Friday, 22 November 2013

Return to Oz (1985)

Making a sequel some 40 years after the original is always going to be something of a risk. Doing so while also adopting a very different tone to the original film is verging on asking for trouble. So it's probably not surprising that Return to Oz received mixed reviews and a disappointing box office. This is a shame, because it is a far, far better film than its more famous predecessor.

There are three main reasons I make that claim. The first is the tone of the film. Return injects a sense of menace back into Oz, after the saccharine sweet first film with its laughably inept villain ('I'll use the pollen of flowers to drug my enemies ... two of whom don't breathe!'). This makes the film feel more true to the books, even if the specific events of the films vary wildly from the original text. The darker tone was one of the reasons for this film's poor reception, with critics accusing it of being too intense or scary for children. I wonder what these critics thought of Watership Down, Plague Dogs and The Dark Crystal? Kids like a little edge to their entertainment, in my experience, and I think Return judges it nicely, with villains that are a great mix of madcap and macabre.

The second is plot. Good grief, The Wizard of Oz makes no sense. Not even the nonsense kind of sense that Oz is supposed to make. Glinda banishes the Wicked Witch of the West from Munchkinland, saying 'you have no power here', which begs the question of why she doesn't just deal with the witch right then. It also begs the question of why the munchkins fear the witch, and there are many other head-scratching moments, plot-wise. In Return, however, the actions taken by the various characters recognisably stem from their motivations and the situations they're in. There's plenty of whimsy in the script, but things don't just happen because the plot needs them to.

The final and most important reason is Dorothy herself. Oh man, Dorothy in the original is a terrible character. She completely lacks agency, never acting directly to achieve her own goals. Her house falls on the wicked witch of the east ... by accident; she melts the wicked witch of the west ... by accident. She's continually saved or instructed by others throughout the film. In Return, however, Dorothy comes up with plans, and then enacts them. She looks to her friends to help, and she has a little luck along the way, but it's her plan that gets them out of Mombi's jail, and she's the one who solves the Nome King's riddle. She's a much stronger, smarter heroine, and I applaud the movie for that.

If you've never seen this one - or not seen it for a very long time - hunt it down and give it a watch.

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