Building Entertainment: The films of the Walt Disney Studio. Return to Oz

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Return to Oz

Year: 1985

Source materials: The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904) and Ozma of Oz (1907) by L. Frank Baum

Budget:  $28 million

Box office: $11.1 million

Plot: In October 1899, Dorothy Gale still talks of her adventure in the Land of Oz, troubling her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, who believe she is fantasizing. In her yard, she finds a key with an Oz insignia. Aunt Em takes her to Dr. J.B. Worley for electrotherapy, leaving her under the care of Nurse Wilson. As Dorothy is about to receive treatment, the asylum is struck by lightning and the power fails. Dorothy is freed from her restraints by a mysterious girl who tells her that Dr Worley’s machines damage the patients. They escape, with Nurse Wilson in pursuit, and fall into a river. Dorothy clambers aboard a chicken coop, but the other girl vanishes.

Dorothy wakes up in Oz with her chicken Billina, who can now talk. They find the Emerald City in ruins and its citizens except the Scarecrow have been turned to stone. Cornered by Wheelers, menacing people with wheels instead of hands and feet, they escape into a room as Dorothy opens a door with the Oz key. They meet a mechanical man, Tik-Tok, who defeats the Wheelers and learns from the Lead Wheeler that King Scarecrow has been captured by the Nome King, who is responsible for the Emerald City’s destruction.

The three visit princess Mombi, who collects heads and decides to imprison Dorothy to take hers. In a locked room at the top of Mombi’s castle, Dorothy, Billina, and Tik-Tok meet Jack Pumpkinhead, who explains he was brought to life via Mombi’s Powder of Life. They assemble a creature with furniture, rope, and the head of a moose-like animal called the Gump. Dorothy steals the Powder of Life from Mombi, but awakes her many heads. A girl in a mirror guides Dorothy back to her friends, where Dorothy uses the powder to bring the Gump to life. He flies them across the Deadly Desert to the Nome King’s mountain. Mombi sends the Wheelers after them, but half of them are killed by turning into sand by touching the Deadly Desert. The next day the remaining Wheelers take Mombi the safe route (The Nome King’s Tunnel) towards the Nome King’s Mountain.

In his underground domain, the Nome King tells Dorothy that he has turned the Scarecrow into an ornament. He will allow Dorothy and her companions three guesses each to identify which ornament; if they fail, they will become ornaments themselves. The Gump, Jack and Tik-Tok each fail. The Nome King gives Dorothy the chance to return home, since he has her discarded ruby slippers, but Dorothy refuses.

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While Dorothy makes her guesses in the ornament room, Mombi arrives. The Nome King, furious at having allowed Dorothy to escape, imprisons Mombi in a cage. On her last guess, Dorothy locates the Scarecrow, and realizes that people from Oz turn into green ornaments. After she finds Jack and Gump, the enraged Nome King eats the Gump’s couch body, but Dorothy is able to save the head. He prepares to eat Jack, but Billina, hiding in Jack’s head, lays an egg and it falls into the Nome King’s mouth. As eggs are poisonous to Nomes, the Nome King and his subterranean kingdom crumble. Dorothy finds the ruby slippers and uses them to wish for the group to be returned to a restored Emerald City. There, they mourn the loss of Tik-Tok until Billina notices a green medal stuck on one of the Gump’s antlers. Dorothy restores him.

At a celebration, Dorothy is asked to be Queen of Oz but refuses, saying she must return to Kansas. She learns that the girl who helped her escape is Princess Ozma, the rightful ruler of Oz, who had been enchanted by Mombi. Ozma takes her place on the throne and Dorothy hands over the ruby slippers. Billina opts to stay in Oz. Ozma sends Dorothy home, promising that Dorothy is welcome to return. 

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In Kansas, Dorothy’s family finds her on a riverbank. Aunt Em reveals that Worley’s hospital was struck by lightning and burned down, and Worley died trying to save his machines. They see Nurse Wilson locked in a cage on a police buggy. In the farmhouse, now complete, Dorothy sees Billina and Ozma through her bedroom mirror. She goes outside to play with Toto.

Background: In 1954, Walt Disney Productions bought the film rights to Baum’s remaining Oz books to use in the television series Disneyland; this led to the live-action film Rainbow Road to Oz, which was never completed. Walter Murch suggested making another Oz film in 1980. Disney approved the project as they were due to lose the film rights to the series. Though MGM was not involved in the production, Disney had to pay a large fee to use the ruby slippers created for the 1939 film.

