In the Flashback series our writer Dag Sødtholt is shedding light on interesting and perhaps a bit overlooked films. The presentations will vary in scope. Since they are meant to inspire the reader to seek out the films, the articles and the accompanying images will avoid spoilers. Currently there is a special focus on 1980s films.
Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 1985) does not have much of a reputation but turned out to be rich in childlike sense of wonder – an imaginative and beautifully shot odyssey. 11-year-old Fairuza Balk is absolutely enchanting as the resourceful heroine. What expressive eyes!
This Disney production is remarkably dark and sophisticated. It was made during a brief period where a more adult approach to their live action family films was tried out. Other highly commendable works from this time include the near-masterpiece Never Cry Wolf (Caroll Ballard, 1983) and very fine films like Tex (Tim Hunter, 1982), The Journey of Natty Gann (Jeremy Kagan, 1985), and One Magic Christmas (Phillip Borsos, 1985).
Unfortunately, some of them were misunderstood by critics and did not do well commercially. The box office takings for Return to Oz were very poor and its ranking of 42/100 on MetaCritic is plainly weird. Poor Fairuza Balk being rewarded like that, for such a strong, likable and charming performance. (And check out Roger Ebert’s confused review of One Magic Christmas – even though he thought the film was quite excellent, he could not recommend it!) The stature of Return to Oz has improved with time, however, and in reflection of this its user rating on IMDb, for what it’s worth, is as high as 6.8.
There was also a change in management at Disney and they did not believe in Return of Oz at all, which affected its promotion. But even before that there were problems: budgets were cut, so several set pieces had to be left out. This was the legendary editor and sound director Walter Murch‘s first and only film as director so its fate terminated what might have been a great directing career.
He had powerful friends though. The IMDb trivia can tell us: “Disney actually fired director Walter Murch about a week into production due to budget concerns. The studio found dailies lacking and Murch’s slow shooting pace disheartening. Murch contacted friends Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas for help, and all three directors lobbied Disney to rehire Murch. Lucas even offered to take over directing himself should Murch fall behind schedule.”
Return to Oz can be found on DVD but unfortunately not on Blu-ray. It is also available on a large number of streaming platforms, at least in the US.
We end with Fairuza Balk and Emma Ridley silencing the critics: