Return to Oz
Is this the highpoint – so to speak – of the Dark Disney period? Return to Oz is a movie so uncompromising in respect of its target audience, it makes Babe: Pig in the City seem positively innocent. It also remains quite fascinating in a way the same year’s more compromised The Black Cauldron fails to be. Both arrived right at the end of Disney’s identity crisis, before Jeffrey Katzenberg unleased a whole new, Touchstone-led approach (albeit, Splash was the first glimmer of that). Of course, it flopped. How could it not? And yet, I’d much rather watch Return to Oz than the more celebrated Wizard. At least it wears its MKUltra on its chin.
In some respects, it’s incredible Katzenberg (and Michael Eisner) even got the chance to retool the Mouse House from something viewers considered incredibly uncool (it’s hurtling back that way as we speak). There were so few hits from its slate during the first half of the decade, and so many failures, or “financial disappointments”. You can chalk up Splash, The Fox and the Hound and Never Cry Wolf as winners, but beyond that… Elliot Gould failing to appeal to family audiences. Decidedly not the Spielbergian grosses hoped for from Popeye, Dragonslayer and Tron. No one going bananas for Herbie’s fourth round. Juvenile horrors The Watcher in the Woods and Something Wicked This Way Comes missing the mark, while Poltergeist scores a palpable hit. And Condorman.
Return to Oz was a big gun. Not as expensive as The Black Cauldron (little was) but in the ballpark of Something Wicked This Way Comes as a movie carrying high expectations. It was the suggestion of Walter Murch, best known for his sound editing work for Coppola and Lucas; this was his first directorial effort and also his last (unless you count an episode of The Clone Wars). It’s a not dissimilar situation to Saul Bass – title designer par excellence – switching to feature direction for Phase IV, and leaving it as a one-off.
Murch’s experience making Return to Oz was far from smooth going. He suggested the idea to Disney’s then production chief in 1980, who revealed the studio had the rights and were angling for a feature before they lost them. Murch cited The Marvellous Land of Oz (1904) and Ozma of Oz (1907), L Frank Baum’s initial sequels, as the first books he read and so holding a particular appeal.
By the time production was underway, regimes were changing. Murch was fired at one point, but Lucas and Coppola pled his case, with Lucas promising to step in if things fell apart. Murch admitted his own shortcomings in respect of the process: “my editing experience led me to underestimate the importance of master shots, not so much how they work in the final film, but how they function during the production phase… When I was back directing again, I started doing master shots even though they might be filled with imperfections – this was at George’s suggestion, and it turned out great”. Of course, George knows all about master shots, preferring to avoid any kind of directorial “style”.
Perhaps surprisingly, give or take inhibiting budget cuts, Murch escaped the kind of messing with his vision that befell the similarly box-office stricken The Black Cauldron, released just over a month later (with the earlier Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend and later My Science Project, that was four significant Disney flops in a row). Murch felt “they mostly ignored it after it did not do so well in previews, which was both good and bad. The good part was that I was able to complete the film I wanted to make, the bad part was that they didn’t really get behind its release”.
What was Murch trying to do with the movie, though? He shares the screenplay credit with Gill Dennis (Walk the Line), and the picture seems to be staring the MKUltra elements oft cited of the original movie overtly in the face. Dorothy (Fairuza Balk, very good; she’d never quite go on to great things, although she did graduate from Toto to a dog man in The Island of Dr. Moreau) is unable to sleep, traumatised by her brainwashing experience. She knows reality just isn’t the same any more (if the whole movie is in colour, is she still in The Matrix?). If it was so liberating, then why does she suffer so (because Oz represents the disassociation that comes from abuse, and her programming is breaking down)?
Her Aunt Em (Piper Laurie, who for all her kindliness here is still Carrie’s mother) is despairing, so takes Dorothy to see Dr JB Worley (Nicol Williamson), brain-care specialist extraordinaire. His suggested treatment? Why, shock therapy! And the only way to escape that is to disassociate once more (this is where the dualities come in, of Williamson as both Worley/the Nome King and Jean Marsh as Nurse Wilson/Mombi). The best way to treat a mind-control victim whose programming is springing a leak is with further mind control.
