Friday, October 22, 2021

Kiddie-Horror Watch: Return to Oz (1985)

noticing the poster makers realized they needed to not tell everyone their favorites aren't really in the movie

Watched:  10/21/2021
Format:  Disney+
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1980's
Director:  Walter Murch

I am categorizing this movie as a kid's horror movie, because (a) that's how Jamie, who has seen it, pitched it to me, and (b) this is a horror movie.  Starring and for kids.  I don't know if that's what anyone set out to make, but that's what it is.  Dorothy returns to a post-apocalyptic Oz where everyone is "dead", and she's pursued relentlessly by murderous creatures.  This is AFTER she's almost given experimental shock treatment to make her forget Oz.  There's a headless woman and her cabinetry of de-capitated heads she can wear who is going to enslave Dorothy for future decapitation.  Dorothy's then put into some weirdo Saw type situation and has to outmaneuver the guy playing with her life.  

All of which would be fine - kids can take a lot - except that the movie is joyless and a slog.

Return to Oz (1985) has its supporters.  The ratings on Rotten Tomatoes are not... terrible.  I get the Space Jam thing of people liking a movie because they watched it a lot when they were young and so it's just a thing they like.  

I very much remember the trailers for the movie in the months before its release and saying "who is this for?"  Even then, I was like "so, now Dorothy is a little girl?  And there's no music?  And no recognizable characters?  Hard pass, thanks."  And I was 10!  But I knew I didn't want to see some off-brand Oz schtick with no updated version of my pals from the 1939 movie.  No return of familiar territory?  That just seemed weird.

Maybe ten years ago I tried to watch the opening of Return to Oz and found it depressing and unpleasant all around.  I only made it 25 minutes or so in.  But Jamie gets payback sometimes for whatever I made her watch recently, and my number was up.

Look.  I don't spend a lot of time talking about the 1939 Wizard of Oz.  It's been a bit since I watched it start to finish, but I consider it uniquely the most important movie in American culture.  No, really.  It's possible Star Wars has surpassed it or will, but Wizard of Oz, from 1939, is, was and shall be a movie you can know people have highly likely seen at least once.  And, even if they have not seen it - they are highly likely aware of it through cultural shorthand.  It's likely you're referencing it weekly without thinking about it, whether it's saying "the man behind the curtain", "we're not in Kansas anymore", or a dozen other phrases.  We all know what the Yellow Brick Road is.  We all know what flying monkeys and Wicked Witches are.  I could go on, but I will not.  But it's also allegorical and rooted in American ideals from the heart of the country, including dreaming about getting the hell out of your one horse town.

What most Americans haven't done is read the Oz books by Frank L Baum.  I haven't.  By the time anyone told me about them, I was in middle school and reading robot books.  I'll argue, passion for purity only goes so far when no one knows or cares what you're talking about, and your movie is weird, boring, joyless and has nothing to say.  So, deciding to start a new movie very heavily based on those books and doing everything possible to eschew the aesthetic of the 1939 film, refusing songs and fun characters in a Disney film - let alone color is a choice.  I understand, I think, that Murch as writer and director was trying to stay true to and own the source material, but...  my man.  If you're going to do that, it needs to not look like a horror movie.  And it does.  

And if you're going up against the most well known movie in America, my dude, you better have something to say with your movie.  

If nothing else, the movie catapulted Fairuza Balk into the early 90's consciousness, and early 90's me is grateful for that.  She was a great little kid actor.  Incredibly natural, and would have been a terrific Dorothy had the movie been better and there been sequels.  

The rest of the cast is a mix of humans, claymation used to excellent effect and puppets/ muppets.  And, frankly, those puppets are pretty astounding.  TikTok the mechanical man and Jack, the pumpkin-headed figure are a great mix of human and puppetry, and a reminder of what you could do with practical effects.  If the characters have any issue, it's that you want to keep saying "phrasing" at them, because the dialog is... you know, it could use some polishing, and there are some kind of oddball unmotivated things (I don't need the pumpkin man calling a 10 year old girl "mommy", which is probably in the books, but.).  

However - a lot of the time, the main characters mouths don't move.  When Scarecrow shows up... he's just gesticulating.  I did see the mouth was maybe supposed to move in some scenes, but... somehow that never translated to the lips moving.  Tiktok and Jack also don't have moving mouths, so in some scenes its just Dorothy talking at props.  

But, yeah, I don't really get why Disney went so dark, but that was kind of the thing at the time.  And it worked.  Neverending Story is kinda f'd up in a lot of ways if the threat of non-existence does anything for you.  Labyrinth and Dark Crystal have some gloom.  And Disney itself was putting out Black Cauldron, Black Hole and other darker faire.  But all of them feel like they have better journeys.  Here, Dorothy only really has about three or four set pieces to get through, and they're all kind of weirdly tedious more than dramatic.  

I dunno.  I am sure this movie has its defenders.  I'm not going to be one of them.  But I can see someone loving it as a kid, which has a certain merit, but as a middle-aged dude, doesn't land the same way.  Now it just feels like a horror film rather than an adventure, and that seems like maybe not where Disney intended to wind up.


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