Puppets and Quests Revisited – Return to Oz   1 comment

Yesterday marked the passing of Margatet Pallegrini, who had been one of the last surviving cast members of the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz.  This got me thinking about my post about Puppets and Quests, a genera of films that were prevalent in the 1980s.  Films that revolve around boy and girls navigating a strange worlds filled with even stranger creatures.  While being unsuccessful in their time they have each gained a cult following over the decades.

There are two films that I listed that I was ashamed to have had the chance to watch before writing the post.  The 1988 George Lucas/ Ron Howard classic Willow, and the 1985 Disney monstrosity Return to Oz.

Fairuza Balk riding a a flying couch with a moose head.  That's what this movie is.

Fairuza Balk riding a a flying couch with a moose head. That’s what this movie is.

At the insistence of my girlfriend (who tells me what to do at all times, along with help from my mother, her mother and my older sister) I sat down and watched Return to Oz.  I have to say it is one of the freakiest movies I have ever seen in my life, and the idea that anyone thought it was a good idea for children to watch it is astounding to me.

Return to Oz was Disney’s first realized attempt at making a pseudo sequel to MGM’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz.  The film was written and produced to take place outside the cannon of the MGM film, and keep closer to the Oz series of novels.  However it still relied heavily on references to the story points and imagery that ’39 film made iconic.  It also made the story much darker and bleak, closer to films like Legend and Dark Crystal.  However, marketing for Return to Oz ( mostly obviously in the title) still touted the film as going back to Oz.  The film’s instance that it was separate form the Wizard of Oz while still clinging to its memory resulted in a confusing final product and and a massive loss on the Disney’s $28M investment.

“I’ll always resent that [Return to Oz] stole two hours of my life.” – Gene Siskel

Spoilers Ahead!

If you have not seen the film (located in its entirety here), it catches up with Dorthy (big screen debut of Fairuza Balk) six months after her time in Oz. It is set in 1899 instead of 1939, as to keep in line with the original Oz books over the MGM film.  Dorthy has been greatly effected by the time she spent in Oz and can no longer sleep at night.  She tells her family all about the adventure she had there, leading them to the conclusion that she has become delusional.  They take her to an asylum where her doctor elects to use shock treatment to cure her.  She is left in the facility over night with the shock happy doctor and a caretaker who induces memories of Nurse Ratched.

Lets get a few problems out of the way… Shock treatment was not invented until the late 1930’s.  Also, the entire asylum was fully wired for electricity and people were running around with flash lights at night.  The Rural Electrification of Kansas did not occur until the 1930s and the flashlight did not see widespread use until the 1920s.  Despite the fact that the film is set in the “1899” and that it attempted to distance it self from the other film the ascetic clearly evokes the 1930s era of The Wizard of Oz. This calls to question if the filmmakers were lazy regarding their research or just decided that the audience would never notice.


Shock treatment on 9 year old in a kids movie! Are freaking kidding me?!

Shock treatment on 9 year old in a kids movie! Are freaking kidding me?!

Yeah, you want to freak out kids?  Show them that if their imaginations are too strong they are going to get zapped.  ZAPPED!

As they go to flip the switch on her first round of treatment the power blows and Dorthy has the chance to escape.  She books it into a creek where she grabs hold of some drifting debris and floats away to … wait for it… OZ! But, alas, Oz is in ruins, all of her friends have been turned to stone and she has to make new friends in order to save them.

It is in these new friends where the film falls of the rails visually.  Where in the ’39 film her traveling companions are portrayed by men in stage costumes her new friends are the best that 1980s on-a-budget animatronics could offer.



They. Look. TERRIFYING!  They are not fun or cute like the predecessors but are instead pure wet-your-pants movie monsters.

The central theme of this nightmare movie is abandonment.  Each of the central characters in the film have been abandoned in very significant ways.

Dorthy is abandoned at the asylum by her well meaning, but misguided, family. Forcing her to run away or face torture at the hands of a man who thinks he is helping her.  Her best friend a chicken from her farm, Billina, who learns talk when they reach Oz.  She is the last surviving chicken after the tornado hit the farm in the first story.  They meet Tik-Tok, a robot who has been left by the Scarecrow to wait for Dorthy’s return in aid in her quest to free Oz.  Tik-Tok never gets lonely or sad having been left alone because he has accepted that he is not even really alive, being a robot and all.  Jack Pumpkinhead, played by a fully grown man, has been abandoned by his mother and clings on to Dorthy, a nine year old,  as a maternal figure. He asks if he can call her mom, and she agrees to it.  It’s not cute.  It’s just creepy.

This is the Gump, a stuffed moose head who Dorthy brings to life with magic.  He constantly refers to the fact that he was better off dead.

And this is the Gump, a stuffed moose head who Dorthy brings to life with magic. He constantly refers to the fact that he was better off dead.

The end sees Dorthy save the day and return to Kansas with only one night having passed.  The asylum has burnt down, resulting in the death of the doctor who was to edger to shock her and the arrest malevolent nurse for unspecified reasons.  She goes home and it is left open to interpretation as to if she had ever been to Oz or if it was all in her mind.

And that is where it ends.

A man is dead, Dorthy is probably insane and the viewer is left with an overwhelming sense of abandonment.

Oz movies have come and gone since and more are in the works, but none have the legacy of darkness and confusion like that of Return to Oz.  My suggestion, bust it out at Halloween, because intentionally or not it is more upsetting than about 90% horror movies.

Are you a fan of Return to Oz? What about this movie do you like/hate/ live in unending terror of? Tell me below!


One response to “Puppets and Quests Revisited – Return to Oz

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  1. Pingback: New SciFi/Fantasy Shows for 2013-14… and When They Will End | AtomicSam

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