Skip to main content

I have always valued my lifelessness.

Return to Oz
(1985)

(SPOILERS) Is this the highpoint – so to speak – of the Dark Disney period? Return to Oz is a movie so uncompromising in respect of its target audience, it makes Babe: Pig in the City seem positively innocent. It also remains quite fascinating in a way the same year’s more compromised The Black Cauldron fails to be. Both arrived right at the end of Disney’s identity crisis, before Jeffrey Katzenberg unleased a whole new, Touchstone-led approach (albeit, Splash was the first glimmer of that). Of course, it flopped. How could it not? And yet, I’d much rather watch Return to Oz than the more celebrated Wizard. At least it wears its MKUltra on its chin.

In some respects, it’s incredible Katzenberg (and Michael Eisner) even got the chance to retool the Mouse House from something viewers considered incredibly uncool (it’s hurtling back that way as we speak). There were so few hits from its slate during the first half of the decade, and so many failures, or “financial disappointments”. You can chalk up Splash, The Fox and the Hound and Never Cry Wolf as winners, but beyond that… Elliot Gould failing to appeal to family audiences. Decidedly not the Spielbergian grosses hoped for from Popeye, Dragonslayer and Tron. No one going bananas for Herbie’s fourth round. Juvenile horrors The Watcher in the Woods and Something Wicked This Way Comes missing the mark, while Poltergeist scores a palpable hit. And Condorman.

Return to Oz was a big gun. Not as expensive as The Black Cauldron (little was) but in the ballpark of Something Wicked This Way Comes as a movie carrying high expectations. It was the suggestion of Walter Murch, best known for his sound editing work for Coppola and Lucas; this was his first directorial effort and also his last (unless you count an episode of The Clone Wars). It’s a not dissimilar situation to Saul Bass – title designer par excellence – switching to feature direction for Phase IV, and leaving it as a one-off.

Murch’s experience making Return to Oz was far from smooth going. He suggested the idea to Disney’s then production chief in 1980, who revealed the studio had the rights and were angling for a feature before they lost them. Murch cited The Marvellous Land of Oz (1904) and Ozma of Oz (1907), L Frank Baum’s initial sequels, as the first books he read and so holding a particular appeal.

By the time production was underway, regimes were changing. Murch was fired at one point, but Lucas and Coppola pled his case, with Lucas promising to step in if things fell apart. Murch admitted his own shortcomings in respect of the process: “my editing experience led me to underestimate the importance of master shots, not so much how they work in the final film, but how they function during the production phase… When I was back directing again, I started doing master shots even though they might be filled with imperfections – this was at George's suggestion, and it turned out great”. Of course, George knows all about master shots, preferring to avoid any kind of directorial “style”.

Perhaps surprisingly, give or take inhibiting budget cuts, Murch escaped the kind of messing with his vision that befell the similarly box-office stricken The Black Cauldron, released just over a month later (with the earlier Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend and later My Science Project, that was four significant Disney flops in a row). Murch felt “they mostly ignored it after it did not do so well in previews, which was both good and bad. The good part was that I was able to complete the film I wanted to make, the bad part was that they didn't really get behind its release”.

What was Murch trying to do with the movie, though? He shares the screenplay credit with Gill Dennis (Walk the Line), and the picture seems to be staring the MK Ultra elements oft cited of the original movie overtly in the face. Dorothy (Fairuza Balk, very good; she’d never quite go on to great things, although she did graduate from Toto to a dog man in The Island of Dr. Moreau) is unable to sleep, traumatised by her brainwashing experience. She knows reality just isn’t the same any more (if the whole movie is in colour, is she still in The Matrix?). If it was so liberating, then why does she suffer so (because Oz represents the disassociation that comes from abuse, and her programming is breaking down)?

Her Aunt Em (Piper Laurie, who for all her kindliness here is still Carrie’s mother) is despairing, so takes Dorothy to see Dr JB Worley (Nicol Williamson), brain-care specialist extraordinaire. His suggested treatment? Why, shock therapy! And the only way to escape that is to disassociate once more (this is where the dualities come in, of Williamson as both Worley/the Nome King and Jean Marsh as Nurse Wilson/Mombi). The best way to treat a mind-control victim whose programming is springing a leak is with further mind control.

It’s notable too that the divisions here are even more exaggerated between Oz – for all its urban decay and dilapidated state – being a positive place to go to, over the real world. The real world, where electrical current is “in”, on the cusp of the twentieth century and dawn of a new age: “The brain itself is a mechanical machine” explains Worley reductively. Baum has been much noted for his Theosophical links – although most referencing this seem to fall short in connecting him explicitly to any pronounced Elite agenda – but the theme here might be more properly understood as anthroposophical. Dorothy is explicit in her rejection of scientism and materialism, just as Williamson is Ahrimanic in manifestation; the physical and mechanical are everything, and so his rocky constitution in Oz – bound to the second density – allies him with the same.

Of course, the material is also either devious or undisciplined in its messaging. One of Dorothy’s main allies is Tik-Tok, the Royal Army of Oz, a clockwork machine; this is science presented as a positive, that not all progress is backward. Or is it the insidiousness of transhumanism by deflection (Tik-Tok comes to the screen in the wake of a succession of anthropomorphic robotic men and animals, C-3PO, R2-D2 and Bubo). Notably, the machine knows what it is and accepts its limited state (“I have always valued my lifelessness”).

