I have always held it as a point of pride that my childhood local cinema was often voted the worst in the UK. The Lido in West Ealing looked like someone had dropped a sea container, or even a dump hoarding, on top of the entrance to a snooker hall. The upper floor was corrugated gunmetal grey with rusty tears where the pigeons lived. The sign outside was spattered in a brown watermark for as long as I can remember. While the rack that held plastic letters to spell out the showing attractions titles looked held up by one screw and hope. They rarely had enough of the right letters or bothered with a title longer than four words, and you’d have to guess the age rating of the film if it was not a 15. Downstairs in the outside lobby, which I knew really well as the dusty stairway up to the box office and popcorn and the two fag smoky screens was forbidden unless the last film had already exited, was an old poster explaining classifications like AA and X, restrictions done away with before I was born. Maybe that was why we mistakenly went to see Return to Oz on a family bank holiday movie trip. Maybe my mother never knew the inappropriate X horror she was about to unleash on my seven year old sister and six year old self.
Three weeks later we were still having nightmares, waking shivering, wanting to join our parents in their room at night. “What the fuck did you take them to see?” I remember my Dad cursing as their sleep was interrupted another night running by our tear-filled faces wanting protection from the terrors. I have no idea which part affected my sister but for me it was the evil queen’s corridor of screaming heads in glass cabinets. Not an image from the latest John Carpenter or David Cronenberg shocker but a U rated indirect sequel to the much beloved 1939 Judy Garland classic – The Wizard of Oz.
And search any retrospective review or comments board of the film online and it is by people of my particular vintage reliving just what an affecting, traumatic experience this largely forgotten school holiday cash-in was. Whether it was the Nome King, the Wheelers, the electro-lobotomy of Dorothy, the drowning of a little mad girl in a storm, the deadly desert where living things turn to crumbling sand upon touching or those screaming heads – most children of the late seventies who unwittingly saw this at a summer camp, VHS rental or B-run fleapit have their own lasting nightmare memory of this film.
Watching the film again it remains a bleak and often still surprisingly dark experience. There’s no occasional spike of nastiness either. Return to Oz is like a stick of rock in that it is pretty much, in every aspect, troubling for a kids film all the way through. A very adult force pumps through every vein and artery of it. There will be absolutely no wonder why it flopped as I discuss it further.
Plot: Dorothy has been so injured by her first trip to Oz that she cannot sleep and her Aunt Em fears for her sanity. The hurricane has left the farm in ruins, her uncle has given up on life, Em cannot really afford the experimental shock treatment she feels might bring her ward back to reality and as she drives the child off to the clinic a dirty old Toto wails as he is left behind for this adventure. That’s your first five minutes and I haven’t even discussed Dorothy’s friend, the chicken Bellina, who is not laying and due for the stew. Oh, and there’s no songs. Not even a jitterbug.
Fairuza Balk makes for a grim and determined Dorothy, lacking the charm and innocence of Judy Garland’s iconic turn. She is a more serious, tenacious child approaching Kansas and Oz like disappointing prisons to be muddled through. There’s no wonder in her performance yet it is a good one – rarely hitting a false note and often gravely apt for what she is facing. Miles from her beloved and famous predecessor but strong and involving in her own way. It helps that she actually is a 9 year old child rather than the 17 year old Garland’s rather tightrope walking casting as a young innocent. Judy’s boobs may have been strapped back to obscure her maturity but you are essentially watching a sexy young woman play naive in 1939. The new kid is a more realistic and thankfully de-kink-ed alternative in this respect.
Balk’s Dorothy faces in both lands the devious duo of Nicol Williamson (electro quack and rock tyrant The Nome King) and Jean Marsh (head nurse and headcollecting Queen Mumbi) who menace and sizzle in their small bitesized chunks of screen time throughout. It is telling when Piper Laurie is easily the most likeable, humane and sympathetic character… We are talking about casting Carrie’s mom and Twin Peak’s devilish Catherine Martell as Auntie Em for fuck’s sake. Alarm bells should have rung right there.
Once we get to Oz (this time through the flooded back woods of the institution rather than somewhere over the rainbow) things do not improve in terms of fun and optimism as you may have expected. The yellow brick road has been desecrated, the scarecrow is kidnapped, The Emerald City deserted, in ruins and littered with the cast to stone corpses of The Tin Man, the Lion and the citizens (young maidens sans têtes). Dorothy tries to work out what has happened, picking up friends and enemies on the way.
