Did you know that Disney made a strange sequel to The Wizard of Oz (1939) almost fifty years later called Return to Oz(1985)? My partner on the Down and Out Reviews podcast (which you can find on Spotify) claims that everyone knows this fact. With all due respect to Isaac, I find that hard to believe. I do remember seeing it as a kid on the Disney channel, and it was one of the first films I watched when I signed up for Disney +. Because it truly is an obscure title, I had to do some hunting. If you are unfamiliar with this title, please keep reading. It is quite different in tone from its predecessor, and one of the more bizarre films I know.
Return to Oz picks up six months after the events of The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) is still living with her Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark). They are behind in rebuilding their Kansas farm from the fateful tornado (read my review of the previous film), but also concerned about Dorothy. She has had trouble sleeping, and keeps going on about the magical land of Oz. So much does she talk about the place that they have forbidden her from even mentioning it. Dorothy, too, is trying to put it out of her mind until one day her hen Billina (voiced by Denise Bryer) finds a key with the letters “OZ” overlaid on each other. It renews her enthusiasm for Oz, but the next day Aunt Em takes her to the establishment of Dr. J. B. Worley (Nicol Williamson), an asylum where she is to receive electroshock therapy in order to dispel her crazy notions. I mean, the nineteenth century, am I right? No long after settling in, she is strapped to a gurney and wheeled into the room where the procedure is to be performed, aided by Dr. Worley’s assistant, Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh). Before the switch can be thrown, however, a bolt of lightning from a storm knocks out the electricity. As Dr. Worley and Nurse Wilson go to investigate, Dorothy is freed by a mysterious girl (Emma Ridley). Together, they flee into the rain and are eventually swept down a river. When Dorothy comes to the next day, she is once more in Oz, and this time a talking Billina is there to accompany her. It soon becomes apparent that the land she left has undergone a number of drastic changes. Munchkinland, where her house previously landed, is gone and the Yellow Brick Road has been nearly wrecked. Following it anyway, she finds the Emerald City in ruins and all its inhabitants turned to stone. Not everyone amongst the rubble, though, have been rendered inert. Dorothy is accosted by a group of people with skates at the end of their long appendages that are known as Wheelers. Dorothy runs from them, and in so doing encounters the first of her new allies, a wind-up copper robot known as Tik-Tok (Sean Barrett). His metal plates proclaim him to be part of the army of Oz, and when he comes to life he explains that Scarecrow (Justin Case), the king of Oz, had placed Tik-Tok there to await Dorothy’s arrival. When they emerge, they are able to get a hold of one of the Wheelers, who reveals that Princess Bombi knows the location of King Scarecrow. Luckily, she is nearby in the city. Unluckily, she has been taking the heads of Emerald City’s denizens and changes them out with the kind of regularity that you and I would swap out socks. When she sees Dorothy, instead of pointing the way to King Scarecrow, she locks Dorothy in a tower to grow older and eventually take her head. Still, one thing she did learn is that King Scarecrow is being held by the Nome King (Nicol Williamson) across the Deadly Desert on a desolate mountain. In the room where she is held, she discovers companion number two, Jack Pumpkinhead (voiced by Brian Henson). As his name suggests, his head is a pumpkin, and the rest is an amalgamation of sticks tied together in human form with some clothes thrown on top. As they converse, Dorothy asks how such a creature as himself is possible, and he reveals the existence of the Powder of Life, hidden with the head that resembles Nurse Wilson. With Jack’s help, she is able to retrieve the powder and the broken down Tik-Tok, create a flying moose-sofa they name the Gump (voiced by Lyle Conway), and make it to the Nome King’s abode. They find him somewhat reluctant to give in to their demands, and instead he arranges a trick for Dorothy. The Nome King, using the power of the ruby red slippers, has turned King Scarecrow into a knickknack he has placed among his collection. Dorothy and each of her companions are given three attempts to find the right one, or they are also turned into objects. On her last guess, Dorothy finds the correct one, which angers the Nome King, who had been using it turn from stone to human. The day is saved, however, when Billina, hiding inside of Jack’s pumpkin head, lays an egg. These are poisonous to the Nome King, and he melts away. Getting the slippers back, Dorothy uses them to return everything to its former glory. A grateful Oz wants to make her queen, but at this moment the girl who she fled with reappears. This turns out to be Princess Ozma, the rightful ruler of Oz, and so she is free to go back to Kansas. When she does, she is found by the river bank by Uncle Henry. She returns home, but is given one last peak at Princess Ozma and Billina.
If you know The Wizard of Oz well, the above description of Return to Oz must have been equal parts familiar and puzzling. At least this one is not a musical? That is, of course, rhetorical. It is not a musical. I do not rightly know what else to say about the film, but one subject that is kind of sweet amongst the rather terrifying aspects is the relationship between Dorothy and Jack. Jack comes to look at Dorothy as his mother, and refers to her as such for the majority of their interactions. In my experience as a Catholic, I have had a few people who have fulfilled similar roles, though I never went so far as to call them “mom.” It is a part that I am grateful they played, not just for myself but in seeing them emulate Mary, the Mother of God. There is a poignant moment during the Passion when Jesus, dying on the Cross, looks down at his Mother and John, his beloved disciple. Jesus tells Mary that she is now John’s mother, which is meant to be a symbolic act of adoption for all Christians from that day forward. It is why the Church reveres Mary to this day, though once more, we do not worship her. Like Jack did with Dorothy, Catholics turn to Mary for comfort, just as Mary attempted to do for her Son on the day of His Crucifixion. It is good to see such nurturing feelings in all their forms.
As I finished watching Return to Oz, I joked hypothetically about a child, who is a fan of The Wizard of Oz, being excited to see the sequel and then having nightmares afterwards. There are some pretty horrifying images. The stuff with Princess Bombi changing heads is a neat special effect, though the hallway in which the extra craniums are kept is creepy in its austere beauty. If you are in the mood for something odd, then take a look, though I would not show it to children.