I've always been fond of the Oz books. If memory serves, I believe they were the first of the classic children's fairy tale fantasies - the Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan - that I read. Equally, everyone's favourite 1939's The Wizard of Oz was watched over and over again. But my favourite story set in the marvellous land of Oz was definitely Wizard's often misunderstood younger sibling, Return to Oz. While its predecessor is forever lauded, Return is often consigned to 'Weirdest Movie Sequel' Lists. Weird it may be but, rather than being a failing, that is really one of its charms.
Six months after her first journey to Oz (but actually made 46 years after Wizard), Dorothy has been having trouble sleeping so she is taken to Dr Worley's asylum to be cured by electrotherapy. But a storm one night saves her from the horrible place and puts her back in Oz which once again desperately needs Dorothy's help...
For starters, Return makes a cleverer move than most film sequels by actively aiming for something new. Unlike the passable Oz: The Great and Powerful, Return to Oz does not just leech off the original, instead translating elements of the classic film to suit its own purpose. One of the most striking ways in which it does this - at least for a child - is by literally bulldozing through the unhampered gaiety and joy of Wizard's Oz. The shining Emerald City is reduced to ruins and all your favourite characters - the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion - have been petrified into stone. From the off, the film makes sure we know we are in a different kind of Oz.
Possibly the film's most famous attribute is its scares, with many claiming it to be too scary for children. Personally, I wouldn't agree with that as I think its scares are one of the great delights of watching this as a child as well as underlying an important message. There is something sinister at every turn in this film - Nurse Wilson and the screams in the asylum, Princess Mombi's severed heads and, of course, the cackling, creaking Wheelers - yet like all the best fairy tales, this is offset by the knowledge that it will get better. Through the course of the story, Dorothy bands together with some new allies (who could be boring analogues of her more famous friends - Tik Tok = Tin Man, Pumpkinhead = Scarecrow - but they have enough of their own personality to set them apart) and is sure that she will be able to restore everything to the way it should be.
The reason Return to Oz is, I think, unfairly compared to Wizard is because people expect it to be full of songs and cheer. Instead it is a completely different beast, an alternate take on the same ideas. A wonderful, dreamlike film, it emphasises the questionable nature of Oz as a real place or a hallucination by the use of its surrealistic, offbeat stylings. The Wizard of Oz may be a delightful daydream but this is the scary yet meaningful nightmare that never leaves you.
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Return to Oz is by far from the only subversion of the popular Oz image. A few years ago there was this SyFy mini-series remixing of the Wizard of Oz story which employed more overtly fantasy genre elements. Starring Zooey Deschanel, it saw Kansas girl DG sent by a storm to the other world of The Outer Zone to stop the evil witch-queen Askedelia. It's a strange idea, to take one of the very first fantasy novels and redo it with modern fantasy clichés but if you can accept the premise it is a likeable runaround with comic relief coming from Alan Cumming's Glitch, a man missing part of his brain (you don't have to go see the Wizard to have the brains to guess who he's based off).
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
It would be easy to assume that Return to Oz was inspired by Tim Burton's own gothic fairy tale films, if it wasn't for the fact it came out before he was around. While many of his works have a similar tone to Return, the closest film to it in his oeuvre would be Alice, another creepier retelling-cum-sequel to a classic children's fantasy story. It is certainly inferior to Return but it is far from as bad as the critics say, featuring a likeably spirited Alice in Mia Wasikowska and, as ever from Burton, an eye-catching visual style.
It really wouldn't surprise me if Neil Gaiman was a fan of Return to Oz, as his work and the film share a similar 'scairy tale' tone. The crossover between the two is no more evident than in Gaiman's Coraline. Both feature capable young girls thrust into a nightmarish other land containing twisted versions of people they know in the real world. The finale of Coraline always reminds me of the climax of Return in that they both feature the villain letting the girl play a game to find an object which will save her loved ones.