And here we come to Return to Oz’s second big issue away from the constant fear and despair; Dorothy is joined like last time by a ragtag group of freaks (Tik-Tok, Jack … No, not that one…. Pumpkinhead, The Gump and her chicken, now voiced by a pessimistic old lady) rather than Toto, the Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man you might not only expect but who had featured heavily on the promotional materials, merchandise, even free stickers albums given out at petrol stations and with cereals in the build up to the release. We were primed to be reunited with the old Yellow Brick Road wrecking crew only to discover two have been killed off like the Hicks and Newt of light entertainment (I’ll cover Alien3 at some point). As for The Scarecrow when he does show, he is not only snatched from us cruelly again almost instantaneously by The Nome King but comes at a point in the production where budgetary concerns meant that a stop motion face effect to bring him to life was axed. The cheap fix bodged in instead is that he appears only in quick shots with different heads made with set expressions to make up for his cheap, frozen features. Short shrift for some of cinema’s most recognisable creatures even if things pan out for the best by the closing scenes.
So the replacements feel a little bit of a con if you are a friend of Dorothy traditionalist and you certainly might have thought twice about buying a ticket if you knew the poster was fibbing about the prominence of those with heart, courage and a brain. Whether it was Warner Brothers having certain design rights to the original trio over Disney who took a financial punt on this sequel or even a zeal to bring to life more characters from Frank L Baum’s Oz books that meant we lost old favourites for new, they do eventually add to the film’s quality if not it’s must see-ness. Given Dorothy’s graphically violent description of the creation of The Tin Man early on to her psychiatrist, one which involves the word hack repeatedly, maybe it was for the best that this particular production relegated the most beloved and recognisable Ozians to the sidelines. Such a decision however cannot have helped its chances at the box office. A bleak sequel to family favourite with no one you already like in it all that much.
The pacing also really only has time to introduce the new crew before suddenly they are all saying goodbye to Dorothy as they fall foul of The Nome King’s plan. The inherent depression that washes over every creative choice rears its ugly head again as I describe them in the broad strokes we learn about them in the film. I’m not over emphasising it on purpose, really. Jack Pumpkinhead is an orphaned scarecrow (small s) who is so lonely and so young he wants Dorothy to be his mother. The Gump is a reanimated trophy head whose body is a loosely strung together hulk of dusty soft furnishing… Essentially an easy going zombie couch. Tik-Tok “the one man army of Oz” gets the most screen time, aside from the ‘woe is me’ chicken, and is the strongest creation. Loyal and sturdy, good in a scrap and likeable in both design and outlook. His clockwork mechanism means he often winds down his faculties or motion at key set piece sensitive moments (this works great as a tension creating plot device – although his instruction do anachronistically say “Guaranteed to work perfectly for a thousand years” when we first meet him run down). Yet even he sacrifices himself nobly at the end and comments on the vacuum of life inherent in his robot existence. All in, ennui aside, they are a well realised and likable set of replacements. Just not the familiar three that would make this very late sequel more of an event release
So in Summer 1985 we got a grim sequel to a long past classic, which terrified children and contained only passing reference to the highlights of its predecessor. It made a mere $11 million off a $28 million budget. The contemporary reviews universally criticised the tone and mood. “Children are sure to be startled by the film’s bleakness,” said The New York Times’s Janet Maslin. “Is faithful to the original Oz books but turns out not to be a virtue on film, where the eerie has a tendency to remain eerie no matter how often we’re told it’s not.” Jay Scott, Globe and Mail. “It’s bleak, creepy, and occasionally terrifying,” Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader.
So what went wrong? Why was it quite so dark? And how did it get released in this desolate child unfriendly state? Let’s work at length and in detail through those question backwards to build to a pleasant surprise…
Why did Disney put this big budget family film out in such an unaltered, inappropriate state? It was the age of test screenings and studio tinkering, notes and reshoots. Surely this flop would be first in line for some executive attention? Well, Return to Oz was engineered under two clouds whose silver linings collectively probably kept it intact. These ‘clouds’ need to be explored in some depth before I can move on.
