Most of the memories I have of children's films I watched as a child involve me being terrified, and 1985's Return to Oz is one of those films that ingrained itself on my memory.
There are many great scares to choose from: The incredibly creepy Wheelers; the head-switching witch, Mombi; the Nome King. The dark mood and sense of dread runs throughout the film, making it very scary for children and box office poison. It's testament to Walt Disney Pictures that they took the risk to create such a dark film.
Another one of my childhood terrors, Watership Down, suffered a similar fate: It's too terrifying for young children, but not adult enough to warrant an adult audience (although you could argue that point). They are doomed to fail from the outset. But these beloved flops are a testament to risk-taking filmmaking, especially in these risk-free, remake heavy times.
No Hollywood studio in their right minds would make a children's film like this now, hence Johnny Depp and Tim Burton's safe and bland collaborations on Alice in Wonderland and Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and countless talking animal animated movies that you forget seconds after leaving the cinema.
Return to Oz shares a lot in common with the original 1939 Wizard of Oz. Apart from obviously being adaptations from the works of L. Frank Baum, both films are very dark in tone, are terrifying, and both were financial failures upon their release that have become beloved with age.
The sequel became a possibility when the Baum's Oz books on which the original film was based came into public domain. Disney decided to make the sequel without MGM's involvement (they made the original film) and could therefore create a whole new film without any legal issues (although the use of the ruby slippers had to be cleared with MGM).
Fairuza Balk (most people will remember her from 90's witch-fest The Craft) plays Dorothy, and gives a strong central performance, especially considering that she spends most of the film with Jack Pumpkinhead (who looks like a nicer version of Jack from The Nightmare Before Christmas), a round clockwork man called Tik-Tok and a flying sofa with the head of a trophy-hunted moose.
The visual effects were nominated for an Oscar and deservedly so. They are a visual treat throughout, both in character design and sets. The most spectacular and frightening use of visual effects can be found in the scene in which Dorothy and her friends escape the Nome King (watch it here).
The fact that the scene is similar to the end of Sam Raimi's horror classic The Evil Dead will puzzle and terrify parents in equal measure. It could make a great double bill once the kids come out of therapy at 18.
But they should, because children should not be wrapped in cosy blankets, treated like idiots and protected from the world. Roald Dahl would never have been published if he wasn't so aware that the best way to tap into a child's imagination was to engage them.
I would recommend Return to Oz and The Witches (easily the best Roald Dahl film adaptation) as a great double bill of movies to scare the wits out of children whilst engaging them in an incredible story with action, great characters, suspense and jokes at the expense of a giant moose head.
Return to Oz is a true classic, and a beloved flop from my formative years. Watch it again. You won't be disappointed, and you'll love it just as much as you did the first time round when nobody but you and I saw it.
Just bring a spare pair of pants for when those Wheelers turn up...
BELOVED FLOP STATS:
BUDGET: $25,000,000 (ESTIMATED)
GROSS REVENUE: $11,137,801
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