9/23/11

Return to Oz (1985)

I DO believe in spooks, I DO believe in spooks, I do I do I do I DO believe in spooks, I DO believe in spooks, I do I do I do I DO!!
--The Cowardly Lion

Oh, do we Kansans have a history with The Wizard of Oz.

We've heard all the jokes. "Hey, Dorothy, where's Toto?" "Say hi to the munchkins for me!"

We've seen the souvenirs in gift shops all over the state with these characters on them.

We've seen the original ruby slippers at the Smithsonian Museum.

It's been remade many times and parodied on dozens of TV shows and movies, putting it right up there with It's a Wonderful Life as one of the most commonly referenced movies EVER.

It is SO welded into the American psyche that it has become the number one thing that people think of when you bring up Kansas. Well, apart from wheat, flat land, college basketball and conservative Christian extremists.

So well known is it that some people just HAD to make a sequel to it. Some people from DISNEY, no less.


Return to Oz is an unofficial sequel to the Victor Fleming film, but to be fair it does borrow story elements from L. Frank Baum's follow-up books to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which the original was derived from--in particular, The Marvelous Land of Oz, Ozma of Oz, and Tik-Tok of Oz. Lucky for Disney, the books were all in the public domain and they already had the film rights anyway so they didn't have to pay anyone royalties, though they did have to pay MGM for use of the ruby slippers which weren't in the books.

Six months have passed since the events from the first film--funny, feels more like 46 years to us--and the Gale clan has hit hard times, in most part because winter is coming and they still haven't finished rebuilding the farmhouse from that tornado (How long did it take to build a house back then? It can't have been longer than six months. Didn't they have farmhands in the first film who could help them? How far out in the middle of nowhere ARE they?) Meanwhile, little Dorothy Gale, played by Fairuza Balk, who looks WAY younger here than Judy Garland did back in the day, is having trouble sleeping--she's still obsessed with her travels to Oz, now convinced that it is in danger and needs her help. A familiar looking key which falls from space in the middle of the night seems to confirm this.

Her Uncle Henry (Matt Walsh) and Auntie Em (Piper Laurie, who also played the more Kansas-appropriate religious fanatic mother from Carrie) naturally don't believe a word she says and decide to do the only thing you can do with a little girl whose imagination is too wild for her own good--take her to a mental hospital for some electroshock treatment to make all those dreams go away.

Incidentally, Toto will not be coming with Dorothy to Oz this time, as we see him chase the buggy as she and Auntie Em ride off. I'm guessing the Emerald City has leash laws now.

"Come play with me, Dorothy...forever...and ever...and ever."

At the clinic which is pretty much the biggest house in the state compared to the rest of the scenery, Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson) explains the process to Em and Dorothy--they shoot an electrical current through the brain which will zap all those bad dreams right out of her head. No mention of any harmful side effects or what ELSE might be zapped out of her head by accident, however, so his methods are suspect.

Auntie Em leaves Dorothy in the capable hands of Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh), who takes away her lunch pail and locks her in a dreary-looking room.

Throughout all this Dorothy notices a blonde girl about her age appearing in the windows and mirrors of the clinic, and she even visits her in her room with the curious gift of a jack-o'-lantern.

Nurse Wilson returns rather nonchalantly with some men and a gurney, and Dorothy is strapped in and wheeled to the operating room where she is hooked up to the electroshock thingy. Dr. Worley is just about to pull the switch when a freak lightning strike cuts the power throughout the building. All the doctors leave Dorothy momentarily unattended while they see to getting the electricity back on.

So, to recap, Dorothy is in a cold dark room strapped to a gurney, moments away from having several hundred volts course through her brain, with a violent thunderstorm raging outside which does nothing to drown out the distant screaming coming from the patients locked in the good doctor's basement.

This is a kids' movie.

And to think in about a hundred years they'll have a pill for this.

While the doctors are gone, the blonde girl comes back, frees Dorothy, and the two of them escape the hospital with Nurse Wilson in pursuit. The chase ends at a river, where both girls fall in and are washed away while grabbing onto a crate for dear life. The blonde girl disappears, but Dorothy continues to float downstream into a vast ocean (yes, Kansas has an ocean now) and finally washes ashore in the Marvelous Land of Oz.

Oh yeah, and her favorite chicken Bellina is there, too. And she can talk now.

