Return to Oz is a strange film. It’s a strange film given what would now be accepted as a children’s film. It’s a strange film for a Disney film. And it’s a strange film to follow the overwhelming cultural legacy of MGM’s 1939 Wizard of Oz film.
Reviews that followed Return to Oz’s 1985 release could not reconcile expectations of what a big-budget sequel to the cheery, sentimental musical Oz should be with the dystopian film with no dancing munchkins and no dance numbers but plenty of frightening new characters and a new framing story that placed the beloved Dorothy in a mental institution poised to receive a dose of electroshock therapy.
Roger Ebert: “Somebody should have thought at the very first when they were starting out with Return to Oz, somebody should have had this thought: “It oughta be fun, it oughta be upbeat, it oughta be sweet, it oughta be wondrous. It shouldn’t be scary.”
Gene Siskel: “Kids under six are gonna get nightmares from this picture. Kids over six, they’ll just have a bad time at the movies.”
In some ways the film is typical of a different era of filmmaking for children in the early to mid 1980s, in which darker themes, genuine terror, and traumatising deaths of innocent characters were not seen as beyond the emotional comprehension of young viewers.
Think of The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and the heart-rending demise of the horse Artax in The Never-Ending Story. But even in this context, the film is unusual, and this contributed to Disney more or less disowning the film by putting in minimal marketing and merchandising effort. You won’t find a trace of some of the most iconic characters of all time –those from the world of Oz – in Disney parks or products, unlike its treatment of its legacy from the animated Alice in Wonderland from 1951.
So what is the story of this film? How did such an unusual children’s film come to be made on such a big-budget and then be almost disowned by Disney?
The root of the weirdness of the film begins with Apocalypse Now, the logical place to start when you want to make a Disney children’s film. Walter Murch was the sound editor and designer on the film; he was developing an impressive reputation and gaining deep respect within the industry. At the same time, Disney was going through a creative lull with a number of commercial failures and was scouting around for new
directorial talent. They approached Murch, asking him what kind of film he might be interested in making and he mentioned that he had always loved L. Frank Baum’s series of Oz books. In an amazing coincidence, Disney happened to own the rights to 11 of the Oz books and were receptive to the idea of capitalising on these rights before the copyright period on the books would soon expire. Of course, these were the rights
to the story as it appeared in the books only, not the visual depictions that MGM had derived for their film. So, for instance, in Baum’s original books Dorothy wore silver shoes but these were changed to ruby for the MGM film to take advantage of technicolour with red standing out in colour. Indeed, Disney had to pay for the right to use the trademarked ruby slippers in Return to Oz. Dorothy’s braids are the only other element
borrowed from the MGM film.
In total there were 14 Oz books, and the series was continued by Ruth Plumley Thompson for a further 21 books, so there was actually no shortage of material that could have been plundered for sequels to the MGM film. Very early on, Baum and others recognised how adaptable the stories were to the stage and screen. The first Oz book was published in 1900, and by 1902 musicals began in Chicago and it was then translated to a Broadway hit. Baum’s first infatuation had been the theatre and he invested a great deal of money in the production of elaborate musicals. He financed the first attempt to film Oz with The Fairylogue and Radio Plays in 1908, which mixed live actors, magic lantern slides and Baum himself appears on stage interacting with the characters on stage and screen. Even though performances sold out throughout Michigan, Chicago and New York, it cost more money to produce than could be recouped. Baum then founded the Oz Film Manufacturing Company to adapt his films and in 1914 released the first silent film version of The Patchwork Girl of Oz. It was not a financial success and after it failed to live up to expectations when exhibited by Paramount Pictures in New York they refused to accept any subsequent Oz films, or indeed any others from Baum’s company. Baum’s company nevertheless went on to make The Magic Cloak of Oz (1917) and His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz/The New Wizard of Oz released after his death in 1925 (Tin Man Oliver Hardy) Baum lost the rights to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as well as other books in the series when owing money to a creditor due to his numerous failed ventures– this meant other short films were made based on the story. And it also explains how Walt Disney was able to acquire the rights to 11 Oz books in 1954. He wanted to adaptation of Patchwork Girl of Oz for the Disneyland television show. Disney thought the screenplay was good and wanted to make a feature film using the Mouseketeers from The Mickey Mouse Club with Annette Funicello as Ozma, but the film did not eventuate and two of the intended songs were performed on the Disneyland television show.
Like the 1939 film, you can see the influence of the vaudeville stage tradition on this musical number and how the planned Disney Oz film would have developed in the same way. Return to Oz totally sidesteps that tradition and returns to Baum’s books for source material. While the absence of the settings and characters from The Wizard of Oz, the film felt like it was departing from what Oz was supposed to be for many reviewers and audiences, but it actually combines the two books from the Oz series, Ozma of Oz and The Marvellous Land of Oz.
