Other than that creepy forest with the mean grabby trees, the evil wicked witch and her gruesome flying monkeys, and a deadly tornado that almost kills our main character in the beginning of the film, THE WIZARD OF OZ has always been a beloved tale for all ages.
Yeah, who are we kidding? L. Frank Baum’s original tale is the stuff of nightmares for the little ones. It always has been. Yet we all seem to have been subjected to it at an early age.
But RETURN TO OZ is even darker and more twisted.
Back in my ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT days when Sam Raimi’s OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL was heading to theaters, I got a chance to dig up set-visit footage from 1985’s RETURN TO OZ. It was intriguing to see the creative artistry involved, as well as to watch the film’s creative team working in the shadow of one of the most well-known films in cinema history.
The time-capsule footage I found featured a kiddie Fairuza Balk (then just 11 years old) pulling no punches about comparisons to the untouchable 1939 original that we all know and love.
“It’s a different story; people have put lots of effort into it to make it good; I think it’s a sweet film,” Balk told ET of her new movie that takes place in the land of Oz. “All the creatures are lovable, all except the witch and the Gnome King.”
Chronicling the return of Dorothy to her beloved Oz, only to find it in ruins and her friends frozen in stone, RETURN TO OZ is a stunningly innovative film from the mid-’80s minds at Disney with memorable production design and plenty of unconventional content.
It was also a critical disappointment, sadly overlooked at the box office at the time of its release for the most part because it was considered, even then, to be too dark for children. The parents were onto something…
RETURN TO OZ is now considered by many to be a cult classic. It deserves a second look from the likes of Tim Burton fans and appreciators of the NARNIA books and movies, as well as devotees of the many Baum Oz tales. The film is inspired primarily by his early 1900s tomes The Marvelous Land of Oz, Tik-Tok of Oz and Ozma of Oz.
The film works as a nice companion piece to Jim Henson’s LABYRINTH, which came out a year later, or perhaps paired with 1978’s totally twisted THE WIZ for good measure. Or paired with mind-altering substances? All of these films have pretty dark moments when it comes to what we consider “family entertainment” these days. I still look back at some of these RETURN TO OZ moments as both whimsical and as pure nightmare fuel.
Balk, who at the time said she saw THE WIZARD OF OZ 16 times, told ET with a laugh that she was “very very very very very sick and tired” of being compared to Judy Garland, “because I’m not competing with her. I think she was probably a wonderful lady. She did a wonderful movie, and now I’m doing a wonderful movie. And sometimes it’s probably hard for people that have grown up with THE WIZARD OF OZ to adjust to a new movie. I mean, not everybody’s going to like it.”
She was smart, that 11-year-old Fairuza Balk.
Of course, CGI had yet to be a regular crutch for filmmakers when RETURN TO OZ was created, forcing them to rely on practical animatronic creatures and even limber contortionists in costume as key characters.
The mechanical Tik-Tok used flexible actor Michael Sundin to bend over, lock himself into the character’s torso sphere, and walk backward while watching which way he was going via a mini TV. Not for the claustrophobic, to say the least. And Jack Pumpkinhead, perhaps an inspiration for Tim Burton’s early, pumpkinheaded incarnation of Jack Skellington, was played by the very thin Stewart Larange, a top “body popper” dancer in the U.K. known for his incredible moves.
Largely rejected at the time of its release, RETURN TO OZ is still a bit rough narratively and structurally in its pacing, but it’s most definitely worth a look, if not simply for its wonderfully imaginative departure from a well-known property.
Asked if it was fair to compare her movie with STAR WARS, Balk told ET matter of factly, “STAR WARS is space. This isn’t space, this is Oz.”
Take that, silly entertainment reporter.
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