return to oz
Return to Oz, released in 1985, is unofficially the sequel to the original 1939 The Wizard of Oz. This is yet again another one of those movies that I saw when I was barely a teenager, remembered almost nothing about it but wanted to see it again now as an adult with fresh eyes.
And wow it is so much different now compared to when I saw it then.
A few points I'm going to say up front before I get into this:
First, I do not consider this a sequel to The Wizard of Oz, even though there are direct ties to the first movie. Return to Oz is a totally different film in every way.
Second, this is not a bad movie. The reason it was received so poorly when originally released is because everyone was expecting (and rightly so due to the title) something that looked, felt and acted like the 1939 film. That's not what you get with this movie. Instead you get something totally new, totally unique and totally not a follow-up to the original.
Third, this movie is dark. I'll cover more on why this is in a moment, but upon watching this you'll swear it's a Tim Burton movie. For that reason alone most people would say "Cool! I gotta see that!" Yes, you should if you like Tim Burton. More importantly however is this is not a kid's movie. It trips the line into PG-13 area a few times because of the scare factor. Again, I'll get more into that in a moment.
Why I wanted to see this movie again
In the back of my mind I distinctly remembered the Tik-Tok character, pictured right. Even back in the day I remembered how cool he was. Very distinctive, very unique and nothing like I had ever seen before - or since. Even his voice was cool.
As for why he's unique, how many robot characters do you know that are round, wear a hat (that can fall off), need to be wound up three times in three separate places to operate properly and carry an old-timey look to them?
The headless scene
To a kid 13 years old or under, this is the stuff of nightmares. It's not gory nor gruesome; rather it's just plain creepy and terrifying. If you're an adult, you probably won't find this scary at all, but this is the scene that scared the crap out of little kids. This is the scene that makes the film unsuitable for kids 12 and under.
It would take too long to explain the lead-up to why this is so terrifying, but believe me, after you watch what leads up to it, you'll totally understand why it scared the daylights out of little children. When I saw it for the first time as an early teenager, I was frightened by this. Yes I was and have no shame in admitting that because it is a MASTERFULLY done scene. Weird backwards devil-like talk, many blood-curdling screaming women, blasting evil doomy music and of course the headless Mombi character. It's all there and it's all awesome. The thrill and scare you get out of it is the result of a director who really knew what he was doing, and oh yeah, he pulled it off with flying colors.
The ornament room
A tribute to good set design is when you can remember it over 20 years later. This room is another reason I wanted to see this movie again because it stuck out in my head. I understand now why it did - it's huge. Although it's nothing more than a huge room full of ornate furniture, ornaments and other knickknacks, there's a lot to see here. The bigness is further accented when Dorothy yells for help and hears an echo.
I also distinctly remembered how she got out of the room and wanted to see that again as well.
What I take away from the movie as an adult
As a 1985 film, this is pretty darned good
In the early-to-mid 1980s there were a whole ton of creative movies out there, and I place Return to Oz in the same category as say The Dark Crystal (1982) and Gremlins (1984). If you watch this movie with that in mind, you'll enjoy it a whole lot more. If on the the other hand you watch it expecting the original 1939 film, you'll be sorely disappointed.
The stop motion animation in RtO is incredible. The sets are incredible. The colors are incredible. The soundtrack is spot-on and all the audio is mixed properly. Everything is in perfect order here. The film is a complete work of art from start to finish, with the only tiny flaw being that you do see some obvious green screen work - but only in very few scenes and only for a few seconds. You can tell Disney spent a TON of money on this flick, and it shows.
There are no glaring plot holes
Everything in this movie was explained and done so in a way that was mostly believable for a movie of this type. While watching this I was specifically looking for holes, and every time I thought I had one, it was explained later in dialogue. The story for the most part is wrapped up fairly well and at no point did I ask myself, "Why did that happen?"
The dark side of Return to Oz
This movie as I said is dark, and as you read into it you find out how dark it truly is.
At the end of the movie, the message sent that's loud and clear (at least to me) is that Dorothy is literally insane.