Here we get to see some areas of the Land of Oz that you never saw in the first movie, like the "Deadly Desert", where anything living who touches the sand turns INTO sand. Also there's the "Lunch Pail Tree", which is...a tree...with lunch pails growing on it. Oh, and if you follow this overgrown brick path, you'll come across the ruins of some ancient city with statues all around it, including ones of the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion.

Oh, hang on. That's the Emerald City.

Oz just hasn't been the same since the Lollipop Guild disbanded.

And it looks like 46 years six months of neglect have taken its toll--the place is ashambles and all of its inhabitants have turned to stone. As a further degradation, some of the lady statues have their heads missing.

While all this is going on, some Claymation® rock faces report to someone off-camera that Dorothy has returned to Oz, and she's brought a chicken with her. Whoever he is talking to seems more concerned about the chicken.

Some friendly graffiti written on one of the crumbling walls reads BEWARE THE WHEELERS. No sooner do Dorothy and Bellina question what a Wheeler is when some fancy-dressed psychos with wheels for hands and feet show up and start chasing them around, laughing maniacally and accusing her of grand theft lunch pail and illegal possession of a chicken.

This is a kids' movie.

Looks like the flying monkeys have evolved.

Using the aforementioned key in an otherwise random hole in the wall, the two of them escape into a secret room where they discover a mechanical man named Tik-Tok, who serves as the entire Royal Army of Oz, who was stowed away to wait for Dorothy and managed to avoid being turned to stone himself since he is, as constantly pointed out during the film, not alive. (Wait...technically, the Tin Man isn't alive either, but he was turned to stone? How is that possible?) Tik-Tok fights off the Wheelers and interrogates one of them, who between Jim Carrey impressions kindly fills us in on the plot: apparently someone called the Nome King kidnapped the Scarecrow, who became ruler of Oz in her absence, stole all the emeralds in the city and turned everyone into stone. He name-drops a Princess Mombi as the only one who knows where the Scarecrow is.

I have to admit at this stage that Tik-Tok for this scene alone would have to be my favorite character in this film. There are Wheelers all around him and he stands perfectly still as his midsection spins around and his arms swing freely and smack all of them down, and then he picks one of them up by his shoulder, and shakes him up until he talks, letting him know that his being a machine makes him impervious to his threats. That's bad-ass right there. Tik-Tok is bad-ass.

BAD. ASS.

A visit to Mombi reveals that she looks just like the nurse from the hospital in a fancy cape and has a chamber full of heads that she wears like a closet full of shoes. A question about the Scarecrow goes ignored as Mombi is more interested in Dorothy's young head--so interested that she plans to lock her in the tower until she's old enough for her head to join her collection.

While trapped in the tower, Dorothy recognizes the Nome King's mountain from the view in the window, even though she hadn't even heard of the Nome King before she came here, and then meets a new friend--Jack Pumpkinhead, a rickety man made of sticks with a jack-o'-lantern for a head whose voice is despite the rumors the only major contribution of Muppet man Jim Henson's son Brian to the entire film. In HIS moment of exposition, he mentions that Mombi has an powder of life, so Dorothy makes off with the key to one of her head cabinets and steals it while the others put together some kind of flying machine made of couches, palm fronds and a moose's head. A sprinkle of the powder, a recitation of some magic words, and Dorothy and company are flying off to the Nome King's lair.

Dorothy wakes up the next morning just in time for their flying machine to come apart and send them crash land right at their destination.

"I'll get you my pretty, and your little chi---okay, chicken? Seriously? Didn't you have a dog with you last time? What the hell?"

Upon arrival, the Nome King pleads his case for stealing the emeralds while dropping Dorothy through a very pretty crevice. Apparently the emeralds were mined from his mountain first, so the King believes himself justified to have taken them back because they belonged to him in the first place. Dorothy argues that he had no right to kidnap the Scarecrow, since they were there when he took power. The Nome King offers Dorothy and her friends a game - he has turned the Scarecrow into one of the ornaments in a very fancy room in his underground palace, and each contestant has three tries to guess which ornament is him.

Of course he leaves out the part where anyone who guesses wrong three times is turned into an ornament himself until AFTER the moose-head, who went in first, flunks the test.

Mombi and the Wheelers, meanwhile, race to the Nome King's mountain to warn him about...the chicken. Oh, yes, Dorothy is the main character in this story, and yet everyone in Oz is worried about the chicken.

