There's something strangely reassuring about the fact that children in movies are routinely played by teens while teens are regularly played by jaded twentysomethings who only vaguely recall their own adolescence. Audiences for The Wizard Of Oz, for example, could take comfort in the knowledge that while the film's plucky protagonist might suffer all sorts of harrowing peril the moment the cameras stopped rolling 12-year-old Dorothy reverted back into 16-year-old Judy Garland, who could then carefully remove the duct tape from her nipples and spend the next few hours knocking back Screaming Meanies and Purple Poppers with vodka shots alongside her ever-loving entourage.
So one of the many, many disconcerting elements of 1985's Return To Oz is that its Dorothy is so transparently played by a real-live little girl, an otherworldly, preternaturally precocious little woman but an eminently traumatizable young person all the same. Oh Lordy is there a lot to be traumatized by in Return To Oz. Return To Oz has a reputation for being exceedingly dark but I still found its uncompromising creepiness bracing.
As the film begins Fairuza Balk's Dorothy is a grave little insomniac prone to spouting nonsensical jibberish about a fantastical land called "Oz" where she befriended a weak-willed lion, a Tinsman and a nightmarish sentient scarecrow. Falk is sent to a mental hospital for electro-shock therapy but a storm intercedes. Balk returns to an Oz that has devolved into a spooky ghost-town overrun by hideous creatures named "Wheelers" with wheels for hands and feet. The Wheelers' sequence is a harrowing masterpiece of sound design that betrays director Walter Murch's background as one of film's most revered editors/sonic architects. The Wheelers are such an unnerving physical and sonic presence that it seems a shame they have to open their mouths and deliver standard-issue henchmen banter.
Balk encounters a narcissistic witch who keeps a collection of disembodied heads for her own private use and display and a stone king animated by the Will Vinton studios in the best Ray Harryhausen tradition. For added Oedipal weirdness Balk's posse this time out includes a fellow for a pumpkin for a head who insists on calling Balk "mother" (paging Dr. Freud and/or Norman Bates).
In his directorial debut Murch brings a chilly perfectionism to the material that could only come from a master craftsman with a deep understanding of how the disparate elements of film together and an eye for striking compositions. Murch refuses to sugarcoat any element of the film: he gives audiences the strong stuff and he gives it to them straight. The Oz sequences are nearly as harrowing as the early sequences in the mental hospital. A talking chicken provides largely unwelcome comic relief but Return To Oz is otherwise unrelentingly bleak and somber.
Like The Wiz, it captures the horror and creepiness of Oz creator L. Frank Baum's world but shortchanges the magic and wonder: Murch's Oz is not a nice place to visit nor would anyone want to live there. Then again, Murch's horrifying Oz mirrors how many children see the world: as a frightening, dangerous, even Kafkaesque place lorded over by glowering authority figures ruled by sinister motives and a cryptic, unfathomable code of conduct and ethics.
Return To Oz is the kind of primally unsettling kid's film whose cultural resonance can be measured not just in terms of box-office and reviews but also in the number of bad dreams and traumatic memories it inspires. On that level the film's unqualified success. It's the stuff nightmares are made of.
Incidentally, next week is Vanity week at My Year Of Flops as I examine the self-indulgentastic likes of the Tom Arnold/rich kid with cerebral palsy vehicle The Kid & I and Billy Jack Goes To Washington.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success?: Secret Success