Return to Oz (1985)

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-masterpieces Never Cry Wolf (Caroll Ballard, 1983) and Something Wicked This Way Comes (Jack Clayton, 1983), as well as the very fine films 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.

A lovely shot of Dorothy, sparkling with wonder and life.
Lunch is growing on trees in Oz…!
An especially outstanding sequence features Dorothy’s encounter with a headless witch…
…and her storeroom of assorted heads, all living independently from each other but also in co-ordination with the main body.
At night all the heads are sleeping together with the witch…
…which makes for some exquisitely atmospheric images…
…rendered with great beauty.
Dorothy among the sleeping heads.
The witch having an argument with Dorothy’s chicken Billina.
Jean Marsh, a British actress well-known for her TV work, plays the evil Princess Mombi.
The Emerald City in ruins with its inhabitants turned into stone.
Dorothy encounters Tik-Tok, a mechanical man.
The Emerald City in the distance.
One of the film’s many brilliant ideas: upon the heroine’s return to the real world her eyes are fleetingly changed into green, the magical colour of Oz, as a reminiscence of the land she has left behind. Here it was impossible not to think of the hypnotic opening shot (bottom image) of Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017).
Visually constricted gazes are a motif in the film.
Another gaze shot, of the wistful kind.
Mirrors are beautifully and ingeniously involved in multiple closures at the end. Here Dorothy meets a princess who is trapped inside a mirror…
…but Dorothy comes to the rescue and manages to pull the princess out.

The princess is played beautifully too, by Emma Ridley.
Back on Earth something magical happens.

We end with Fairuza Balk and Emma Ridley silencing the critics:


Read next: