10 March 2013

OZ THE DARK AND MISERABLE

We are presently living through the second attempt by the Walt Disney Company to make a crypto-sequel to the hugely beloved 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz, and it's proving very much like their first: since the Oz books published by L. Frank Baum in the first two decades of the 20th Century have entered the public domain, it's entirely legal to adapt his work into a new movie wholly unrelated, in any strict sense, to the '39 classic - but oh, how the filmmakers go out of their way to draw all the dotted lines they can between their movie and the legendary Technicolor masterpiece. Fairly enough, if that movie is our one and only point of familiarity with Baum's extensive Oz universe, as I think we can readily assume is the case. So while it is possible to approach the 1985 directorial debut of editor and sound designer Walter Murch, Return to Oz, as nothing more than the straightforward adaptation of 1904's The Marvelous Land of Oz and 1907's Ozma of Oz that it claims to be in the credits, the screenplay that Murch co-wrote with Gill Dennis unabashedly veers in the direction of being as close to a direct sequel to the older movie as propriety and lawyers will allow; Disney even splurged on buying the rights to use the ruby slippers invented and thus owned by MGM in the third act. In fact, just about every single shift Murch and Gill put to the original books (incidentally, almost everything comes from the third book, Ozma, with Land providing a few details and names here and there) is in service to tying their story in more closely with the 1939 picture. It is a slippery, double-edged beast of a movie: on the one hand, stealing the automatic affection the audience had for the the 46-year-old movie while also allowing Murch to claim with a perfectly straight face later on that he just wanted to make his own Baum movie, and if people wanted to compare it to the original, well that was kind of their own baggage.

It's also what's known as a fucking disastrous mistake, because Murch and the film's cult of apologists notwithstanding, Return to Oz is extremely anxious that you should think about it in terms of the original, and that's something that no film would ever be able to survive. Some films are such classics that the very notion of a sequel is anathema: you can't do a follow-up to The Wizard of Oz sans Judy Garland and Harold Arlen songs any more than you could remake Casablanca. Some things are wholly untouchable. 'tis pity, since Return to Oz, on its own merits, has some very fine cinematic flourishes, even if the very best thing we can say about Walter Murch as a storyteller is that he's a hell of a sound man. But whatever its merits are, they are not merits that can survive five seconds of scrutiny in comparison to the 1939 movie, which exists a whole tonal universe away from here. That movie opened with a lingering, sweet valentine to rural America replete with Garland's Dorothy Gale being wistful and sensitive; Return to Oz, after an opening shot of a starfield that reminds us mostly that even in 1985, any effects-driven fantasy was living in the shadow of Star Wars, plunges into a Lynchian domestic nightmare, where months after her fantasy of a magical land of Oz (it's not as overtly "all a dream!"-ish as Wizard was, but Return certainly seems to support that reading in a way that further separates it from Baum's writing), Fairuza Balk's Dorothy is in a profound existential funk that has left her basically unable to function as a human being, while her uncle Henry (Matt Clark) nurses a broken leg that has called into question whether he'll be able to rebuild the tornado-ravaged shell of the family farm in time to survive the Kansan winter. And her aunt is Piper Laurie! If anything is going to fuck up a little kid, it's having the glaring face of Piper Laurie barking out sentiments meant to be kindly but sounding rather bitter. Oh, because Dorothy - dealing with a level of PTSD fit for a combat fighter - is scaled back to a novel-appropriate 10 years old, because if anything is going to make the horrific darkness of Return to Oz family-friendlier, it's throwing it all at a 10-year-old.

All of the 1899 framework (which is not, I think, the year that MGM's film was meant to take place - score one for the apologists) is, in fact, terrifying, right down to the brand-new plotline about how Dorothy is being sent by her aunt and uncle for a primitive form of electroshock therapy to zap Oz right out of her and try to alleviate her dysfunctional moodiness; only a freak electrical storm allows her to escape the asylum-like hospital, and eventually float away in a broken chicken coop, waking up after she's made land in a desert on the edge of no less an enchanted land than Oz itself. And to the surprise of nobody who made it through the nightmarish 20 minute prologue in one piece, Oz has become a hellscape: devoid of life other than the grotesque Wheelers, who have wheels instead of hands and feet, and Princess Mombi (Jean Marsh, who also plays the electroshock nurse), who can remove her head and replace it with one out of her collection. Both of which come from Baum, incidentally, so my point is not "egads, there is scary stuff in Oz now!" After all, anyone who saw the original as a child is not likely to have forgotten the unbridled nightmare fuel of the winged monkeys.

But boy howdy, does Murch not let up: Return to Oz is so suffused with a feeling of decay, and so dominated by the visual ingenuity of its monsters - also including the morphing rock creatures called Nomes, and their giant king (Nicol Williamson, the electroshock doctor as well) - and basically, shot at every moment like it's actually a horror movie, that its idling position is darker by far than The Wizard of Oz ever gets.

I am of two minds on this point. The one half of the argument, the conservative and unimaginative that was shouted by many a 1985 parent, is that any film that wants so baldly to cash in on nostalgia for the 1939 movie had damn well better resemble it in some meaningful way: not look drab and corroded, and take an extreme delight in freaking out kids as thoroughly as one could do with a PG rating. Certainly, Return to Oz is not meaningfully in conversation with The Wizard of Oz, except in terms of being a sardonic put-down of the earlier film's innocence and charm, which can hardly have been anybody's point, least of all Disney's.

