Return to Oz: There’s No Place Like a Terrifying Kids Movie

Return to Oz
Return of the Oz.

Return to Oz terrified a generation. The Walter Murch directed Britsh-American dark fantasy film left many kids unable to sleep in the 1980s and beyond.

And we’re here to celebrate it! Because why not? There’s nothing quite like reliving the emotional scares of a bygone decade.

Return to Oz

Launched in 1985, it starred a young Fairuza Balk as Dorothy Gale.

It’s also notable for its disturbing imagery and dark themes, effectively making it the Watership Down of the 1980s. Ah, they don’t make them like this no more.

The plot begins in 1889, where Dorothy talks of her trip to the Land of Oz. This troubles her Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark).

Believing the little girl is losing her mind, Aunt Em decides to take her for electrotherapy.

Luckily for Dorothy, she’s saved at the last moment by a lightning storm. A mysterious girl then appears and frees her, with the two escaping the electrotherapy unit.

During the escape the other girl vanishes and Dorothy falls into a river.

When she wakes up, she’s back in the land of Oz with a friendly talking chicken called Billina. The pair travel to the Emerald City, which is now dilapidated.

Enter the Wheelers, the much hated and terrifying antagonists who have wheels instead of hands and feet.

It’s fair to say the Wheelers are probably what most kids remember from Return to Oz. Talk about a nasty bunch of bastards.

Thankfully, Dorothy comes across a metallic robot dude who’s able to whoop the Wheelers’ butts.

Some of the special effects are flat out brilliant. Such as when Dorothy discovers Tik-Tok (not the app—this metallic being).

What follows throughout the rest of the film is dark fantasy and warped surrealism.

Pretty much everyone (or everything) Dorothy comes across is a total jerk. At a royal palace, she meets Mombi who wants to imprison her and take off her head for a jar collection.

Things soon become a race against time to get her ruby slippers and escape the bloody land of Oz once and for all.

Dorothy does, thankfully, escape and return to Kansas. Where some semblance or normality returns for the poor girl. Film end!

Okay, so we saw Return to Oz when we were approaching our teenage years. So it still had the capacity to frighten us rigid. Which it promptly did.

There were quite a few fantasy films like this from the 1980s that were pretty creepy.

From an objective standpoint, the production values in Return to Oz are high. And the special effects for the 1985 are excellent.

The performances are also solid all round and you can see why Balk went on to cult status.

Cult status is also what the movie has also achieved. It’s mega divisive—some people think it’s a dark and disturbing masterpiece. Others seem to let their childhood fear weight over it.

On YouTube Movies the synopsis says, “You’ll love accompanying Dorothy on this thrilling adventure based on L Frank Baum’s books!” The film is also rated a U.

We’ve got to presume whoever wrote that has never seen this thing. As we’d suggest this isn’t much of a kid’s movie.

But all the same, for what it’s worth, if a media text leaves an indelible impact on you in the way this film has… it must have done something right?

The Production of Return to Oz

Director Walter Murch began plotting the film in 1980 and was actually fired by Walt Disney productions.

This was largely as it was a long shoot and he fell behind schedule, starting in February 1984 and only wrapping in October 1984 (shortly before a young Mr. Wapojif was born!).

George Lucas was supposed to take over at one point, but convinced the studio to give Murch another shot.

That didn’t stop the film from being a box office disaster. Off its $28 million budget, it went on to make $11.1 million in the North America.

This failure is more than likely due to the mixed reviews the film received, along with feedback of the dark and disturbing nature of the movie.

Considering it was intended for kids (and we remember watching it one random afternoon in 1995 or so—boy, did it freak us out), it’s just a bit unsuitable.

The Wheelers, in particular, were enough to scare the bejeezus out of any young mind. Nasty bastards!

Anyway, it now has a cult following. And it helped launch Fairuza Balk into roles such as The Craft (1996) with her gothic good looks.

Otherwise Return to Oz kind of feels like the type of film that wouldn’t get made these days.

It’d have a massive overhaul or some such to tone down the scares. Possibly. We don’t want to come across as a “Back in our day, cinema were proper!” sorts with that comment.

The film just would, at least, have an appropriate rating and not be marketed at kids.

Perhaps then it would have enjoyed greater commercial success. Hey ho, at least it was nominated for a special effects gong at the Oscars.


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