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Once shooting began, Murch began to fall behind schedule, and there was further pressure from the studio, leading to Murch being fired as director for a short period. High-profile film-makers including George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola supported Murch in discussions with the studio, and Murch was reinstated and finished the film.

The Emerald City scenes towards the end of film had to be fully reshot, as the character of Ozma was originally dressed in a gold lace dress, which was deemed unsuitable during post-production, so the scenes were reshot with the actress wearing a white and green dress. At one point during filming these scenes, Balk collapsed due to the high temperature on-set.

Cast:

Fairuza Balk as Dorothy Gale. She also appeared in Valmont, The Craft, The Island of Dr. Moreau, American History X, The Waterboy, Almost Famous, and Personal Velocity: Three Portraits. She has also done voice work for animated films, TV shows and video games, including Justice League, Family Guy, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Lords of EverQuest. Nicol Williamson as Dr. J.B. Worley/Nome King. His most celebrated film role was as Merlin the magician in Excalibur. Other roles include  The Bofors Gun, The Wilby Conspiracy, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Robin and Marian, The Human Factor, I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can, Cincinnati Gestapo, The Cheap Detective, Lord Mountbatten – The Last Viceroy, The Exorcist III, Wind in the Willows, and Spawn.

Jean Marsh as Nurse Wilson/Princess Mombi. She co-created and starred in the ITV series Upstairs, Downstairs, for which she won the 1975 Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her performance as Rose Buck. She later reprised the role in the BBC’s revival of the series. Marsh also co-created the television series The House of Eliott in 1991. Her film appearances include Cleopatra, Frenzy, The Changeling, Willow, Fatherland, and Monarch.Marsh appeared several times  Doctor Who. She first appeared alongside William Hartnell in the 1965 serial “The Crusade” as Lady Joanna, the sister of Richard I. She returned later that year as companion Sara Kingdom in the 12-part serial “The Daleks’ Master Plan.” Sophie Ward as Mombi II. Her films include  Young Sherlock Holmes, Full Circle,  Little Dorrit, and A Summer Story. She played Dr Helen Trent/Walker in British television police drama series Heartbeat in 40 episodes from 2004 to 2006. Ward’s first novel, Love and Other Thought Experiments, was published in 2020.

Piper Laurie as Aunt Em. She is known for her roles in the films The Hustler, Carrie, and Children of a Lesser God, all of which brought her Academy Award nominations. She is also known for her performances as Kirsten Arnesen in the original TV production of Days of Wine and Roses, and as Catherine Martell in the cult television series Twin Peaks, for which she won a Golden Globe Award in 1991. Brian Henson as Jack Pumpkinhead. In addition to growing up as a Muppet performer, he performed special effects for Santa Claus: The Movie, and was a principal performer for the Audrey II puppet in Little Shop of Horrors. He also performed the voice of Hoggle in  Labyrinth (1986), and the Dog in both versions of The Storyteller. Henson directed The Muppet Christmas Carol and  Muppet Treasure Island. He is the current chairman of The Jim Henson Company.

Critical Reception:.

  • “Children are sure to be startled by its bleakness,” said The New York Times’ Janet Maslin.
  • Ian Nathan of Empire Magazine gave the film a three out of five stars, saying: “This is not so much a sequel but an homage and not a good one.”
  •  Canadian film critic Jay Scott felt the protagonists were too creepy and weird for viewers to relate or sympathize with: “Dorothy’s friends are as weird as her enemies, which is faithful to the original Oz books but turns out not to be a virtue on film, where the eerie has a tendency to remain eerie no matter how often we’re told it’s not.”
  • “It’s bleak, creepy, and occasionally terrifying,” added Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader.

Legacy: The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects, but lost to Cocoon. Fairuza Balk and Emma Ridley were nominated for Young Artist Awards and multiple Youthies. It received two Saturn Award nominations for Best Fantasy Film (losing to Ladyhawke) and Best Younger Actor for Fairuza Balk (who lost to Barret Oliver for D.A.R.Y.L.).

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The film’s interpretation of Oz is featured in the Storybook Land Canal Boats attraction at Disneyland Park in Paris. Scholastic also released a comic book. 

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My take: What did I just see? The stop motion rock faces. The Wheelers. The heads in cages. Just… this was a kid’s movie?

Available on Disney +?: Yes

Next Week: The Mighty Ducks