RETURN TO OZ
Return to Oz is certainly a very different film to The Wizard of Oz (although is actually much closer in tone to the original L. Frank Baum books than The Wizard of Oz was). It abandons the stage musical tradition that Wizard was steeped in nobody sings or dances; the world of Oz is more three-dimensional and less stagebound; and the non-humanoid characters are no longer actors in burlesque makeup but full-fledged mechanical and animatronic creations. Indeed, it is a surprisingly darker film in tone and content. This is something that outraged the Moral Minorities when the film came out who did their thing about unsuitability for children etc etc. As a result, Return to Oz was not a great success, although there have been a modest number of voices in subsequent years calling for its reevaluation.
Return to Oz was directed by Walter Murch, previously an Academy Award winning editor and sound effects editor on Francis Ford Coppolas Godfather sequels and Apocalypse Now (1979) and who has also worked on other high profile films including American Graffiti (1973), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1987), Ghost (1990) and The English Patient (1996), as well co-writing George Lucass first film THX 1138 (1971). Murch made his directorial debut with the film. (When the studio slashed the budget and Murch became snowed under, his esteem was such that both Lucas and Coppola rushed to the set to help out).
Aided by a score that thunders in the basement like all the demons of Hell unleashed, Walter Murch keeps the films pace out on a wild histrionic edge for the greater part. The effects teams do a fine job, with some especially good mechanical creations, while the Nome King has been brought to life by stop-motion animator Will Vinton using the Claymation process later popularised by Aardman Animation. Oz itself has been beautifully redesigned in gilt mirrors and elaborate wrought iron like something out of a Victorian World Expo.
For all that, Return to Oz disappoints somewhat. There is a sparseness to the film (possibly due to sections of script being dumped as a result of budget cuts). Not a huge amount happens and it is virtually over by the time it has begun. The mechanical companions lack the vibrant personalities that the costumed creations had in the original. Such fine performers as Nicol Williamson and Piper Laurie are cast with an almost criminal underuse of their talents. There is too much of an intent seriousness to Fairuza Balks Dorothy to ever convince there is nothing of the wide-eyed innocence that Judy Garland had in the original that so charmed an entire generation, although Balk did subsequently go on to carve out a modest niche as a teen and twentysomething actress in a number of indie films. Despite showing a good deal of promise, the films failure was such that Walter Murch has yet to reoccupy the directors chair.