First cloud: this is the work of a first time director… but before we put all the blame at his door, this particular first time director happened to be multiple Academy Award winning sound production and editing supremo Walter Murch. This is a USC film department alumni from the same graduating year as George Lucas and John Milius. Whose career had seen him work in key roles on The Godfathers 1972-1990, American Graffiti 1973 and The Conversation 1974. The now common film credit of Sound Designer was created specifically for his revolutionary work on Apocalypse Now 1979. He was New Hollywood royalty; exactly the kind of talent who knew what he wanted, how to achieve it and hopefully should have known how the game was played. When the then Walt Disney’s production chief Tim Wilhite asked him in the early eighties what he wanted to develop as his directorial debut a casual mention of the Oz books set things in motion.
Disney had some rights, nearly everything else except the ruby slippers (as they were silver in the book and a Warner Brothers embellishment) were due in the public domain due to the series’ age. A production would not only get Disney into the Walter Murch business but a film made by 1985 would give them the image design copyright for a whole host of classic characters much as they had already with The Grimms, Lewis Carroll and countless other fairy tale authors.
Let me spell out what a motivating factor this was. If Disney make a version of a classic literary work then those characters’ Mouse House reimagined looks become, not just the definite version in the moviegoers’ consciousness, but money generators. If another studio or designer want to do anything with a public domain character that’s been Disneyfied they now have to pay Disney licensing rights if they want the character to look like people expect them to. KER-CHING! A method that is paying off currently with live action adaptations of Disney animated classics like Alice in Wonderland 2010 ($1 billion) and Cinderella 2015 ($542 million). Disney is not re-adapting the original source material for these, it is merely recreating its own iconic and fully patented product for another high roller spin on the casino floor. No one else can make a film, or a even lunchbox, where Snow White looks like the way we all expect Snow White to look… the Disney way…without paying the Disney money. This will explain not only why different designs were used for The Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow for Return but why quite so many other, faithful to the books but unseen in the plot, Oz characters pop up in the final scenes (Li-Mon-Eag, The Shaggy Man, The Patchwork Girl, Prof. H.M. Wogglebug, T.E., Santa Claus, Tommy Kwikstep, Button Bright, and The Musicker all can be glimpsed). Here Disney were throwing their towel on the design copyright sun loungers of the entire Baum menagerie with future licensing in mind. If only Return to Oz had proven a hit… Still it made for an epic parade scene akin to the ceremonial finales of Star Wars 1977.
Murch set to work with relative creative freedom. Already from my plot description, criticisms and the casting you can tell his aims were not recreate the relatively safe, musical, primary technicolor of 1939 Oz but to go his own way. He used the seminal early photography book Wisconsin Death Trip as a touchstone. His achievement of this aim is evident in the final product.
Despite the end result syncing with Murch’s intentions, there’s a fair bit of indication this became a troubled production. Some reshuffles in the production team were obvious, for example Star Wars producer and Murch’s ally Gary Kurtz was moved away from the shoot onto back end work, seemingly instigated more by studio politics than a chaotic shoot. A head of production at the time’s main public gripe was “We had a nine year old who was only allowed to work three-and-a-half hours a day in 98% of the scenes and complicated animatronics that were difficult to make work.” The Scarecrow’s non animated face suggests budget ran out but not that it was scaled back.
The production was shutdown both times when it overran its original $20 million budget twice but this was very common back then. Only eight years previous Star Wars was made for $11 million and since then not only inflation but production crews valuing their services and time more meant nearly all tech heavy budgets outgrew their initial quote finalised often a year earlier. $28 million was the higher end of the right bottom line for such an elaborate tent pole summer movie but not a runaway disaster. Much was filmed in the UK (a planned more globe trotting shoot akin again to Star Wars’ production was the cause of the first shutdown and overrun) adding to the overall drabness but giving Murch a healthier distance between the studio and access to the unparalleled moviemaking craftsmanship that existed just outside London in this period.