It was going to be a very different film that took advantage of developing special effects technology to reproduce all of the Oz characters in the story, rather than dressing people in costumes, and pre-production took a long time. By Autumn of 1983 $6 million had been spent. New Disney boss Richard Berger shut down production in November 1983, six weeks before filming was due to start in London as anxiety grew about the film’s budget of around $27 million and costs blowing out further. They were even contemplating canning the film despite having poured a lot of money into development. Producer Paul Maslansky was instructed by DIsney to give an assessment to see if it would be possible to cut at least $5 million from the film’s budget. It is tantalising to consider how the film might have looked if not for this substantial hack into the money available for location shooting, mechanical effects, the creatures and Claymation. The Deadly Desert sequence was going to be shot on location in Sardinia and Algeria. The scene where Dorothy and Tik Tok are trapped by the Wheelers was to be filmed at Ciudad Encantada- Enchanted City north of Madrid. The Nome King’s throne room going to be shot at Caserta near Naples while Mombi’s palace was going to be Hadrian’s villa outside Rome. There was also going to be two weeks of shooting in Kansas. With the cuts, all of these locations shoots were cut and 80% of the film was to shot on soundstages at Elmstree Studios outside London where Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back were filmed, Kansas scenes from the beginning of the film were shot on the Salisbury Plains near Stonehenge, while shots of the ruins of Oz were created using miniatures. Here are some images that show miniatures of the Emerald City and the Nome King’s mountain lair. *Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz estimates that [what was his role] that one million dollars was cut from the budget for the creatures, two million on the Claymation and opticals, and up to 2 million on mechanical effects.
For those of you have seen the film, it will make sense when I say that it was the characters of the Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow and Lion who suffered from the budget cuts. The Lion one of the first things cut. There were supposed to be three heads constructed for closeup, medium shots (the one produced) and a light stunt head. They were not allowed to make a duplicate costume, only spare legs and feet. Nevertheless, he’s arguably a more successful look that the Scarecrow who had a minimally articulated cable operated head that fails in close-up scenes. The Tin Man was supposed to be created with a marionette style puppet and opticals but this was going to be too expensive so they were forced to create something in which a small person could sit inside to perform some basic movements. Deep Roy- who was rode the racing snail in Neverending Story and was the Oompa Loompa in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory— operated a rod inside the torso. It was such a crude set-up that Roy’s legs hung down out of the Tin Man’s body and in plain view which is why he is always seen behind another character in the scenes in which he appears.
Nevertheless, regardless of these restrictions, some of the creatures and effects are startling for this pre-CGI period. More finances and effort were directed into creatures such as Billina, the mechanical chicken; and the mechanical man Tik Tok who was operated by a full-sized man concealed within the torso. However, they may appear to us now, the Wheelers scared the bejeesus out of a generation of 80s kids. Originally ice and roller skaters were hired to take up these roles with the expectation that skating skills would translate to rolling along on wheels taken from wheelchairs. It turned out that no pre-existing ability prepared anyone to move as a Wheeler and so 17 people had to train specifically for the task including former apes from Greystoke and a man who had had his feet amputated. Special effects designers from The Dark Crystal and Greystoke worked on the film, along with the work of the Zoran Perisic who invented the Zoptic method, an in-camera front projection system that had been designed to make Superman fly. The Claymation work in the film is extremely innovative in its replication of movement in stone, particularly given that the Nomes as imagined in Baum’s work were traditional miniature men-shaped gnomes. The process of the Nome King transforming into the form of a man was also made extremely difficult by the fact that filming occurred in London but the Claymation studio was location in Oregon.
The financial limitations and their effect on the look of the film were not the only major challenge faced during film. After seven weeks of shooting, Murch had a breakdown during the shooting of the scene in which Mombi changes her head. According to Maslansky, Murch was extremely confused and said to him “I don’t know where we are in the picture”. He was lost in terms of how the film pieced together and went to lie down in his office. With 500 people on the payroll, thoughts immediately turned to a list of other potential directors. But because of Murch’s reputation and previous work with other industry luminaries, there was an almost immediate remarkable response. Within an hour George Lucas called from Japan and agreed to come immediately to England to help Murch get back on his feet. Murch had worked on THX1138 and American Graffiti. Accordingly to Maslansky, 20 minutes later Stephen Spielberg called and said he would come to the studio the next day. Shortly afterward, Francis Ford Coppola called to say that it was his birthday the next day and that he would be in London. Lucas took over for the film week, shooting the scenes with the flying Gump until Murch could recover. Reportedly, he urged Disney to keep Murch on the film with the reassurance that he would personally finish the film if it did not work out. While the film has obviously become a cult classic, and was ahead of its time in embracing the type of dystopian vision of Oz that has become more common in TV series such as Tin Man and the novels Dorothy Must Die, the experience of directing was clearly not for Murch. He has not directed another film, although he is one of the most respected sounds designers and editors in the industry.
Disney had flip-flopped on the film numerous times, studio heads had changed multiple times during pre-production, the budget was slashed, and then on the film’s release very minimal support was leant to its marketing. In an era in which product tie-ins and cross-promotions for children’s films were becoming extremely important, the film has an unusually tiny amount of merchandise associated with it comprising of books, a comic, and a promotion for Smukers jelly involving some hand-puppets. The only figurines produced were made for the Japanese market. In Disney’s terms it was something of a failure, and for those who came to the film expecting a light-hearted musical, it was also a failure. I saw the film on its release when I was six years old with my grandfather. I can still remember how odd it felt to have to manage his disappointment as he kept saying “that’s now how the yellow brick road is supposed to be—all broken”. Of the generation that would have seen the MGM film on its release, Return to Oz made no sense and was even disturbing, but to me the darkness of the film seemed more magically real than Judy Garland’s cheerful land of Oz and it has stayed with me in more ways than one.