During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.
1939 was a packed year when it comes to movies. Perhaps none of the movies released that year remains as famous or as popular as this week’s movie, “The Wizard of Oz”. And since both Diane and I hate this movie, we decided to pair it with a second movie: 1985’s “Return to Oz”. Thankfully, we left out “Oz the Great and the Powerful from 2013 or this post would be overkill.
As you know, “The Wizard of Oz” is a musical about a dog, Toto, and his owner, Dorothy, who are whisked away to a far away land called Oz after a cyclone strikes their farm in Kansas. Toto gets top billing in my retelling because he is the single best thing about this movie. That and the music.
“The Wizard of Oz” is something most everyone sees at least once here in the United States. Channels frequently play it each year, often as a marathon, and it is the kind of movie that parents pass down to their children and subsequent generations. I watched it as a kid. Diane watched it as a kid. For both of us, it didn’t take.
In rewatching the film, I can appreciate its technical beauty and fantasy charm. It is overflowing with rich imagination and the color to match. Even in its cheapness, it is timeless. The songs also soar above the rest as they are, in my opinion, the most important thing “The Wizard of Oz” brings to the table. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is an objectively perfect song and is most likely the greatest original song for a movie ever. Judy Garland’s performance of it is all you ever really need to see in “The Wizard of Oz” to get your money’s worth, especially as Toto watches on from a tractor.
The rest of “The Wizard of Oz” is just okay. Frankly, neither of us really get the appeal. We didn’t as kids and we don’t now as kid-adults. The movie lacks in plot and plays out more like a string of interconnected music videos making about as much sense as anything you would see on YouTube. I am not directly familiar with the books on which the movie is based, but there’s no digging into any rich mythos either. “The Wizard of Oz” seems like an early blueprint for all live action children’s movies, but its so prototypical that it is hard for me to sit through and enjoy. I think it is better experienced by listening to the soundtrack and not much else.
Fast forward from 1939 to 1985 and you get a much different kind of movie. “Return to Oz” was not something that either of us saw as kids. This was Diane’s first watching and my second after chasing it down years ago out of shock that it existed.
“Return to Oz” picks up immediately after “The Wizard of Oz” and it functions as a sequel/spiritual successor, only it is completely different. Based more on the books, “Return to Oz” is a darker, richer story that abandons music and dancing for abject horror. Even with its age, the scene introducing Mombi, a woman who treats her 31 severed heads as accessories to be worn as her mood demands, is terrifying. Similarly, all of the claymation work done to bring the Nome King to life is equally horrifying and memorable.
Neither of us will try to argue that “Return to Oz” is an objectively better movie. It is certainly the lesser of the two and not nearly as important, at least in the span of film history. It exists as a relic of a dark era for the Walt Disney company. After struggling to make use of the Oz property they had purchased, “Return to Oz” was a failure in the box office.
I find it hard to imagine that “The Wizard of Oz” was not similarly revered in the mid-80’s, so the fact that anyone greenlit a movie that could only be perceived as a sequel is beyond me. “Return to Oz” is set in a post-apocalyptic Oz where everything anyone ever loved about “The Wizard of Oz” is frozen in time, standing lifeless in the ruins of an emerald-less Emerald City. There’s no music. There’s less color. Dorothy only manages to return to Oz after escaping from electroshock therapy intended to treat her delusions from the first time she visited. It is a dark, 80’s fantasy film for kids and I love it for that, but it is the worst way possible to follow up “The Wizard of Oz” even with a four decade gap.
It’s also not a particularly good dark, 80’s fantasy film for kids. You are better off crying at “The Neverending Story” or eye-fucking David Bowie in “Labyrinth”. It has its moments, but “Return to Oz” only works as much as it does because it starts off by taking something iconic from everyone’s childhood and subverting into a desolate hellscape. I love it for that very reason even if I will forever question its very existence.
When comparing the two films, we found the side characters more entertaining in “Return to Oz”. While the three in “The Wizard of Oz” all have their classic song and dance routines to introduce themselves and what they are missing, the characters in “Return to Oz” all serve actual purposes and advance the plot without spending the entire runtime bitching about something they learn they already have in the end. One’s a chicken, which is unfortunate, but Tick-Tock is cool. He’s a wind-up soldier. Diane was partial to Gump, the resurrected head of a moose attached to some antique furniture.
I will give “The Wizard of Oz” the nod on the designs for Scarecrow, Tin Man, and even the Cowardly Lion (the lesser of the three). “Return to Oz” goes for a much more stylistic interpretation which I hated, but the makeup and costume work for the 1939 film still hold up to this day. Even more impressive, it holds up while the performers are doing some great singing and dancing. Ray Bolger, previously seen in our review for “The Great Ziegfeld” is fantastic and has no equal in either film, besides Toto, of course.
“Return to Oz” also has the superior Oz, even if it is a rundown dump. Why? No munchkinland. That place still creeps me out.
Sometimes there is no place like home. Sometimes the life lesson is to bury yourself in the familiar and never leave your farm. Other times, life calls for taking a chance even if it means replacing the excellent dog lead with a subpar chicken character. For us, “The Wizard of Oz” has its place and that is firmly in 1939 when it was fresh and original. I hope to never see it again unless I am only watching Judy Garland win over the rest of human history with a truly remarkable song.
Oh and I doubt I watch “Return to Oz” again unless I find someone else who can’t believe it existed. Seriously, Disney, why?