Saturday, March 11, 2017

JRO's #96: Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 1985)

Here we go again with another childhood favorite.

I’m trying to re-enter that child’s mindscape and discover what appealed to me about these specific movies. Surely I watched hundreds, maybe thousands of movies before I was ten. There are dozens that I remember fondly. There are a handful that still matter to me today.

One thing that strikes me now is that all of these films are in their own ways classic fairy tales. Even as a child, I was most interested in moral choices (not that I often made the right ones) and I knew in my heart that the world was much wilder, much more fierce and much more beautiful than most adults had settled for in the late 20th century.

When Return to Oz was released in 1985, many adult critics could not understand it.

“Children are sure to be startled by the film’s bleakness.” -Janet Maslin

“It’s bleak, creepy, and occasionally terrifying” -Dave Kehr

“Dorothy’s friends are as weird as her enemies” -Jay Scott

“It was not an upbeat children’s film” -Roger Ebert

“Return to Oz was such a lousy film that I’ll always regret that it stole two hours of my life.” -Gene Siskel

Here’s the thing….

Children are sure to be startled by the world’s bleakness. The world is bleak, creepy, and occasionally terrifying. My friends are as weird as my enemies. It was not and is not an upbeat children’s world. The world is wilder and weirder for children, and for those adults who refuse to grow up.

Alas, Gene Siskel was never a child. He was always a boring, old adult.

In Return to Oz, Dorothy is brought to a sanitarium for shock treatment because she won’t stop talking about a better place than the one she is in. When she gets back to that better place, she finds it wrecked and ruined by a Nome King hell-bent on destroying all magic and joy in the world as he pursues his own profit. It is only through the persistence and pluckiness of her weird friends that she is able to make it through this newly damaged, thoroughly stripped and modernized world, to find and restore the magic and joy that she knew deep in her bones was the real structure of the world. The phony fakes posing as the real powers-that-be are revealed as powerless.

This film was directed by Walter Murch, a man greatly respected as one of Hollywood’s greatest editors (both film and sound). His book In the Blink of an Eye is worth reading (which can’t be said about many books on film). The executive producer was a man named Gary Kurtz. You may not have heard of him, but chances are good that you’ve seen a little film he produced called The Empire Strikes Back. There are plenty of people who will tell you that Kurtz played a big role in shepherding Empire into the the classic film that we all know and love. Kurtz and Lucas parted ways before Return of the Jedi because Lucas insisted on going in a fluffy, fun direction that helped sell toys. If Kurtz had had his way, Han Solo would have been dead a long time ago. To give you a sense of Kurtz’ sensibilities, he was also heavily involved in The Dark Crystal, which is a children’s film which got even a little too dark for me.

So, if Chris hasn’t seen this yet, he’s going to ask me if it will work for adults seeing it for the first time. I honestly don’t know. Watching it again the other day (the first time in years), I was struck by how much it is very clearly a film for children with children’s sensibilities. Contrary to the reviewers that I quote above, I think that the “creepy” elements are part of this. Watching the scene in which Dorothy attempts to grab the “powder of life” from a display case holding a witch’s original head waking up to her presence as the numerous disembodied heads in other display cases wake up in alarm is one of the most terrifying film images of my childhood. Watching it now, it wasn’t nearly as scary as I remembered it. Also, it’s worth noting that the film makes narrative moves that don’t fit into any logic at all. Why is Bellina there with Dorothy on the raft? As children, it’s easy to accept that a beloved chicken will show up out of nowhere to be a fun companion. As adults, we realize that the hen is only there as a plot device (and as questionable comic relief).


This is the second film on my list in which Jean Marsh played an evil witch. She'd return to this list later in a more positive role (as female robot companion) if this were a list of favorite Twilight Zone episodes. Alas, this is the last we’ll see of her here.

I've never thought that Piper Laurie was a particularly good actress. She had one great role and is great in it. She'll make an appearance much later in this list for that performance. She’s appropriately bland here as Aunt Em. Some of you may enjoy her work in Twin Peaks.

Gill Dennis worked on the screenplay for this. He is best known for his script for Walk the Line, a film I don't particularly care for.

Paul Maslansky was a producer on this film. He is much loved for his best known work, the Police Academy films (all seven of them and the short-lived tv series). These films have been forgotten, but those of us who lived through the 80s and 90s remember them.

For a while, I was excited about every project that Fairuza Balk was in when she was an adult. These always disappointed. She was never better in anything than she was in this.

Harlan Ellison, one of my favorite science fiction writers as a teenager, was a big champion of this film. I didn't find this out until I was an adult and learned some of the production history of the film. Also as an adult, I picked up a complete run of 80s issues of Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction for super cheap. Ellison's film reviews are always cranky fun. I wish I could tell any story half as well as Harlan can.

1 comment:

  1. Great write-up. Haven't seen it and it was never on my radar. The first Wizard of Oz creeped me out when I was a kid. My Dad did an impression of the Wicked Witch of the West that would cause me anxiety. Given the darkness of the sequel, I feel more compelled to check it out now. Funny how things change.