Directed by Walter Murch
Starring Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh, and Piper Laurie
When you come right down to it, making Return to Oz was an act of madness. Why do a sequel to one of the most beloved films of all time, 46 years after it comes out? How in the world did anyone ever think it would be a success?
And it wasn't. But it deserved to be.
It's not truly a sequel, first of all. Oh, sure, there are references to the MGM film (notably the ruby slippers, which didn't exist in the L. Frank Baum novels), but, really, this is an entirely different film based primarily on a couple of other Oz books. The intention was the film the books, but the script added references to elements of The Wizard of Oz, probably to keep the audiences from being confused (though it probably just increased the confusion).
Return to Oz is the dark image of the Judy Garland film. In it, Dorothy is considered mentally ill for insisting that Oz exists. When she finally makes it there, Oz is a desolate wasteland. The main villain (Jean Marsh) is a witch with no head of her own, but who keeps the heads of beautiful women in jars for her own use. Dorothy meets Tik-Tok, a clockwork man, who has two keys to wind him up: one that makes him move, the other that makes him think.
The bizarre imagery comes from L. Frank Baum, and director Walter Murch (his only film; he remains busy as an editor and sound technician) chose to highlight the darkness of Baum's vision of Oz. There are no songs, and parts of the film are truly frightening.
Fairuza Balk was 9 at the time she played Dorothy, about the same age as Dorothy was in the books. Unlike Garland, who plays Dorothy as being younger than her own age, Balk plays the role as though she were a bit older. She has a great deal of gravity in the role, and is very believable as the heroine. Balk is still acting today, one of the few child actresses who go on to a successful adult career.
The film opened to horrendous reviews and audience apathy. People went into it -- if they went at all -- expecting a duplication of the charming wonders of the original. No film would have been able to have matched that, but when people saw it was an entirely different and darker direction (and in a Disney film, at that), the knives came out. I remember seeing Siskel and Ebert bemoaning the darkness of the film without understanding that was the point. Disney's head of film production said at the time, "The most difficult marketing problem will be to get audiences to come in with an open mind." That problem turned out to be insurmountable (There also may have been some studio politics in play, and film was set up to fail).
But, in many ways, it was ahead of its time, a dark journey through the nightmares of youth. It does appear that the film is getting a critical rediscovery as people learn it is . . . well, Great but Forgotten.