There were allegations Murch was fired during one of the shutdowns but this seemed once again be down to political shifts back in Hollywood, rather than a concern about the dailies being sent back. Gary Kurtz’s replacement producer saw Murch forget to say ‘Cut’ at the end of a scene and demanded he be fired, Murch did not defend himself. Just as he was about to be sent home none other than George Lucas swooped in to explain the budgetary illogic in replacing him mid-production and gave his friend some guidance as to how to handle the shoot in a way that would keep the changing corporate regime at Disney happy (essentially break things down more and send the less fantastical footage back in drips and drabs rather than in bulk where it was being judged without reference to the spectacular sequences to come.) So a freshman director on a massive scale production had a tough, precarious job but his experience, reputation and most importantly, friends kept his vision and his creative freedom relatively intact. At the end of the day everybody wanted to be in the George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola game at this point, so making harsh calls on a production that had so many of their colleagues working on it may nix any chance of working with those top boys again. Spielberg, Coppola and Philip Kaufman began popping into the set regularly to keep Murch’s spirits up and let Disney know just who had the director’s back. Executive screenings without the many special effects finished were done at Lucas’ Skywalker ranch with George buying everyone lunch. The suits responded to the unfinished product with a “noncommittal niceness” according to Murch’s wife. Disney was in no position to make enemies of Murch’s powerful friends. Which brings us to cloud with a silver lining number two.
Cloud two is that aforementioned “changing corporate regime at Disney.” The heads who greenlit Return to Oz were all replaced mid shoot. Ironic for a film were the villainess is swapping young girls’ bonces and running around decapitated in a key sequence. Michael Eisner was hired in as CEO of Disney, a move to keep the Mouse House safer from the hostile takeovers that had laid siege to the brand since Walt had died 1966. Eisner brought with him a colleague from Paramount, Jeffery Katzenberg to be Studio Chairman and together they brought about a renaissance to the Disney animated brand and finally moved it also way up the live action studio market rankings. As to what Katzenberg inherited that first year was a live action department that was consistently the lowest performing among all of Hollywood, executives used to taking half days when Bob Hope’s masseuse was on site and an animation department the had lost most of its seasoned talent and employed all but a few old survivors and raw, untested talents like John Lasseter and Tim Burton hidden away in cubbyholes.
Katzenberg’s two big priorities would be to turnaround the only finished animated feature they had in the can – the equally dark and difficult to market The Black Cauldron 1985 – and start making live action films that teenagers and adults might actually buy a ticket for rather than That Darn Cat 1965 sequels. So Return to Oz dodged a bullet as it did not really overlap with either of these points on the action plan. It may have not have been in keeping with the direction Katzenberg wanted to push Disney being a mere family film but it also did not merit that close scrutiny as any failures on its part could be blamed on the old, wasteful regime. No need to take the scissors to it when The Black Cauldron had cost nearly twice as much and had no inbuilt audience. At least with Oz, even it was a stinker, you could stick the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion, Toto and Dorothy on the poster and get away with it until word of mouth spread.
And that’s exactly what they did. Katzenberg’s only comment on its muted summer release (12000 screens – so still wide but not a blanket blockbuster launch) was a diplomatic “The pitfall is expectations.” New Disney were not bothered about Return to Oz hitting, they wanted the new projects they could take sole credit for to be the start of their legacy and to hopefully build on the good relationships with those on their inherited director’s side. By giving Murch’s dark finished product an easy pass might reward them long term by at least not burning bridges with more proven talent early on. “Let Return to Oz live on its own merits and fingers crossed we might be working with Lucas, Coppola or even Spielberg… Hey why not even Murch again… next year when we need talent to boost that live action roster” would be the assumed logic.
Question number 2: Why was it quite so dark? Despite the U rating and predecessor’s reputation, Return to Oz is not a film suitable for young children. Have I made that obvious yet? The sustained desolate worlds and attitudes Return to Oz presents and frequent instances of sheer terror make it uncomfortable viewing even for more mature youths and adults if you are sensitively engaged with what is taking place in each scene. It’s not Taxi Driver 1976 nihilistic or Hellraiser 1987 extreme but for a family film it is unparalleled. Yet it is also on trend with many family films of this period. The aforementioned The Black Cauldron, Flight of the Navigator 1986, The Watcher in the Woods 1979, Something Wicked This Way Comes 1984 are all Disney productions of the period known for their bleak and horror tinged content. Return to Oz is either the peak or nadir of this trend depending on your tastes. The key difference is back then family films were for the family not exclusively just for children so some adult content, themes and even gore was par for the course and often required to mark it up over vanilla toy selling cartoons. When you consider the burnt corpses in Star Wars, the melting faces in Raiders of the Lost Ark 1981, ET 1982’s death, the convincing spectres in Ghostbusters 1984 or even The Goonies 1986 children in constant peril antics; it becomes clear that moments of disturbing nastiness were a lot more acceptable in movies made and marketed to all ages that decade. Even Disney’s most toothless animations have dear prince’s mothers being shot and poison apples, The Wizard of Oz itself has melting witches, flying monkeys and fake Oz’s terrifying boom voice. Kids films are more sanitised these days but Murch’s Return to Oz feels like a mere stumble forward rather than a massive leap in tone and taste when compared to his contemporaries. The tone actually does not cross any lines given its era, merely makes the grave error of staying permanently on that line unwaveringly for its entire running time.
