Sunday, June 26, 2016

I finally saw: Return to Oz

I was too young to know the word "blasphemous" in 1985.

But if I'd known it, the 11-year-old me would have certainly produced it upon seeing the trailers for Return to Oz, from which I ran screaming -- metaphorically, at least.

I could think of no more definite way to curdle the joy of the classic 1939 film than this grim and despairing sequel, 46 years later, populated with weird and frightening characters.

It turns out, from finally watching it, that my initial impression of Return to Oz was 100% accurate. However, I'm now less certain that this is a bad thing.

After finally watching Return to Oz, I can say with 100% certainty that it was conceived as a horror movie. Whether this was the right thing to unleash upon us is a different question. But what I once viewed as a colossal failure of tone is now more appropriately seen as a nightmare aimed at children.

The reason I even decided to overcome my apprehensions and give it a chance was that I'd heard some podcasters recently talk about how secretly awesome it was. Could all that twisted material and bad hoodoo actually be great? And what were these "Wheelers" that they were praising in particular?

So when I saw it in the kids section at the library -- the kids section -- I decided to give it a whirl.

If you are like me and ran screaming from this movie, I can tell you that it picks up a couple months after Dorothy's initial return from Oz. Turns out Dorothy -- now inexplicably about eight years old and played by Fairuza Balk -- did not live happily ever after. In fact, instead of resuming her life as a normal and compliant Kansas farm girl, she just wants to tell everyone about this magical place she visited. These being sensible Kansans in the year 1899, they don't want to hear any guff about a magical land with ruby slippers and emerald cities. But instead of benevolently humoring her, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry decide to take her to a doctor in an eerie hospital -- someone who plans to submit her to what appears to be electroshock therapy.

Dorothy, I don't think we're in The Wizard of Oz anymore.

If you told me this were the same hospital they used in Jacob's Ladder, I would believe you. Fortunately, with the assistance of a (possibly imaginary) fellow patient, Dorothy escapes during a perfectly timed power outage that struck just as they were about to power on the equipment. The two girls rush down to a nearby river and plunge in, the sinister hospital administrator hot on their heels. Dorothy grabs on to a crib that washes along in the river and awakens in what she soon determines to be Oz. Oh, and instead of Toto -- who does make an appearance earlier on -- she's got a chicken from her farm with her. A chicken that now can talk.

But it's not the Oz she remembers -- the yellow brick road has been reduced to rubble, as has the Emerald City. Most of its buildings are still standing, but all of its citizens have been turned to stone. Except for the Scarecrow, who was left as king -- and who may be key to the salvation of the city, if he can be found. As Dorothy collects companions -- a mechanical man named Tik Tok, who looks like a bronze and rotund version of the Pringles guy; an early draft of the character that became Jack Skellington, called Jack Pumpkinhead; and the trophy head of a moose that had been killed on a hunting expedition, which flies around a demented version of Santa's sleigh comprised of a couch and some other odds and ends, and goes by the name "Gump" -- she starts to figure out what has happened to her beloved Oz.

Hint: It involves these guys.

If that's not horrifying enough, let's pull out so you can get a better view.

Yep. That's a deranged man wearing a mask helmet with wheels for hands and feet.

"Jesus Christ," I said aloud upon encountering my first Wheeler.

As if these monstrosities -- this film's version of flying monkeys -- were not bad enough, we're just getting started. Dorothy then encounters a wicked princess who keeps a hall of disembodied heads, which belonged to Emerald City citizens whose bodies still remain frozen in stone, and which she switches out with her own depending on her whims. Eventually, she also comes face to face with an evil creature made of rock called the Nome King. The Nome King has rock minions whose faces appear in whatever rocks are near Dorothy, and report back on her progress. He has magic powers and can turn people into "trinkets." *shiver*

For about the first 20 minutes of Return to Oz you're thinking -- if you're sensible -- "My goodness, this is just awful." It does indeed seem to be a catastrophic misunderstanding of what made The Wizard of Oz a classic. Even Auntie Em and Uncle Henry are unmoved by the prospect of submitting their niece to a regimen of suspicious medical experiments involving electricity. Then there are just the things that seem careless, like the fact that the cheery score is out of sync with a drab setting that owes more to the depictions of Victorian England on film than American frontier movies -- and not the cheery versions of Victorian England, but the realistic ones, like Roman Polanski's Tess.

But once she actually goes back to Oz you're thinking -- if you're sensible -- "This is no accident." It may have been an accident on the studio's part that the creators of this content got away with what they got away with, but those creators did not miscalculate. They made exactly the movie they intended to make. Taking their lead from the Grimm theory that fairytales are terrifying, they made a terrifying expedition into Oz, one that owes more to something like Alice in Wonderland (underscored by the aging down of Dorothy) than Victor Fleming's interpretation of L. Frank Baum's material.

Indeed, as much as we may credit (blame?) this film's screenwriters for their strange creations, most of them are taken from Baum's book Ozma of Oz. That's at least where Tik Tok, the Wheelers, the Nome King, the evil princess and the Deadly Desert come from (did I mention there's a desert which turns you into sand if you touch it? That happens to one poor Wheeler), though it would appear that Jack Pumpkinhead and Gump may be original creations. (Adding to the creepiness -- Pumpkinhead is a bit touched in the head. He's always worried about his head rotting, and he keeps asking Dorothy if she's his mother.) Wait, no -- they're from another of Baum's books, The Marvelous Land of Oz.

Most of what's creepiest about this movie works. Some of it doesn't. The quality of the visual effects/costumes/etc. varies at about the same extent. So while most lovers of rule-breaking cinema and anomalous oddities will be won over by Return to Oz, there are the parts of it that just seem sloppy and bad-weird as opposed to good-weird.

Still, I was ready to hate this and I so didn't. In fact, I'm looking forward to my next viewing.

A return to Return to Oz, as it were.

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