Short version of Dorothy's insanity
Dorothy was never able to truly recover from the traumatic event of her old house being destroyed by a natural disaster, and invented a fantasy world as a means of escapism to deal with it.
Long version of Dorothy's insanity
The beginning of the movie starts out showing her having problems sleeping six months after the tornado that ran through her part of Kansas originally. She has explained to her aunt all about Oz and how she believes it's completely real. Her aunt obviously knows something is wrong with her, but then takes the drastic measure of taking her to a mental institution for electrotherapy in an attempt to cure her after all other attempts to get her back to normal have failed.
In the mental institution, she meets another girl who we never find out the real name of that I knew right off was out of Dorothy's imagination - and in the way the story was told, the director wanted you to know this. She appears and then quickly disappears afterward when other hospital staff arrive. Shortly after this, Dorothy is asked to lay down on a wheeled hospital bed and is then tied down to it.
In the operating room you see the electric machine. The doctor places a headphone-like device over Dorothy's ears in which electric shocks will be sent directly to her brain. Suddenly the power goes out due to stormy weather, and the doctor and his assistant leave the room to go assess the damage and fix the power outage.
The unnamed girl who vanished before now reappears by rushing in the room, unties Dorothy from the bed, tells her they must get away, and then they make their escape outside and attempt to run away. As they're running away, the doctor's assistant Nurse Wilson as well as other staff chase after them.
Dorothy and the unnamed girl run through the woods and come upon a river. Both girls see Nurse Wilson yelling at them "STOP!", then the unnamed girl slips in the mud, falls into the river and then hangs on to a nearby fallen tree to keep from being swept away by the current. Dorothy goes to the edge and holds out her hand in an attempt to get the unnamed girl back. Dorothy then notices Nurse Wilson coming closer, so she jumps in the river to escape. At this point both girls are now hanging on to the fallen tree to keep from being swept away by the river.
The branch the girls are holding on to breaks and both start to be carried off by the current. Nurse Wilson jumps in the river in an attempt to save them, but can't reach them because the girls are too far away.
It's at this point is when Dorothy enters her fantasy world.
Fast-forward to the end of the movie.
Dorothy is seen washed up on shore and is slowly coming out of her fantasy and back into the real world. She is then found by those who were looking for her. We then see Nurse Wilson being carried away in the back of a paddy wagon, evidently having been arrested for something. This is the only part of the movie that is not explained but it was very intentionally put there, and I'll touch on that later.
Now comes the part where it's confirmed Dorothy is in fact insane.
HERE BE SPOILERS
I'm purposely going to break this into another page just in case you haven't seen the movie yet. You may want to watch it before continuing because I'm going to give away everything, or at least my interpretation of it.
Confirmation of Dorothy's insanity
At the end of the movie, Dorothy talks to the mirror in her bedroom, and Ozma appears in it. Dorothy then quickly yells to her mother to come and look, but Ozma puts her finger over her mouth (to say "Shh! Don't tell!"). The mother then asks what's in the mirror before she gets to the room, and Dorothy, now understanding she cannot reveal her fantasy world to anyone for fear of being sent to another mental institution says, "Nothing. Just a reflection."
Now if you noticed, from the time Dorothy was found on the shore to that scene in her bedroom talking to Ozma in the mirror, the unnamed girl (who is Ozma) from the beginning of the movie is never mentioned nor seen in the flesh.
That's because she never existed as a real person.
Yes, this does mean when Dorothy was in the mental institution that any scene with the unnamed girl in it was a "waking dream" (as said by the doctor in the beginning) on Dorothy's part; she was alone the whole time.
Dorothy herself escaped from the restraints on the bed, and was never attempting to save anyone at the river and only jumped in out of a state of panic.
Or did she?
It is totally possible she never jumped in the river at all. It could very well be that when Dorothy ran away, nobody saw her escape from the mental institution, and I'll tell you why from these two scenes that follow one right after the other:
The moment Dorothy "sees" Nurse Wilson, the power is now back on and stays on. In fact, you actually see Nurse Wilson flicking a switch and turning a light on. This gives Dorothy a very good reason to run because she knows if the power is on, the electrotherapy can continue.