In fact I recently read the British Board Of Film Classification’s detailed report on space-set, body horror, classic Alien 1979 and there was notable debate as to whether it should be an X or a PG. The adventure and fantasy aspect argued for it to be accessible to families, the gore and horror not seen as going too far from what was acceptable and only HR Giger’s psychosexual design of the Alien and its life cycle was the nail in its X coffin. The harsh censors only real problem with what would still be a hard 18 or R today was the visual metaphors of Alien might make a pubescent teenage girl feel uncomfortable with her own body changes. This digression illustrates what a strange era Return to Oz marked the end of, one where a terror heavy adult blockbuster was seriously considered by the censorship board for family consumption.
Return to Oz is so inappropriately black because an adult creative took on inherently strange source material, focussed on the darker aspects and had freedom of budget and technical breakthroughs to creative an absorbingly, realistic vision of a fantasy world post coup / apocalypse. The studio brakes were only applied when budgets overran or there was a lack of faith in Murch’s on set presence. No one really ever drew him back on the content or tone before, nor cared all that much after. Probably as in short chunks, without effects and with George Lucas looming over every test screening, no one saw just how unpalatable for children it was. It would never get made 10 years before or 10 years later than 1985. Return to Oz is an orphan of its time.
Let’s be clear Return to Oz did not flop solely because of its disturbing content anyway. The finished film opened in the US with as many screens as it rivals, a marketing campaign that focussed on the effects and recognised brand of Oz and it finished a poor seventh on that weekend. If there was any demand for another adventure set in The Emerald City then they certainly did not line up around the block on opening weekend when it was at long last supplied. Like I started this essay saying, my family caught Return to Oz in the grubby B cinema and had no inkling about its negatives. Bad reviews may have hampered that opening score slightly but when it comes to family films in the 80s very few relied on good press to open well. Word of mouth and strong press kept films in cinemas after a good weekend. Oz opened low with no back up once we knew what a shift from the original it was. The film all but disappeared after that.
Finally we come to… So what went wrong? Very little actually, once you take its box office failure out of the equation. Murch crafted an excellent fantasy film albeit one whose pedigree, child protagonist and marketing campaign misplaced it as a mere kid’s film. Watching Return to Oz through adult eyes it is clearly a fine piece of cinema. The blurring of Kanas’s depressing reality and Oz’s dangerous fairytale nightmare are beautifully realised. The mirrored palace full of stolen heads may be the stuff of six year old scares but also of a cinematic visualist’s wildest dreams. The sets have a consistent logic and verisimilitude, immaculately conceived. The physical performances of Mumbi, The Wheelers and especially Pons Maar, who lends his angular frame and shrieking voice to a lot of the non-human characters, are committed and affecting. The Gump and Jack Pumpkinhead are revolutionary effects. The film is intense and inventive.
Pace picks up when Dorothy and the mineral based The Nome King play their final battle of wills against each other. It is a cerebral set piece as the villain shifts subtly into becoming more human with each shot as those who remember Oz are lost to his ruse. After all the thrills, horror and eye catching design we are caught up in a closing game that is layered and perilous as any adventure flick’s big action finale.
Nothing is actually wrong with Return to Oz except it was made with no market in mind. Away from that “pitfall of expectations” it holds up as a great night in for adults who enjoy a well put together fantasy and younger viewers, forewarned as to what they are letting themselves in for, it will prove a revelatory dip into genre cinema. The only real shame away from the film’s maligned reputation, limiting its chances of being reevaluated as a classic, is that Walter Murch just went back to being a lauded editor again. His work, though invaluable to Ghost 1990, The English Patient 1996, The Talented Mr Ripley 1999 and Tomorrowland 2015, has stopped us from seeing what might happen should he take the reigns of the whole production of something epic again, rather than just the cutting and mixing. Now box office take no longer matters, Return to Oz feels like the sole masterpiece of an overlooked talent.