While the game continues, the Nome King, who's looking more and more like Dr. Worley by the cut scene, reveals to Dorothy that he stole the ruby slippers Dorothy left behind which made it easy to take back the emeralds and rule Oz, which sort of negates his justification for stealing the emeralds since the slippers didn't belong to him in the first place so his actions in the Emerald City were based on a double standard and I'm thinking too hard again.


The only way to fly.

Tik-Tok pretends to have wound down during his turn so that the Nome King can send Dorothy in to wind him up and make her guesses in the process, in hopes to give Dorothy some clue should his last guess be wrong...which it is...but he doesn't. After two wrong guesses, Dorothy resorts to closing her eyes and wandering around until she finds something, but the rule of threes prevails as Dorothy gets it right on her third guess when she touches a green shiny thing and the Scarecrow comes to life, and the two of them set about restoring her friends. Meanwhile, the Nome King is talking to Mombi when he sense the Scarecrow's presence, gets pissed off, imprisons Mombi in a cage for allowing Dorothy to escape, and turns into a big, giant scary rock monster who decides to devour Dorothy and her friends. When he tries to eat Pumpkinhead, Bellina, who had been hiding in the jack-o'-lantern head the whole time, gets so scared that she...lays an egg down his throat. Eggs are apparently poisonous to Nomes as it turns out (OHHHHHHHHH, so THAT'S why they don't like chickens...'kaaaaay) and the Nome King politely sets Jack and Bellina down before slowly disintegrating from too much cholesterol, I imagine. Dorothy finds the ruby slippers in the rubble, and as the Nome King's underground lair caves in around them, does some heel-clicking and pulls a major deus ex machina that returns everyone to the Emerald City and turns its residents back to normal.

"Admit it, girl, they look WAY better on me."

A big party is thrown in the newly-restored Emerald City where all the main characters are paraded around to cheers and applause, including Mombi (she's still in the cage, and Dorothy has also removed her powers--don't ask how, they don't explain it). Everyone is hoping Dorothy will stay and become the queen of Oz, but she doesn't want to. She yearns to go back to her half-finished farmhouse in the middle of the cultivatable desert of the Kansas prairie (which, ironically, is why Bellina decides to stay), but luckily the blonde girl in the mirror is willing to take the job--turns out her name is Ozma and she's the rightful heir to the throne, or was before all this stuff happened according to the exposition provided by the formerly headless women standing around Mombi's cage. After some tearful goodbyes, Dorothy clicks her ruby heels and is returned home to Kansas where Toto and Uncle Henry greet her warmly.

Auntie Em wraps things up by saying that Dr. Worley's laboratory was hit by lightning during the storm, and Dr. Worley himself was the only casualty of the resulting fire when he went back to try to save his machines, and Nurse Wilson is conveniently wheeled past us in a horse-drawn paddy wagon. And in the final scene we have Dorothy in her bedroom when who should appear in her mirror but Ozma and Bellina, who smile at them in a way that tells you that everywhere she goes, they will follow her to the ends of the earth for all the rest of her days, with nobody else seeing them.

This is a kids' movie.

And a VERY WEIRD kids' movie at that. Not as deranged as Raggedy Ann and Andy or Mexican Santa Claus, but it's pretty high up the list. It is WORLDS apart from the original movie in look and atmosphere--it does a more accurate job of capturing its late 19th-century setting, but that only make it a darker and more bizarre movie, as if the Wheelers, Nomes and disembodied heads weren't doing a good enough job of it. Much of the story you kinda have to read the books to understand, barring a plot hole or two, but worry not, as there is a ton of expository dialogue that fills in the blanks. The only problem with this is that there is TOO MUCH of it...and every character has at least one scene where they make these long speeches, some of which have nothing to do with the story. Just about the only thing they DON'T tell us in advance is why Nomes hate chickens.

I'm not sure I can recommend this to children, especially those who scare easily. I first saw the original Wizard of Oz as a kid, as I'm sure millions of us have, and I'm pretty sure any young viewer seeing Return to Oz would probably prefer the first one--not because of the obvious discrepancies between the two films like the age difference between both Dorothys, the similar-looking sidekicks (Pumpkinhead = Scarecrow, Tik-Tok = Tin Man), and the lack of songs, but rather the presence of giant rock monsters and homicidal maniacs rolling around on all fours.

"See you when you're asleep...and while you're getting dressed...and when you have boys over!"

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