"Hey have you seen Return to OZ?"
"Yeah I've seen Wizard of OZ."
"Of course, everyone has. But I'm talking about its sequel."
"There was a sequel?"
"In the 80's."
"Never heard of it."
That's a conversation which is common when one brings up the sequel to the 1939 classic. I remember as a kid when Blockbuster was still around always seeing that cover with the giant pumpkin head. I was always greatly curious about it, but never got around to renting it. Though the film has always been in the back of my head to check out someday. We've all seen the Wizard of OZ, hailed by many as one of the greatest movies of all time. Imagine back in the day you saw the film as a kid, and almost 50 years later it gets a sequel. Unfortunately, it didn't fare well at the box office and critics at the time weren't kind to it. Still, with a 55% on Rotten Tomatoes that means quite a few liked it, with many saying it to be a more faithful adaption of the books than the classic. Interestingly, this is Walter Murch's only directed film. What we have is a truly interesting sequel that pays respect to the classic while introducing lots of welcome new elements. An excellent, relatively unknown novelty is how I would describe it.
Taking place 6 months after she returned to Kansas, Dorothy Gale keeps recollecting about her adventures in OZ, much to the dismay of her aunt. So, the latter brings Dorothy to a psychiatric ward for evaluation. But what ward in film has proven to be legitimate? As expected, they try to sabotage Dorothy but someone there helps her escape. Soon Dorothy winds up back in OZ and finds out it has been taken over by the Nome King. It's up to her to overthrow him and save King Scarecrow!
One of the big things I liked about the beginning is how it uses the events of the previous film. The tornado which destroyed Dorothy's old house is mentioned. Its consequences on the family is made known to the viewer, which is interesting. The ward is appropriately a pretty frightening place. I liked the dynamic between Head Nurse Wilson and Dr. Worley. Wilson is stern, while Worley is the seemingly nice doctor whom gets the patient to trust him. The lead-up to OZ is intense, and the only complaint I have is that the ECT didn't turn out to be anything more than a machine. With its design and words of hype, it's a shame it wasn't given more to do. Anyways, the real action of course begins when Dorothy wakes up in the middle of a barren OZ. From here the story is nicely paced as, like in the previous film, she meets her upcoming friends. Let's take a look at some of those friends.
How about Dorothy herself? While Fairuza's Balk portrayal isn't quite as iconic as Judy Garland's, she was still very good throughout. Her politeness, even to the Nome King, was fantastic. While there's great continuity between both films, there are some things missing. For one thing, Glinda the Good Witch isn't mentioned at all. The Munchkins which inhabit the land of OZ are also missing. Ozma is basically a much younger version of Glinda. While not quite as enchanting as the later, Ozma was still very good.
As many have said, the film is noticeably darker than the 1939 classic. Is this a negative thing? Many would say so. It's true the film does have surprisingly grim aspects. The headless dancing girls eludes to decapitations, and we actually see those heads later in the film as Mombi says she uses those heads on different occasions. The masks on the Wheelers when they first appeared were also creepy. I think the tone is fantastic and grips the viewer from the start until the end. These things, while dark, never leaves the overall fantastical atmosphere of OZ. I think Return is the very definition of how to properly do a "darker" story in a film sequel.
The biggest highlight may be the antagonist, the Nome King. From early on he is established as a true menace with his commanding voice. Every scene in the climax he's in was fantastic. The writing was incredible, having him be a manipulator. One of the best scenes is when he shows Dorothy the Ruby Slippers, stopping her in mid-sentence, saying "No, MY Ruby Slippers." He taunts her with the idea of she being able to return home, saying there's nothing she could do about her friends. Another great line is when he says, "Perhaps you'd like to visit my fiery furnace" which is followed by a scene of flames appearing. He's a fantastic character and Nicol Willamson did a superb job portraying him. His sarcasm and great anger made him a blast to watch. The climax features an intense race against time, followed by a last stand against a giant monster. The way it goes down, while perhaps meant to be funny, is a little anti-climatic. Still, the last act of the film was fantastic, on par with the climax of the 1939 film. The stop-motion used throughout was very good; the Nome King's final form looked really realistic. The servant face in the mountain was also very good. The soundtrack isn't anything special sadly. The best theme was in Mombi's palace, when the heads all woke and started chanting Dorothy's name. The viewer feels a sense of immense urgency when that started to play. (That, and the fact there were over 20 heads talking!)
Overall, Return to OZ is a very fun watch. It's a really cool sequel to the classic movie we've all seen and have ingrained in our memory. The story is much like a classic fantasy adventure with a character wanting to save the land from an evil ruler. It pays tribute to Wizard while introducing all these new elements. If you haven't seen this, I definitely recommend it. It's far better than the recent OZ: The Great and Powerful.