Shortly after the release of the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, the Disney Company bought up the rights to L Frank Baum’s Oz series of books, both to capitalize on the success of the film and, presumably, to cockblock MGM from making any sequels. While during the 1950s there was talk of filming some of the stories as specials with the Mouseketeers, nothing ever came of the idea, and the books were set aside.
Skip ahead to the 1980s. A group of filmmakers known collectively as the Film School Generation, who included among their ranks the likes of George Lucas, Brian DePalma, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg, had risen to prominence during the New Hollywood era, which lasted from the late 60s and into the 80s. Although the films made during this period had challenged the conventional rules of Hollywood with an independent and rebellious sensibility, by the 80s the movement was being crushed under it’s own weight. Excessive, overbugeted pet projects such as Heaven’s Gate (1980) and One from the Heart (1982) failed at the box office, serving to undermine the independent vision on which the movement was based. At the same time, the lesson taught to studio executives by the successes of films such as Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977) and the Indiana Jones series was that big budget, mass appeal spectacles, which could be heavily marketed and provide revinue far beyond the film itself, were the way of the future, thus ensuring the birth of the blockbuster.
One member of the Film School Generation, despite being a very important and well respected part of the industry, had not yet managed to become a household name: Walter Murch. A prolific sound designer and film editor, Murch has worked with sound in such films as The Godfather Part II (1974), The Conversation (1974), and most famously Apocalypse Now (1979), for which he won an Academy Award. For working on The English Patient (1996), Murch won Oscars for both sound design and editing (the first ever Oscar for electronic editing, on Avid), and was the subject of Patient author Michael Ondaatje’s book The Conversations (2002). He was also chiefly responsible for setting the Final Cut editing software as the industry standard (which can be good or bad, depending on how you feel about Final Cut).
Scounting new talent in 1980, Disney production chief Tom Wilhite questioned Murch about projects he would like to helm. Murch said “Oz,” and Wilhite, knowing that Disney owned the rights to the Oz books and wanted to do something with them before they expired, agreed. However, Murch’s depiction of Oz would be a radical departure from the 1939 musical. Much closer in tone to the Oz books, the film was a dark, more realistic and sometimes scary look into the world over the rainbow.
Taking place six months after the tornado that set off the events of the first film, Dorothy (Fairuza Balk, in a much younger and book accurate depiction) has been having nightmares about her experiences in Oz. Her Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) are worried about her mental state, already dealing with financial troubles related to the reconstruction of their house and keeping their farm running in order. In order to cure her of these delusions, they decide to take her to Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson) a medical quack specializing in a new kind of “electric healing” (what we know today as shock therapy). Left in the care of Worley and his nurse (Jean Marsh), Dorothy is saved from her fate by a mysterious young girl (Emma Ridley) who warns her that she is in danger. The two are chased out into a storm at night, where Dorothy tries to escape down river on a floating crate.
Awakening in Oz, Dorothy discovers that the enchanted land she once knew is gone. The munchkins have disappeared, the yellow brick road has been torn to shreds, and the emerald city lies in ruins, its inhabitants having been turned to stone. The city streets are patrolled by a gang of Wheelers, Cirque de Solei rejects with wheels instead of hands and feet, and who are footsoldiers of the wicked Princess Mombi (Marsh), a vain witch with a collection of 30 heads that she can exchange with her own at will. On her journey Dorothy meets Tik Tok, a rotund clockwork man who is equal parts R2D2 and Robby the Robot; Jack Pumpkinhead, a Jack Skellington-esque being made of sticks and straw; and The Gump, a sofa-creature made by Dorothy herself as part of an escape plan. The four travel to the lair of the Nome King (Williamson) to discover the fate of the Scarecrow and return Oz to its rightful state.
The production was a troubled one, running way over budget. At one point, Disney execs were ready to fire Murch over dissatisfaction with the dailies they were seeing, only staying their hand at the insistence of George Lucas, a good friend of Murch who had developed sizeable clout due to the Star Wars franchise. To make matters worse, during this period the Disney Company had a change of regime, with Michael Eisner taking over as president and CEO. While the new regime’s disinterest in the project meant that Murch had final cut, it also meant that little to no studio effort was put into the film’s advertising and distribution, heavily compounding the eventual failure at the box office. Widely decried as being both inferior to the original musical (which it was never really intended to be a direct sequel to) and way too frightening for children, the film was panned by critics, and though it was nominated for an Oscar for “Best Visual Effects,” overall was considered a failure. Along with a single episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2011), this is Walter Murch’s only directing credit to date.
So, is the film really as terrible and inappropriate as the critics of the time would have you believe? In this critic’s humble opinion, absolutely not. There is a reason why Return to Oz, with the advent of home video, endured as a cult classic: childhood is full of ghosts and goblins, witches living in candy houses or peddling poison apples, monsters living in closets, evil step-parents, and other horrors. It is those stories that refuse to talk down to children, that give them a taste of the dark side, which are the ones they most adore, for the greatest adventures are the ones that face the darkest of foes and ultimately reap the greatest of rewards. The care and attention to detail in this film is immaculate, from the sound direction and editing, to the use of color and scenery, eye-popping special effects, and the incredible music score by David Shire, all a love letter to the L Frank Baum book series from which it began.
In the past decade, there have been numerous re-imaginings of Baum’s stories, most recently Disney’s to-be-released second outing in the land over the rainbow, Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), suggesting that audiences are now willing to accept a non-MGM musical version of the tale on it’s own terms. Hopefully this will bring about a new appreciation of Return to Oz and those who labored to bring it to life.