Sarah Hawkins Miduski On… Return to Oz

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Each week, one of Biff Bam Pop’s illustrious writers will delve into one of their favorite things. Perhaps it’s a movie or album they’ve carried with them for years. Maybe it’s something new that moved them and they think might move you too. Each week, a new subject, a new voice writing on… something they love.

I was a child of the 80s, and as a child of the 80s, I loved the strange, imaginative, 80s fantasy movies that starred puppets, animatronics, and utilized claymation effects. Movies that were odd, and dark, and marketed to kids, filled with WTF moments before I was old enough to know what the letter F stood for. Though much maligned by critics and the general public, one of my favorite movies of the time was Disney’s Return to Oz.

Despite the misleading title, Return to Oz was never intended to be a sequel to the beloved 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. Walter Murch, sound designer for the original Star Wars trilogy, and director of Return to Oz, merely wanted to create an Oz movie that more accurately captured the Oz of L. Frank Baum’s books, and John R. Neil’s book illustrations.

Return to Oz starts right off setting itself apart from the classic film with what many complain is a disturbing beginning.

It’s been six months since Dorothy Gale’s first trip to Oz. She is consumed with thoughts and dreams of the world and friends she left behind. Her Aunt and Uncle find her preoccupation worrisome. They are certain that it is some sort of post traumatic mental illness brought on by her tornado experience.  The solution, take their nine year old niece to Dr. Worley’s private asylum for electric shock therapy.

As a kid, I had no idea what electric shock therapy was. From my point of view, the adults thought that Dorothy had an overactive imagination, and the only solution was to zap her imagination out of her brain forever. As a little girl with an overactive imagination, this terrified me. I wondered if I should keep my imaginative thoughts to myself in case adults decided to zap my brain too.

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The leather straps holding Dorothy down to the squeaky wheeled gurney; the faint moans and screams of damaged patients hidden in the basement, the electric shock giving headband placed on Dorothy’s head, clued audiences in early that this wasn’t going to be a chipper sparkly musical.

Thankfully fortune is always on Dorothy’s side. A storm disables the ECT machine, and a mysterious girl helps Dorothy escape the asylum.

After almost drowning in a river during her asylum escape, Dorothy wakes up in her beloved Oz, surprised to find that she is accompanied by her favorite fussy Kansas farm now able to speak chicken, Billina

Excited to be reunited with her Oz friends, Dorothy is devastated when she finds the yellow brick road and the Emerald City destroyed. All of her friends have been turned to stone. Her mission is clear, find out what happened, and save Oz.

Just as she is getting her mission underway, Dorothy has an unsettling encounter with a group of henchmen called Wheelers.

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If this Oz movie had a musical number, it would certainly involve the Wheelers with their amazingly designed fit for a 80s music video outfits. Adults complained that the Wheelers were too scary and violent for young moviegoers. There’s no ambiguous I’ll get you my pretty here; the wheelers are quite up front about their intentions to rip Dorothy apart.

Most opinions are split between the wheelers being the most nightmare inducing part of Return to Oz, or the next villain, Princess Mombi. My vote has always been Mombi.

Along with a new team member, a clockwork man named Tik-Tok, who was steampunk before steampunk was barely a thing, Dorothy visits Princess Mombi, hoping to find out who or what is destroying Oz.

The Princess makes easy work of separating the too trusting Kansas girl from her friends in order to introduce Dorothy to the head room.  Special effects are put to great use here, creating one of the most disturbing childhood movie memories for many 80s kids.

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As Dorothy surveys the room, each head, stored in its proper glass display case, turns to stare at Dorothy. The Princess casually removes her current head and replaces it with another. Dorothy observes with polite horror, and it’s not hard to see where this is going. I remember finding Mombi and her heads delightfully frightening, as well as intriguing. Who needs hair dye, make up, or plastic surgery when you could simply change your head.

The Princess decides to add Dorothy’s head to her collection, only she’ll have to wait a few years for Dorothy’s head to mature. Mombi locks Dorothy in a tower with a pumpkin headed scarecrow creature named Jack. Jack joins Dorothy’s crew, and together with Tik-Tok, and Billina, the escape plan unfolds.

In some masterfully tense moments, Dorothy steals a key from around a sleeping Mombi’s wrist, uses the key to open a cabinet in the head room, and takes the powder of life from within. She’s a little clumsy however, and accidently wakes up the original Mombi head. The head calls out in an utterly chilling voice, “Dorothy Gale.” It’s at this moment, the audience finds out that Mombi prefers to sleep headless. The headless body dramatically rises, and tries to snatch up Dorothy.  I’ve been told that this scene caused many sleepless nights for some kids, and maybe a few adults.

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Barley escaping Mombi, Dorothy uses the powder of life to awaken the Gump. The Gump consists of sofas tied together with string, palm leaves for wings, and the decapitated head of an Oz creature called a Gump.

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The slapped together sentient mode of transportation, flies out of Mombi’s castle, over the deadly desert, and arrives at the mountain of the big bad of the story, the Nome King.

The Nome King revels that he is behind the destruction of Oz. He has imprisoned the Scarecrow, and challenges Dorothy to a guessing game. Dorothy guesses correctly, but being a sore loser, the Nome King grows to an enormous size, with the use of some fun Claymation effects, and announces his plan to gobble up Dorothy and her friends, which precipitates one of the most WTF moments of the movie. Now throughout the movie hints are dropped that chickens aren’t welcome in Oz. Billina, who is hiding in Jack’s pumpkin head is unintentionally hoisted up when the Nome King decides to eat Jack. Billina, petrified, lays an egg which falls into the Nome King’s mouth. We then learn that eggs are poisonous to the Nome King, thus the Nome King is defeated and Oz is saved by a fussy Kansas chicken.

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During the big let’s celebrate Dorothy for returning Oz back to normal scene, Dorothy finds out that the girl who assisted her in escaping the asylum was actually Ozma the rightful Queen of Oz who has been trapped inside a mirror. Dorothy helps to free Ozma, then Dorothy wishes to go back home to her dull, depressing Kansas life. As a kid I could never understand why people who visited fantastic worlds always chose to go back home.

Return to Oz was a complete box office failure. People’s visions of Oz were so deeply influenced by the 1939 movie, they could not accept a creepy, dark version of their much-loved land. Critics also savaged it, stating that the movie was too bleak, scary, and intense for children. I’m not sure if they ever actually asked the children what they thought of the movie, because I loved it, and I still love it today precisely for its darkness, for the bizarreness, for its unrestrained imagination, and for the WTF moments when I am now at an age to know exactly what the F stands for.

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