Others are less certain. Dorothy is pals with Jack Pumpkinhead (whose design would inspire Tim Burton’s Jack Skellington), a homunculus animated by Mombi through use of the Powder of Life. By its essence, the powder is against nature, used by dark forces to create beings lacking a core self (suggestive of Paracelsus?) Pumpkinhead wants emotional fulfilment (he asks to call Dorothy “Mom”). And yet, it appears its use is in the eye of the wielder, since Dorothy manifests a Gump with it, one instantly afflicted by existential doubts (“Why am I here?”)

Notably, the Nome King is fatally done in by a chicken’s egg, a symbol of life rather than calcification (life breaks forth from it). With it, the stony Oz populace are returned to the land of the living (Raya and the Last Dragon recently revisited to the deathful life of stony-ness). This return fails to make the trio from the original seem any fuller of life, though. Apparently, the Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow were victims to budget cuts, but as realised in puppet form, they’re eerie cadavers, further underlining the distancing the material has from the comfort food The Wizard of Oz (this, perhaps, is in Return’s favour; it tells it like it is).

Return to Oz isn’t wholly successful when it comes to storyline. It begins well, and the arrival in Oz is heralded by the hugely sinister Wheelers; this is the sort of thing you just know would meet with Gilliam or Burton’s full approval. Murch conducts sequences of genuine suspense as Dorothy must elude various threats.

First the Wheelers, with their elongated limbs and rollerskated legs. Then Mombi, who keeps a collection of heads (from humans) in glass cases and changes them at a whim (both post Worzel Gummidge and pre Baron Munchausen; did Gilliam see this before the King of the Moon sequence in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen?) The sight of a headless Jean Marsh screaming “Where’s my Powder of Life?” her voice treated with a Twin Peaks-esque backward-masking effect is masterfully unnerving.

Unfortunately, Williamson is rather sedated here, and while the stop-motion work for the reports to the King (“She has a chicken with her”: “A chicken?”) adds to the unsettling tone, the Nome King fails to conjure any dread. As a consequence, much of this confrontation is lacking, even with the gambit of Dorothy’s dwindling friends as they disappear, attempting to find the Scarecrow.

Marsh is a far more imposing figure (and she’d later be called upon by Lucas – Willow – and Doctor WhoBattlefield – for similar duties). The sight of Nurse Wilson being carted off under lock and key makes for a neat final justice moment. It remains the case, though, that in Murch’s conception, Oz is no Narnia-like pleasure land, but one borne from trauma; come the conclusion, divided by the mirror, Dorothy has achieved an equilibrium for now and doesn’t need to return, instead going out to play with grubby Toto.

Murch said: “I'm proud of Return to Oz and happy that I got a chance to make it, but unless you're extremely lucky in the projects you choose or how things fall into place, you really need a burning desire to direct for the sake of directing, and I don't have that. I was passionate about this particular story, for a variety of reasons, but not about the process of directing per se”.

How does Return to Oz rate out of the Oz trio (I’ll do The Wiz the favour of ignoring it)? I’d put it out in front. Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful is disappointingly inert (Franco doesn’t help, but it lacks any of the director’s expected energy and verve), while The Wizard of Oz is a collection of songs signifying not so much. Murch’s movie is flawed but fascinating, a different version of Disney sealed in amber (much like the Disney logo first used for its release; some have called it the “rainbow” design, although I favour the notion that the semi-circle above the castle is a representation of the dome).

Popular posts from this blog

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

You ruined every suck-my-silky-ass thing!

The Matrix Resurrections (2021) (SPOILERS) Warner Bros has been here before. Déjà vu? What happens when you let a filmmaker do whatever they want? And I don’t mean in the manner of Netflix. No, in the sequel sense. You get a Gremlins 2: The New Batch (a classic, obviously, but not one that financially furthered a franchise). And conversely, when you simply cash in on a brand, consequences be damned? Exorcist II: The Heretic speaks for itself. So in the case of The Matrix Resurrections – not far from as meta as The New Batch , but much less irreverent – when Thomas “Tom” Anderson, designer of globally successful gaming trilogy The Matrix , is told “ Our beloved company, Warner Bros, has decided to make a sequel to the trilogy ” and it’s going ahead “with or without us”, you can be fairly sure this is the gospel. That Lana, now going it alone, decided it was better to “make the best of it” than let her baby be sullied. Of course, quite what that amounts to in the case of a movie(s) tha

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

It’s always possible to find a good moral reason for killing anybody.

The Assassination Bureau (1969) (SPOILERS) The Assassination Bureau ought to be a great movie. You can see its influence on those who either think it is a great movie, or want to produce something that fulfils its potential. Alan Moore and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen . The just-released (and just-flopped) The King’s Men . It inhabits a post-Avengers, self-consciously benign rehearsal of, and ambivalence towards, Empire manners and attitudes, something that could previously be seen that decade in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (and sequel Monte Carlo or Bust , also 1969), Adam Adamant Lives! , and even earlier with Kind Hearts and Coronets , whilst also feeding into that “Peacock Revolution” of Edwardian/Victorian fashion refurbishment. Unfortunately, though, it lacks the pop-stylistic savvy that made, say, The President’s Analyst so vivacious.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.