If you’re looking for another kid’s movie to accompany Bridge to Terabithia as part of a sadistic double-bill guaranteed to turn your kids into nervous wrecks who wet their beds well into their teens, then look no further than Disney’s Return to Oz (1985)!
For those who don’t know, this harrowing fantasy flick stars Fairuza Balk as ‘Dorothy Gale’, a young girl stranded in rural Kansas, sometime around the end of the 19th Century, who claims to have visited a magical land called “Oz”, during a tornado that destroyed the house she shared with her Aunt and Uncle. Concerned for their insomniac niece’s sanity, ‘Aunty Em’ (Piper Laurie) opts to leave her in the care of ‘Doctor Worley’ (Nicol Williamson), a zealous advocate of electro-shock therapy, and his stern Head Nurse (Jean Marsh). Sitting alone in her cell, awaiting treatment, Dorothy is disturbed by the screams of “damaged” patients locked away in the clinic’s cellar… and is only too happy to follow the directions of a mysterious blonde girl (Emma Ridley), who appears out of nowhere to help her escape during a freak lightning storm. Pursued by the persistent Nurse Wilson, Dorothy slips into the overflowing river, and is swept off by the current… only to awaken the next morning, and find herself back in Oz! Hurrah? Well, not quite… the yellow brick road is in ruins, the Emerald City has vanished, and all of her old, familiar friends have been captured by the evil Nome King. And so, with a wise-crackin’ chicken as her only ally, she bravely sets off to face her nightmarish foes, and save the day… again.
I’m sure it would be possible to take the script for this movie and turn it into a fun, exciting adventure that would delight and captivate a young audience… rather than the dispiriting, disturbing, desaturated exercise in mindf*ckery that actually made it to the screen. First they try to pass an overcast Salisbury Plain off as Mid-West America, then they spend the first twenty minutes of screentime on sparse farmyards, sinister offices, gloomy asylums and rain-soaked river banks… but that’s nothing compared to the horrors that await our heroine when she finally slips into another trauma-induced fever dream: Cackling clowns with wheels in place of their hands and feet, which creak with the sound of a rusty hospital gurney! A witch with a gallery stocked full of decapitated women’s heads, which she switches for her own whenever she feels the need for something prettier or younger! A mechanical man who has separate keys to wind up his “thinking”, “speaking” and “moving” functions, and revels in being lifeless! A pumpkin-headed sad sack who insists on calling her his “Mom”, regardless of how creepy it sounds! Stop-frame animated earth spirits, who can spy on her from any stony surface! Shudder. It’s no wonder the Scissor Sisters were able to repurpose the movie’s imagery as a metaphor for the after-effects of drug abuse, in their brilliant song of the same name! Apparently this tone is more in-keeping with the spirit of the original novels by L. Frank Baum… but I’m not surprised it was such a flop at the box-office, when audiences were expecting another Technicolor MGM musical!
Apparently this was Balk’s big-screen debut, and I think she puts in a solid, capable performance… but there isn’t really any indication of how cool and (for want of a better word) “edgy” she would become in later years. Did working on this movie make her want to be a witch in real life? Sadly I haven’t seen the retrospective interview that was bundled with the American DVD version, so I can’t answer that. It’s fun to speculate though, isn’t it?