Return to Oz

Return to Oz (1985)

Fans of the original books beware: Disney Studios and Jim Henson’s Muppet factory go to great detail to lovingly recreate the art nouveau illustrations, but disreguard L Frank Baum’s books! Gone is clever rascal Tip, Princess Ozma’s pre-fem identity and wayward servantboy of Witch Mombi. Some of his children are here, including Jack Pumpkinhead and the amazing Gump made from a hunting-trophy head, a sofa, and and other drawing room furniture. The wooden sawhorse makes a cameo as a playroom rocking horse, and other beloved characters appear without speaking. Ozma herself is practically expunged, appearing only at the end of this overlong film. Don’t even get me started with the Mombi-Langwidere hibrid. Why have they mangled the Oz legacy into this boring snoz.

It took 5 years before Baum wrote a sequel The Marvelous Land of Oz, essentially an origins story that mixes satire politics and genderplay with clever adventures which once again lead to the Emerald City and a resolution by benevolent witch Glenda. Like Dorothy before him, Tip sets events in motion that radically change the political structure of Oz, but rather than simply repeating the themes of Wizard with a male character in the Dorothy role, Baum steps it up a notch by revealing that prankster Tip is also a girl who has been cursed with a boy’s body! Where Dorothy’s mantra is no place like home, Tip has no home and worse, he must abandon everything he knows about himself and start over! He becomes she, and (other than the empty-headed Jack Pumpkinhead who continues to call her “Father”) everyone just goes on as normal. The fact that young children will accept a transsexual heroine where adults can’t shows just how far Baum was willing to push imaginations before gender prejudice set in. It also reveals the liberated pagen sexuality of the early last-century — contrast to the beginning of this century when it’s a scandal to release a children’s book about (true) male-coupled penguins! Oh.., and if that isn’t enough liberating gender-switch politics for you, Oz is subsequently attacked by an all-female army who in a post-feminist debate must balance their desire for superiority with their inherent feminine needs….

So what a travesty that 80 years later (long after the so-called sexual revolution) themes of gender fluidity and female fascism can’t be depicted in a studio movie. Return to Oz takes place sometime after Ozma’s ascention to the throne, but she was never a boy and Jack dilligently refers to her as “Mom” — a joke that is now meaninglessly stupid. Ozma isn’t even a good ruler, since she’s been conquored by an aliance between two characters from the third book: The Nome King and Langwidere, the lazy beauty with 30 heads. The Emerald City is shattered and its people turned to stone, with the ineffective wheelers having free run of the place. Re-enter Dorothy after a long and boring visit to a psychiatrist who plans to electrocute the bad dreams of Oz from her head. Wha-? The film slowly dwindles in melencholy with characters and events from Baum’s third book Ozma of Oz, but shifting the focus to Dorothy played by doe-eyed Fairuza Balk who wanders through the film looking dazed and fragile…. Again gender is taboo and the sassy hen Bill has been carefully renamed Billina. Ugh. Puke on Disney’s commie-accuser grave!

What went so pathetically wrong with Disney’s Return to Oz, is what went right with the beloved MGM classic Wizard of Oz. MGM endlessly tampered with Wizard, ending up with a glittery hammy contemporary musical that stayed faithful to the themes of the original story. During the production of Return to Oz a Disney executive reportedly said they were going back to the original turn-of-the-century look; “Not that vaudville shit like MGM!” So how ironic that they decide to release a depressing sequel to MGM’s Wizard apparently without reading any of the books! Why remain faithful to the illustrations while committing endless castrations on the stories? Not only is Ozma too contraversial to star, she is robbed of her contraversial body altogether, becoming a dissembodied reflection in a mirror! Dorothy becomes a sad near-labotimized waif, a far cry from the plucky farmgirl who makes friends and confronts wizards. Instead of Baum’s wondering themes of complex incongruities (friendly witches, cowardly lions, and a boy who becomes a princess), Disney’s Oz contains the images from Baums books but none of the imagery. None of the imagination.

One nice touch is the vision of the Emerald City as a turn of the century world fair in the vein of Chicago’s famed Columbia Exhibition. Endless arches, colonnades, and towering cupolas provide an excuse for the ubiquitous parades that Oz bestowes on her heros. It’s a lovely and intelligent homage to fantasy architecture from an age of industrial enlightenment.