, the kids are finally doing what we can to put things right with its legacy.

This year, I’ve lived and breathed Walter Murch’s movie, ever since my friend Sarah Crotzer decided to mark Return to Oz’s anniversary with a new publication, in time for Halloween. Sarah is the current editor of The Baum Bugle, a journal exploring the work of L. Frank Baum: the man who invented Oz. Even fans of 1939’s Wizard of Oz movie and its subversive prequel Wicked aren’t aware it all started in 1900, with a book. Nor that Baum wrote not one but thirteen sequels to his Wizard.

In its day, it was a Harry Potter-size phenomenon: a Broadway adaptation, silent movies, and even ‘Fairylogues’, a genre of Baum’s own invention. (A true renaissance man, Baum was the sort of dynamo who woke up and wrote new ideas on the wallpaper.) The Oz books typify and transcend their times: a matriarchal, socialist, pacifist utopia with a gender-changing ruler, inhabited by talking beasts, the first robot in literature, and a Patchwork Girl whose motto is, ‘I hate dignity!’ The Bugle looks at the history of Oz, as well as new projects, but not even in its pages has Return to Oz been embraced so wholeheartedly before.

John R Neill illustration, subtitled ‘From 1913, one of John R. Neill’s many depictions of Jack Pumpkinhead, a faintly ooky but utterly endearing character, primarily voiced and operated by Brian Henson in Return to Oz’

Walter Murch’s movie very much returns to Baum’s Oz, and does so with the aesthetic of illustrator John R. Neill, who infused those Ozian oddities with humanity and — I don’t think it’s just me — a strange beauty. Melding the second and third books, Murch crafts a blockbuster adventure in keeping with Labyrinth, The Neverending Story, and Star Wars (with which it shares several crewmembers). From the previously unseen concept art featured in the new Bugle, it’s clear the movie was meant to inspire awe.

With puppeteers from Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop, not to mention Will Vinton’s patented Claymation, Murch brings alive Tik-Tok the robot, Jack Pumpkinhead, a legion of rocky Nomes, and the surreal, one-of-a-kind Gump. Practical effects give it an enduring magic (there is no other word) but it was a tough, painstaking production. For the Bugle, I wrote about Michael Sundin, former acrobat and later Blue Peter presenter, who sweated and contorted himself to bring Tik-Tok, a totally mechanical puppet, to life. Absurd though it is, the human element shines through.

Above: Walter Murch discusses the making of Return to Oz with Howard Berry for his Elstree Project. Autumn’s Baum Bugle features more from both Murch and Berry.

It may be Baum’s Oz, but it’s Murch’s Kansas. As articles in the Bugle discuss, the film bears the influence of Wisconsin Death Trip, a study of harsh rural life in America at the turn of the century, when a real Dorothy Gale would have lived. In that context, a fantasy like Oz might be a symptom of madness and malaise, and Aunt Em is determined to ‘cure’ Dorothy (ten-year-old Fairuza Balk, magnetic in the role). Em turns to Dr Worley, a self-proclaimed specialist, obsessed by the new world of electricity (Murch has observed that Nikola Tesla would have been a real wizard in Baum’s eyes). Dorothy narrowly escapes being ‘damaged’ by Worley’s therapy and, back in Oz, bravely overcomes her enemies, restoring her world to life. Fantasy or reality? The film lets us to decide. It is, though, a film firmly allied with children against well-intentioned adults. I think it could be the greatest children’s film ever.

Dark, scary, a little melancholy, but also intelligent and beautiful, Return to Oz is certainly special. As Sarah says in her own article, it’s rare to see a family blockbuster made by an auteur (and an Oscar-winning legend in sound editing, for Apocalypse Now and The English Patient). We won’t see its like again, and we’re lucky we can revisit it so easily: every re-watch, I find something new. It didn’t track with audiences in 1985, but it anticipates work by Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro and at last, viewers can appreciate it on its own terms. The film has gained a fandom all its own: I’m sure they’ll enjoy this autumn’s Baum Bugle. I hope the film goes on transporting viewers to the Oz they haven’t seen before…

❉ ‘Return to Oz’ (1985) Director: Walter Murch Cast includes Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh, Piper Laurie, Matt Clark, Michael Sundin. Run time 109m.
30th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray released Apr 14, 2015.

The Baum Bugle’s Autumn 2020 issue will be published in October. Featuring never-before-seen colour concept art, interview transcripts, tributes and analyses, it is only available as part of a one-year membership to the International Wizard of Oz Club for 2020, which includes the Spring, Autumn, and Winter issues. Once this issue is gone, it WON’T be reprinted! New members can sign up here.

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