A well-loved trivia question is, ˜Which films have the longest gap between the original release and the sequel?’ The answer is Victor Fleming’s beloved The Wizard of Oz and its sequel Return to Oz which was filmed forty one years later. Despite the long gap, expectations were high and inevitably comparisons were made. As a result it garnered mixed reviews for its somber tone and did not perform well at the box office. But taken on its own merit, it is easy to see why years later, Return to Oz is considered a cult classic.
Six months after her first adventure, Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) is back in Kansas but much to the dismay of Uncle Henry and Aunt Em, will not stop talking about the wonderful Land of Oz and its creatures, and is having trouble sleeping. Aunt Em takes Dorothy to see a doctor “a pioneer in the field of electrotherapy- and leaves her in his care. On the eve of Dorothy’s first treatment, a thunderstorm cuts off the power and distracts the staff, allowing her to be freed from her restraints by a mysterious blond girl. The two escape and run down to the river where they are apprehended by Nurse Wilson (Willow’s Jean Marsh) and jump in the water in a bid to escape.
The blond girl presumably drowns, but Dorothy manages to hold on to some floating debris and is able to escape. Eventually she falls asleep and when she wakes, she finds that she has drifted into the deadly desert which she remembers from her last time in Oz. Realizing she has returned, Dorothy sets about making it safely out of the desert which turns anyone who touches it instantly into sand. Dorothy’s joy is soon turned to despair when she finds the yellow brick road and the Emerald City in ruins and her friends turned to stone.
Dorothy eventually finds an ally in windup man Tik-Tok who explains that the Nome King terrorized Oz and instated Mombi (also Jean Marsh), a powerful sorceress, as castellan of the Emerald City’s grand palace. Dorothy and Tik-Tok are then both captured by Mombi’s minions the wheelers, who have wheels instead of hands and feet. Whilst imprisoned, Dorothy meets Jack Pumpkinhead and together they plot their escape. Through an ingenious plan involving Mombi’s powder of life, some furniture and a mouse’s head, Dorothy and co. fly away from Mombi’s palace to the mountain of the Nome King where they confront him on the evils he has done to Oz.
This time round there are no munchkins, the yellow brick road and the Emerald City have been left in ruins and Dorothy must face a host of sadistic characters in order to restore peace to Oz. The darker tone of the Oz adventure reflects the darker tone of the framing story; this time Dorothy’s experiences in Oz do not simply reflect her regret at running away from the farm in Kansas, prompting her now famous wish to ˜go home’; instead it reflects the trauma of electro-shock therapy experienced by Dr Worley’s patients and society’s attempts at normalizing Dorothy, who refuses to accept Oz as a figment of her imagination.
Initially the film drew criticism for its dark subject matter which was widely regarded as unsuitable for children, but the filmmakers deserve much credit for not patronizing its young audience and for not succumbing to expectations of rainbows and dancing little people. Dr Worley and Nurse Wilson re-emerge in Oz as the evil Nome King and his servant Mombi who owns a collection of severed heads which she is able to swap with her own, thus further blurring the line between fantasy and reality and imbuing Return to Oz with a level of sophistication rarely seen in children’s fantasy films.
Whether or not Oz is a real place or merely Dorothy’s dream is not important; Return to Oz makes a powerful social comment on the changing attitudes to psychotherapy and perceived notions of ˜what is normal.’ In Return to Oz Dorothy is not only treated, but is actually punished for her imaginative and defiant personality which are the two main traits which make her such a heroine in Oz. It is Dorothy who has the idea to steal Mombi’s powder of life and use it to animate the furniture by which they escape. Dr Worley threatens to suck all the freedom and imagination out of Dorothy, just as the Nome King tries to suck the freedom and personality out of Oz.