And you thought that was a plot hole. Nope. 🙂
Remember that in the doctor's office in the beginning of the movie, the doctor turns on a light:
A century of [*click*, lamp turns on] electricity.
Dorothy is directly looking at the doctor and the lamp when that happened.
Why are the lights significant? Because the power is out and could not have been repaired that quickly. Remember, at the end of the movie it was said the clinic was hit by a lightning strike and burned to the ground. For all we know, what we're seeing is Dorothy's hallucination of what's going on and not what's actually happening. The light she sees in her mind might have been fire from within the building due to the strike.
This also may explain why Nurse Wilson was seen as arrested and being carried away in the wagon at the end. Being that the doctor died, she may have been the one to take the blame for Dorothy's escape/disappearance.
It could be said that Dorothy did run near the river but never actually jumped in; she simply stopped and hid until she fell asleep or collapsed from exhaustion.
Dorothy is always alone
At no time do you ever see Dorothy playing with other children. She suffered a traumatic event, lives in a remote part of the state where there are apparently no other children, and was more or less left to her own to figure out how to deal with it.
Being alone or feeling alone (as is the case with Dorothy because she has nobody her own age to talk to) will do strange things to you over time. In Dorothy's case, she invented a fantasy world complete with all the loving caring friends she could ever want; something she doesn't have in real life whatsoever. Part of the reason Oz is so complex is because Dorothy has had tons of time to fantasize about it, and it is even mentioned in the movie that Oz is large.
I mention this because it's very easy to say that Dorothy is simply creating imaginary friends to make up for ones she doesn't have in real life and that it's all a-okay - but that would be incorrect. Dorothy has created a world, and an admitted large one at that. It's one that prevents her from sleeping properly, and was enough of a problem for her guardians to take drastic measures in an attempt to fix her head.
Why Dorothy is insane now and not before
In the 1939 film, Dorothy was not insane but the movie strongly indicated she probably took a nasty blow to the head - and was in a coma for a small while before coming out of it.
In RtO, the doctor says this verbatim in the office scene:
The brain itself is an electrical machine; it's nothing but a machine. When it malfunctions - a blow to the head, for example - then the brain produces useless excess currents, and these excess currents are our dreams and... delusions.
Right after the doctor says the word delusions, the unnamed girl whom we later find out is Ozma makes her first appearance as a reflection. That's obviously not a coincidence.
Dorothy is for all intents and purposes so far gone that her waking dreams are now completely real to her, have been for some time and she no longer has the capability to distinguish real life from delusion.
I'm going to mention the most hated characters in the movie, the Wheelers, and am dedicating this special section to specifically explain them better.
These characters are hated by most people who watch the movie because they don't know where they come from, why they're there or what their purpose is.
I'll answer all those question for you right now: The wheelers make the exact same noise that the wheeled hospital bed does in the mental institution. In fact every single time a wheeler is up close you hear that grinding metal noise of the hospital bed. The movie tried to make it very obvious where the inspiration for wheelers comes from and why they're bad guys.
A wheeler even at one point outright says, "Got you! Trapped!", just like Dorothy felt when she was restrained in the hospital bed.
The problem with wheelers however - and I totally admit this - is that as characters they're pretty weak. They don't serve to really move the story along that well and serve as time fillers more than anything else. That and most people don't make the connection between the wheeled hospital bed and the wheelers themselves; it's a really easy thing to miss even with all the clues.
Return to Oz is a very dark movie - even if in an understated way
The only reason RtO doesn't carry itself as a totally dark film is because the central character is a child. When people watch it, they see the wild-eyed imagination that kids have.
That's not Dorothy.
In thinly-veiled fashion, RtO is showing a little girl that is losing her mind. She has learned at the end of the movie to hide her fantasies, so she's not cured.
This is the last scene in the movie:
That little white dot you see (just to the right of the house) is Dorothy with her dog. She continues to still be very alone. Nobody is around.
This is not a happy ending because the happiness is only temporary. After being outside, she will go back to her room and her mind will be filled with the fantasy world of Oz once again.
Dorothy is fast losing her grip on reality and will inevitably go completely insane at some point in the future.
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