Return to Oz is high on my list of films that informed my taste for the fantastical and macabre. It has just the right amount of whimsy, suspense, and scares to take a youngster on a thrilling and memorable adventure that won’t scar a child that understands the difference between real and make believe. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that Return to Oz is the perfect gateway to the horror genre for impressionable viewers.
Dorothy discovers she is back in the land of Oz, and finds the yellow brick road is now a pile of rubble, and the Emerald City is in ruins. Discovering that the magical land is now under the control of an evil empire, she sets off to rescue the scarecrow, the tin man and the lion with the help of her new friends.
To be clear, I’m not trying to suggest that Return to Oz is a horror film. The flick is loaded with horror overtones and a finale sure to delight and frighten impressionable viewers in equal measure. But it’s more of a fantasy adventure than it is straight horror.
The film’s winning combination of adventure and dark fantasy elements really satiated my taste for genre cinema as a kid. And it (along with many other films from the same era) helped spark my lifelong passion for genre cinema. But that’s enough about me. Let’s shift gears and talk a little bit about what makes Return to Oz so spectacular.
I think a big part of the flick’s appeal can be attributed to its tendency to lean into the dark nature of the source material. The film doesn’t water anything down to make things more family friendly. And it never tries to ape the lighter tone of its predecessor (The Wizard of Oz). No, Return to Oz gleefully embraces the macabre.
The Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved films of all time for good reason. It’s perfect as it is. But Return to Oz is very much its own thing. Although it has some loose ties to the 1939 MGM film (namely the ruby slippers) Walter Murch’s Return to Oz isn’t even considered a proper sequel to The Wizard of Oz. It is intended as a more faithful adaptation of the L. Frank Baum books. And it is just that. I remember reading some of the Baum tomes as a child and I was really surprised by how dark they are. For one, The Tin Man character has a much more graphic origin story on the page than he does on the screen. And that’s to say nothing of the lobotomized, transparent cat.
Another element that makes Return to Oz terrifying is that Dorothy actually looks like a child in this incarnation. Judy Garland was seventeen when she played Dorothy, while Fairuza Balk was nine. This version of Dorothy looks and acts much more childlike and when she’s in peril, that raises the stakes, especially for young viewers.
Speaking of younger viewers, I remember being taken by the fact that Return to Oz featured a child not much older than I, traveling to a far-off world and battling a sadistic royal family. My favorite movies as a child were filmic efforts like this dark fantasy or Cloak and Dagger (1984) that weren’t afraid to put children in peril. And we certainly do see Dorothy in peril. Shortly into the first act of Return to Oz, she is confronted by The Wheelers. The Wheelers are delightfully scary and they are brought to life with such maniacal zest by the actors that portray them. These roller-monsters are just the right amount of terrifying. They are creepy and imposing but they aren’t scary enough to traumatize a child that understands the difference between reality and pretend.
Fairuza Balk does a brilliant job at convincing the audience that Dorothy is in serious danger. But perhaps what impresses me most about her performance in Return to Oz is that she carries most of the film as the only human character onscreen for large spans of time. Several of her costars are animatronic or Claymation and she really makes me believe that she’s communicating with them. No small feat for a nine-year-old. The film really rests on Balk’s shoulders and I don’t think she gets enough credit for that. Did I mention this was her first film?
The characters Balk plays alongside are lovable but flawed, similar to the team Dorothy followed down the yellow brick road in 1939. Jack Pumpkinhead (who was an influence in the creation of The Nightmare Before Christmas) is constantly falling apart and lives in fear that his pumpkin-head will spoil before he gets to really experience life. Dorothy’s pal Tik Tok is well-meaning but always seems to run low on power at the worst possible times. They are quirky and lovable and strange and memorable.
The colorful cast of characters look very much like they did in the L. Frank Baum books and while that may have put off fans of The Wizard of Oz, I think it was very much the right decision. A lot of the characters in Baum’s books were a bit creepy and the film really brings the spirit of those novels to life. But it does it in a way that gives budding horror fans a glimpse at the magic the genre has to offer without showing them anything too graphic. If you’re looking for a gateway film to share your love of the macabre with your youngsters, consider giving Return to Oz a shot.