Thirty-two years ago, Disney’s Return to Oz premiered in theatres and managed to scare the living hell out of children across the globe. Between the terrifying images of the Wheelers and Princess Mombi’s hall of stolen heads (not to mention allegations of botched electroshock therapy, of which Dorothy Gale is almost a victim)… at first glance, there is no obvious rainbow to be found in the film. Not a sequel to the Judy Garland musical but an adaption of L. Frank Baum’s second and third Oz books, Return to Oz is a dark fantasy (emphasize dark, at least by Disney standards) released in the midst of such films as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth; a precursor to the type of family film that Tim Burton would become known for.
But Return to Oz was not an initial success. Audiences seemed incapable of disassociating the film with the 1939 version and because of the “joyless” subject matter, critics were almost unanimously negative. The film began development in 1980 under the direction of Walter Murch, the Oscar-winning film and sound editor behind such films as American Graffiti, The Godfather: Part II, and Apocalypse Now.
Around this time, Disney was attempting to shed the negative notions of its image. The world had changed since Walt Disney’s death in 1966 and in turn, so did audiences’ interests. The whacky family comedies of the ’50s and ’60s couldn’t sustain the company any longer, going up against the gritty-heavy releases of the ’70s (not to mention, competition from other non-Disney children’s entertainment). Films like The Black Hole, The Watcher in the Woods, and Something Wicked This Way Comes had attempted to break new ground, ultimately proving to be disappointments, but it was at this time in the company’s history that brought forth a rather confusing project like Return to Oz. During the course of production (which included budget overruns, financial cuts, and at one point, the firing and eventual rehiring of the director), the Disney company had went through two series of management changes (deemed a necessity given the company’s dire prospects at the time). This left final studio heads, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenburg, unsure of what to make of this upcoming film. Despite a gala premiere at Radio City Music Hall, promotion was relatively weak given the uncertainty of how to market the film. Coupled with the negative reviews, mainstream audiences predominantly forgot about this gem post-release.
Fortunately, Return to Oz has come to thrive with repeated DVD viewings, continually frightening new audiences while also coming to be more warmly embraced. In her film debut, The Craft‘s Fairuza Balk gives a captivating performance as the stoic Dorothy Gale; the characters of Tik-Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead are brought to life to perfection via alumni of the Jim Henson company, and David Shire’s hauntingly beautiful score remains powerful all these years later.
To underline the post-release success, Family Film Productions is currently in the midst of shooting a documentary titled Remembering Return to Oz, which focuses on the history and legacy of this Disney cult classic. We recently caught up with Fairuza Balk to chat about the project, and while she says she hasn’t shot her portion of the interviews yet, she is excited at the prospect of her debut film receiving the documentary treatment. “It’s wonderful because I’m very proud of Return to Oz. At the time the film came out, it was very controversial and it’s really wonderful to see there’s such a huge fan base now, and that it’s being appreciated because Walter Murch is a genius. I love the movie and I’m very proud and happy to see there is a documentary in the making about it. I was a child so it’s been a long time and I’m sure there’s plenty of stories from other crew members that I’d love to hear from.”
Balk also took the time to reflect on one of her favorite memories of shooting. “It was my birthday and I was sad because I was working. I had thought that my mom and everyone had forgotten and I was trying to be a little trooper and not say anything. And then at lunch, Robbie Barnett, who played one of the Wheelers… He came out dressed as a giant bunny on stilts with an enormous carrot. He picked me up and put me up on his shoulders and walked me around on the stilts, and he brought out a big birthday cake and everybody wished me happy birthday. I was just so, so surprised and felt so loved. It’s a very, very pristine and clear memory of how they treated me on that film and how protective and loving everyone was. You hear these horror stories about what kids go through on movies and it wasn’t like that at all. Everyone treated me like I was their kid. It was wonderful.”
Scheduled to be released next year, Remembering Return to Oz will also include interviews with director Walter Murch, producers Gary Kurtz and Paul Manslansky, composer David Shire, and actors Emma Ridley (Ozma), Justin Case (Scarecrow), Deep Roy (The Tinwoodsman), Denise Bryer (voice of Billina), Sophie Ward (Mombi #2), Fiona Victory (Mombi #3), Pons Maar (Lead Wheeler), Lyle Conway and Brian Henson (son of Muppets creator Jim Henson), who were the puppeteers and voices for the Gump and Jack Pumpkinhead, respectively. For more on the doc, be sure to check out the official Remembering Return to Oz Facebook page for further updates!