With the new animated Oz film releasing this past weekend, it seemed time to pay tribute to one of the truly under appreciated films of my childhood, 1985's Return to Oz. This is a film that I still watch periodically and it holds up incredibly well. The striking thing about it is that the movie is extremely dark. In the recent Entertainment Weekly they had an article about how it inspired nightmares in an entire generation, but when I saw it as a child, rather than being afraid, I was fascinated by the darkness.
It has a completely opposite mood than the original film, which is relevant from the very beginning where we find Dorothy in a Kansas mental hospital undergoing shock therapy in an attempt to rid her of lingering "fantasies" concerning Oz. Nobody believes her tales of the adventure she lived through and the adults try to cure her of what they consider a wild imagination. It's a powerful and realistic portrayal of imagination being treated as a disease and a child's determination to hold onto what she knows to be the truth.
When she finally returns to Oz, Dorothy finds a much-changed land. The place she knew has fallen on dark times. The Emerald City lies in ruins, overrun by evil gangs of Wheelers and populated by headless inhabitants who have been turned to stone. In a way it reflects the contemporary feeling of the time that cities were dangerous places on the decline.
The best part of the movie is Dorothy, played by an actual child, the mesmerizing Fairuza Balk. Through it all, she faces adversity with the a frustrated determination reminiscent of Alice in the Wonderland books. It's one of the benchmark movies in the development of my imagination, as is the original. And while it may be blamed for terrorizing a generation of children, for me it remains one of those formative films that stuck with me. As the new movie gets panned by critics, may I recommend a different journey to Oz and suggest that you give this film a try. As a bonus, you don't have to go to the theater, and as we all know, there is no place like home when it comes to escaping into imagined lands.