Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Good Stuff: Return To Oz

Return To Oz
Directed By Walter Murch

"Weaugh...  Teaugh... PEAUGH!"

All is not well in Oz.  When Dorothy returns in this sequel (made nearly fifty years later than the revered 1939 original), the Emerald City is in ruins, her friends are missing and everyone else has been turned to stone.  There are no songs and dances, and no Munchkins.  It’s an audacious approach which did not immediately pay off, marooning Return To Oz at the box office and inviting scorn from critics, who believed it was too dark for children.  Were they right?

Well, it’s certainly dark.  We begin with Dorothy (Faizura Balk) getting whisked off to a mental hospital, where Aunt Em hopes that some electro-shock therapy will cure her of what appear to be crazed hallucinations – in reality, memories of Oz.  It’s a bleak opening, tinged with an even greater worry, as Dorothy receives a key from Oz, suggesting trouble back in the Emerald City.  A storm rescues her from losing her memories of Oz, and transports her magically back there.  But something awful has happened, and there’s no sign of life – apart from the frightening Wheelers.
So far, upsetting stuff.  But fairytales – which L. Frank Baum had always intended The Wizard Of Oz to be – are dark, in places at least.  Return To Oz presents us with scary villains, in the Wheelers, the witch Mombi (Jean Marsh), and the Nome King (Nicol Williamson).  It shows us mortal peril, in the Deadly Desert (one touch transforms you to sand) and the Nome King’s palace, where one can be transformed into an ornament or tossed into his Fiery Furnace.  But these things come with the territory.  Without a frightening baddie and a dire situation, what thrill can there be in restoring the order of things?  The more terrifying the villain, the more wonderful the escape.  Take the moment when our heroes finally escape Mombi, flying to freedom on a creature made of furniture, brought to life with the magic words, Weaugh, Teaugh, Peaugh.  It’s a brilliant high, all the more glorious because we’re scared stiff of the bellowing, sometimes headless monster pursuing them.  There is darkness, but it only makes the light brighter.
Critics often overlook all the marvellous uplifting moments in Return To Oz, and the cheerful, friendly characters.  There’s Jack Pumpkinhead, Mombi’s wobbly prisoner who adopts Dorothy as his surrogate mum; Tik-Tok, a heroic but bulky clockwork soldier charged with protecting Dorothy, who would be invincible if he didn’t need winding up; the Gump, a flying sofa, who’s only been alive as long as we’ve seen him, and would rather just be a head; and Belina, Dorothy’s pet chicken, who suddenly finds herself able to talk, and ends up being instrumental in the defeat of the Nome King.  We even see the Scarecrow again, and – in a short scene at the end – the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion as well.  They’re all here.  They just needed rescuing first.  Is that so bad?  Remember that in The Wizard Of Oz, the witch got melted to death, and had an army of terrifying flying monkeys at her disposal, who did things like rip the Scarecrow to pieces.  Scary stuff, but not disproportionately so, because good won out.

Anyway, Return To Oz is an amazing film to look at. Jim Henson’s workshop makes utterly lifelike creatures out of Jack and the others, and brilliant stop-motion animation is used to bring the Nomes and their King to life.  The performances fuel the illusion: Nicol Willamson is top-billed, and he is terrifying, just as Faizura Balk is perfectly frightened (but determined) as Dorothy.  David Shire’s music terrifies as often as it soars, and the story – which melds elements from two Oz books into a single plot – makes for a clever sequel, but also a great standalone film for those few who haven’t seen the original.  We learn enough about Oz not to need any previous education, which is how sequels are supposed to work, and so often don’t.

It’s hard for me to be objective about Return To Oz, because it was a big part of my childhood.  I must have seen it fifty times growing up.  I still believe in every special effect, jump when I see the Wheelers, feel giddy during every heroic escape or happy reunion.  I love these characters, and have done my whole life.  Is their adventure too dark for children?  I can only speak from personal experience, but no.  Of course not.  It’s a joyous experience, made all the better by the threat of what might happen if good doesn’t win in the end.  But hey, it does.

1 comment:

  1. These critics you speak of are wrong. It is a wonderfully exciting film for children.

    However, you know my problem. I love the book this is mostly based on (Ozma Of Oz) and this film is not the book. So phooey.