It’s notable too that the divisions here are even more exaggerated between Oz – for all its urban decay and dilapidated state – being a positive place to go to, over the real world. The real world, where electrical current is “in”, on the cusp of the twentieth century and dawn of a new age: “The brain itself is a mechanical machine” explains Worley reductively. Baum has been much noted for his Theosophical links – although most referencing this seem to fall short in connecting him explicitly to any pronounced Elite agenda – but the theme here might be more properly understood as anthroposophical. Dorothy is explicit in her rejection of scientism and materialism, just as Williamson is Ahrimanic in manifestation (per anthroposophist Steiner’s definitions*); the physical and mechanical are everything, and so his rocky constitution in Oz – bound to the second density – allies him with the same.
Of course, the material is also either devious or undisciplined in its messaging. One of Dorothy’s main allies is Tik-Tok, the Royal Army of Oz, a clockwork machine; this is science presented as a positive, that not all progress is backward. Or is it the insidiousness of transhumanism by deflection (Tik-Tok comes to the screen in the wake of a succession of anthropomorphic robotic men and animals, C-3PO, R2-D2 and Bubo). Notably, the machine knows what it is and accepts its limited state (“I have always valued my lifelessness”).
Others are less certain. Dorothy is pals with Jack Pumpkinhead (whose design would inspire Tim Burton’s Jack Skellington), a homunculus animated by Mombi through use of the Powder of Life. By its essence, the powder is against nature, used by dark forces to create beings lacking a core self (suggestive of Paracelsus?) Pumpkinhead wants emotional fulfilment (he asks to call Dorothy “Mom”). And yet, it appears its use is in the eye of the wielder, since Dorothy manifests a Gump with it, one instantly afflicted by existential doubts (“Why am I here?”)
Notably, the Nome King is fatally done in by a chicken’s egg, a symbol of life rather than calcification (life breaks forth from it). With it, the stony Oz populace are returned to the land of the living (Raya and the Last Dragon recently revisited to the deathful life of stony-ness). This return fails to make the trio from the original seem any fuller of life, though. Apparently, the Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow were victims to budget cuts, but as realised in puppet form, they’re eerie cadavers, further underlining the distancing the material has from the comfort food The Wizard of Oz (this, perhaps, is in Return’s favour; it tells it like it is).
Return to Oz isn’t wholly successful when it comes to storyline. It begins well, and the arrival in Oz is heralded by the hugely sinister Wheelers; this is the sort of thing you just know would meet with Gilliam or Burton’s full approval. Murch conducts sequences of genuine suspense as Dorothy must elude various threats.
First the Wheelers, with their elongated limbs and rollerskated legs. Then Mombi, who keeps a collection of heads (from humans) in glass cases and changes them at a whim (both post Worzel Gummidge and pre-Baron Munchausen; did Gilliam see this before the King of the Moon sequence in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen?) The sight of a headless Jean Marsh screaming “Where’s my Powder of Life?” her voice treated with a Twin Peaks-esque backward-masking effect is masterfully unnerving.
Unfortunately, Williamson is rather sedated here, and while the stop-motion work for the reports to the King (“She has a chicken with her”: “A chicken?”) adds to the unsettling tone, the Nome King fails to conjure any dread. As a consequence, much of this confrontation is lacking, even with the gambit of Dorothy’s dwindling friends as they disappear, attempting to find the Scarecrow.
Marsh is a far more imposing figure (and she’d later be called upon by Lucas – Willow – and Doctor Who – Battlefield – for similar duties). The sight of Nurse Wilson being carted off under lock and key makes for a neat final justice moment. It remains the case, though, that in Murch’s conception, Oz is no Narnia-like pleasure land, but one borne from trauma; come the conclusion, divided by the mirror, Dorothy has achieved an equilibrium for now and doesn’t need to return, instead going out to play with grubby Toto.
Murch said: “I’m proud of Return to Oz and happy that I got a chance to make it, but unless you’re extremely lucky in the projects you choose or how things fall into place, you really need a burning desire to direct for the sake of directing, and I don’t have that. I was passionate about this particular story, for a variety of reasons, but not about the process of directing per se”.
How does Return to Oz rate out of the Oz trio (I’ll do The Wiz the favour of ignoring it)? I’d put it out in front. Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful is disappointingly inert (Franco doesn’t help, but it lacks any of the director’s expected energy and verve), while The Wizard of Oz is a collection of songs signifying not so much. Murch’s movie is flawed but fascinating, a different version of Disney sealed in amber (much like the Disney logo first used for its release; some have called it the “rainbow” design, although I favour the notion that the semi-circle above the castle is a representation of the dome).
*Addendum (26/10/22): It seems Steiner made Ahriman up, whether knowingly or inadvertently, but the allusion nevertheless stands.