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Few know that one of Walt Disney’s unrealized dreams was to make an Oz movie he could call his own. There’s plenty of books in the series beyond the first and most popular one, and Walt bought the rights to them before they went into the public domain. He could take the material in any direction he wanted so long as he didn’t tread on MGM’s toes. The closest we ever got to seeing his vision was an episode of Walt Disney Presents where the Mousketeers “pitched” a musical called The Rainbow Road To Oz to their beloved leader. It was a perfect way to build hype for a movie…that never even made it past the planning stage for whatever reason. Since then Disney released a few Oz-themed song and story records, but Filmation was the first to make their own unofficial sequel. It starred Judy Garland’s daughter Liza Minelli as Dorothy and Margaret Hamilton as Aunt Em –
Wait, Margaret Hamilton was the actress that played the Wicked Witch of the West. What was it that she said at her most evil moment in the original movie?
Anyway, Disney all but sat on the Oz books until the 1980’s when the copyright on them was set to expire. Just like Sony with Spider-Man before the MCU came a-knocking, they rushed to come up with a movie so they could hold on to the rights for that much longer*. By a staggering coincidence, Walter Murch was interested in launching his directing career with a new Oz story. Murch is a legendary Academy Award-winning editor and sound designer, and this is his first – and as of writing this review, only – cinematic directorial venture. A pity he didn’t stick with it; based on what we got from Return To Oz he could have been one of the greats. That’s a hole not even three Oscars, a Nikola Tesla award, the 2015 Vision Award Nescens and two honorary doctorates could ever hope to fill.
Return To Oz was released in 1985, the same year as The Black Cauldron. And just like that experimental venture into the darker side of fantasy, it was a box office bomb that went on to develop an immense cult following. Some big names that have come out as fans include the Scissor Sisters, who wrote an entire song inspired by and named after the film on their first album, and no less an authority on the cynical side of fantasy/sci-fi than Harlan freaking Ellison. But why did it flop to begin with? Well, dear reader, there are a few reasons as to that:
1. Change of Management
Return To Oz was filmed as Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Frank Wells stepped in to give Disney a much-needed overhaul. I’ve already discussed the pros and cons of their sweeping changes to the animation department, but live-action is a trickier subject. Whenever there’s a regime change at a major studio, expect certain previously announced movies to either get axed or rushed out to theaters with little fanfare depending on the new CEOs’ tastes. By the time Wells, Katzenberg and Eisner took over, Disney’s live-action features had gone from safe, bland “What would Walt have done” fare to edgier fantasy flicks, though neither routes had turned a desired profit. Return To Oz was the last of the latter category to be released; when it wasn’t the box office or critical darling they hoped it would be, it left theaters almost as quickly as it came and hasn’t been mentioned again since. It’s not the first instance of this sort of thing happening to great films (alas, poor Baron Munchausen) and it won’t be the last.
And this ties into…
2. Misaimed Marketing
Return To Oz was marketed as a straight-up sequel to the 1939 classic, so people came in expecting a lighthearted musical romp and walked out not knowing what had hit them. Unlike the other attempts at sequels that more or less followed the formula of the first film, Return To Oz is much closer in terms of plot, character and tone to the novels. There were complaints that it was unfaithful to the Oz stories, but as someone who’s read most of them, I disagree; if anything, Return To Oz is far more faithful to the L. Frank Baum books than The Wizard of Oz ever was, deftly combining elements from the second and third entries into a deep, cohesive narrative that still manages to tie into the first one. The only thing that even remotely links Return To Oz to The Wizard of Oz are the ruby slippers, which Disney paid a hefty fee to MGM to use. This makes the movie more of a spiritual sequel than a canon continuation, at least for me. If the original Wizard of Oz had stuck to the aesthetic and writing of the book it was based on, then this would have been a direct sequel; though I understand how difficult it must be to market a sequel to a version of a beloved movie that was never made.
3. Behind The Scenes Drama
With the amount of major set pieces, special effects and hands that go into making any film, it’s usually no big surprise if some drama breaks out. Shooting Return To Oz went over schedule and over budget, the script was rewritten many times to try to combat the darker tone, and Walter Murch’s clashes with executives nearly resulted in his firing. He barely kept his job through some divine intervention:
4. It’s Terror Time Again
If Ironic Disney Logo hasn’t clued you in already, Return To Oz has a reputation surrounding it – that being it’s one of those films that terrified an entire generation of 80’s kids. It doesn’t downplay the grimmer elements borrowed from the novels – hell, it bravely takes them even further. I only caught glimpses of Return To Oz on tv a few times though I somehow always missed the frightening bits; yet when I finally saw it in full in my teens, I totally understood why certain scenes would leave a few scars. But there’s no gore, nudity, swearing or terrible messages that would make this movie unsuitable for children. Like An American Tail, it has a likable set of heroes that you want to follow and there’s a happy ending, both of which make it easier to see it through. Despite how much I’ve gone on about what scared me as a child, I’m of the mind that kids should be exposed to a bit of safe darkness through their movies or shows to challenge them and make things a little more exciting. I mean, I grew up with this,
– and I turned out okay. Just ask my therapist.
Brace yourselves, folks. We’re heading down the yellow brick highway to hell. This is Return To Oz.