Disney’s Return To Oz
L Frank Baum’s Ozma of Oz (1907), the third book in the popular Oz series, was one of my favorite childhood stories. When I was in middle-school, I bought Ozma of Oz and Tik-Tok of Oz (1914) in a special 2/$1 book promotion at WalMart, and they were my first introduction to the world of Oz outside of the beloved MGM film starring Judy Garland.
Over the ensuing years, I have read almost all of the 14-book series and have been awed by Baum’s imaginative and colorful characters, from the mechanical man Tik-Tok to the patchwork girl Scraps and everyone’s favorite trio, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion.
In Ozma of Oz, Dorothy Gale is transported to the magical land of Ev after being swept overboard in a terrible storm and stranded in a floating chicken coop. Dorothy’s only companion is Billina, a spunky hen who starts to talk as soon as the two land on Ev’s enchanted shores. In Ev, they are confronted by the terrible Wheelers and they rescue the run-down mechanical man Tik-Tok who tells them about Ev, a land separated from Oz by the great Deadly Desert, and formerly ruled by the royal family of Ev who have been captured and transformed into ornaments by the evil Nome King.
The three are locked in a tower by the head-exchanging Princess Langwidere who wants Dorothy’s head for her collection, and they are later rescued by Ozma and the Royal Army of Oz. They join Ozma and her companions in the march across the Deadly Desert to the realm of the Nome King to rescue the royal family of Ev. Thanks in part to the Nome King’s aversion to chickens (Billina!) and their poisonous eggs, Dorothy and friends are successful in their rescue attempt, and they victoriously travel back to Oz where Dorothy is declared a princess and returned safely to her Uncle Henry.
One of Disney’s lesser-known films, Return To Oz (1985), is an adaptation of two Oz books – Ozma of Oz and its predecessor, The Marvelous Land of Oz. The movie is often referred to as an unofficial sequel to The Wizard of Oz (1939), but rather than continuing the story of the MGM musical, it is a reimagining that is more faithful to the books, with a younger Dorothy Gale than the one played by Judy Garland. Fairuza Balk, who stars as Dorothy, does an admirable job carrying the film, especially with co-stars who are mostly puppets and stop-motion characters. A decade after Return to Oz, Fairuza Balk starred as Vicki in The Waterboy and creepy Nancy in The Craft.
Return to Oz has been playing frequently on HBO Family this summer, and it is really surprising how deeply dark the film is, especially for a Disney production. The Wheelers are styled as terrifying carnival freakshow castoffs and roam the deserted, ruined streets of the Emerald City like a PCP bike gang. The wicked witch Mombi, filling in for Princess Langwidere as the head-swapping villainess who imprisons Dorothy and her companions, ends up headless for an intense chase scene as she pursues Dorothy when the Kansas girl steals her Powder of Life. And in the film’s climax, the frightful Nome King who has conquered the Emerald City with the help of the ruby slippers, transforms into a giant, monstrous form and threatens to devour Dorothy and her companions.
But the Wheelers, Mombi, and the Nome King are all creatures dreamed up by Baum, so it makes sense that a faithful Disney adaptation would make them at least a little scary. Far more disturbing (for me, anyway!) is how the film begins, when Aunt Em and Uncle Henry send Dorothy to a psychiatric hospital to receive electroshock therapy treatments from the sinister Doctor Worley to cure her of her Oz-centric fantasies.
Dorothy-as-mental-patient was never a plot in Baum’s book series, and her visit to the institution is frightfully imagined in the movie, complete with an electrical storm, power outage, insane patients, and a scary nurse who looks exactly like the witch Mombi. The scenes in the psychiatric hospital remind me of something you might see at rival Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights, like 2010’s haunted house, PsychoScareapy: Echoes of Shadybrook. Only slightly less scary.
The film was not well-received by critics, many of whom thought it would frighten young children. Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader describes the film as “bleak, creepy, and occasionally terrifying”, and I agree. But as a fan of both Disney and Oz, I gotta say, as creepy as Return to Oz may be, it’s nice to know that more than 25 years ago Disney went outside of its comfort zone to produce a dark and scary children’s film, paving the way for future successes like Focus Features’ Coraline (2009), even if Disney’s not the one making them.