The other half, though, and the one I lean towards, is that Return to Oz is so good on its own terms that I want to really admire it, if we can but manage the herculean feat of separating it from the older movie: and this is virtually impossible. Frankly, there is not adaptation of Baum that can manage to completely stand apart from the 1939 film; unfair as it is, it's almost impossible these days to watch even the old silent Oz movies from the '10s and '20s without mentally checking them against a movie that wouldn't come out for some two decades yet, and it's ridiculous to even try to think of a latter-day Oz adaptation that doesn't have MGM's brightly-hued shade behind it. That's without the little links that Return to Oz plugs in there, making goddamn sure that we don't forget the original movie (the ruby slippers, iconic or not, were an unforgivably bad idea).

Still: the mid-'80s were a fantastic time for high-budget fantasy, especially one directed by a member of the George Lucas social set, as Murch was, and the visual effects and production design in Return to Oz (the latter courtesy of Star Wars vet Norman Reynolds) are entirely beyond reproach. Bringing John R. Neill's vintage Oz illustrations to physical life, the figures of stout Tik-Tok the machine man (played by Michael Sundlin and Tim Rose, voiced Sean Barrett), and lanky Jack Pumpkinhead (Brian Henson and Stewart Larange, the latter voicing him as well) are astonishing masterpieces of practical effects work, even if they are miles and miles away from the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, or the Cowardly Lion as personalities we enjoy and whose fate we are invested in. And they're not even close to the most impressive part of the movie: the design and animation of the clay-animated Nomes, appearing as hollow faces on the surface of rocks, are as perfect as any fantasy effects work of that entire decade.

And hopefully, I needn't point out that just because Return to Oz marches right over the line separating children's fantasy from PG horror, that doesn't mean that it can't be excellent PG horror - for it surely is. The bleached-out look of Oz is breathtaking, with the only design in the entire movie that falls short being of the Wheelers, who are just a bit too overtly 1980s in their lines and make-up and color to match the childhood nightmare logic of the rest of the movie (including the nominally real parts: the electroshock machine is a brilliant design, jolly in its anthropomorphism and freakish in its sci-fi knobs and gauges). Considering the great classic fantasies of the mid-'80s, I'd stack this as at least the equal of The NeverEnding Story and just a few steps behind Labyrinth in terms of the general excellence of its world-building and the skill with which its effects are carried off: if the protagonist and the setting had any other names at all, I think it might even be possible to appreciate the arch darkness as a tremendously effective and engrossing spooky bedtime story, perfectly carried off through the design of the whole thing.

But, of course, Dorothy and Oz are their names, and that will never stop being a problem. Despite its title, the film does not offer a return to Oz; it offers a wholly new, much weirder and more troubling Oz, without the genial spectacle of the first movie to offset its creepiness. No matter how much it offers to compensate, that has to be counted against it; there's a difference between the audience having the wrong expectations through shortsightedness, and the film encouraging the wrong expectations through greed, and the whole history of the reception of Return to Oz is one great case study in ending up on the wrong side of that gap.

8 comments:

Cody Rice said...

I... kind of love of this movie. At least I did when I was a kid, and it was one of those random VHS tapes that you somehow acquired and watched countless times. Being a somewhat dark kid, I really liked the "horrific darkness" angle, and vividly remember being goddamn terrified of the scene where all the heads of the evil princess start screaming at Dorothy like a satanic burglar alarm.

Pretty hard to gel into a double feature with the original though. Best used by sociopathic parents as punishment.

Vilsal said...

"you can't do a follow-up to The Wizard of Oz sans Judy Garland and Harold Arlen songs any more than you could remake Casablanca."

What, you don't enjoy the classic 1996 Pamela Anderson vehicle Barb Wire?

As for Return to Oz, I first saw it as an adult after reading Gregory Maguire's Wicked and hearing all the speculations about Glinda being the true villain in the original film, so I didn't find the darker tone all that incongruous to Oz.

David Greenwood said...

"[T]here's a difference between the audience having the wrong expectations through shortsightedness, and the film encouraging the wrong expectations through greed..."

This is the way I feel about damn near every movie I see in theaters these days. I have learned to completely disregard trailers, since they are made solely to put as many butts in the seats on opening day as possible. Nobody seems to realize that snowing the wrong audience into seeing your movie only makes those people less likely to come back to the movie theater... and ensures your movie will get worse reviews.

Trish said...

I also kind of love this movie, if only because of the fantastic practical effects and because it functions as much closer adaptation of Baum's original printed-page OZ. I'm not sure how many people have actually sat down and read the original Wonderful Wizard of OZ, but there is some deeply messed up stuff in there (holy SHIT the Tin Man's origin story). And it's all the more so because of Baum's hilarious "I wanted to write a story that was less violent and scary then Grimm's Fairy Tales" introduction.

KingKubrick said...

I'm pretty much simpatico with everyone's sentiment in that I kind of love this movie. It stuck in my head vividly when I watched it as a very young man, and, after reading the OZ stories when I first got my kobo, found it held up quite well when I rewatched it. But I've always been a fan of mind fuckery in films.

jjjonatron said...

Boooo

When I saw the headline I was thrilled to see you review Return to Oz, my absolute favorite kid's movie (I loved nightmare fuel as a kid). But I am disappointed to see you so hung up on The Wizard of Oz about it. I enjoy this more than that film, honestly. It jives more with the books, which I personally care about. Your review comes off like you don't like it 'cause it's creepier and you practically say it's a lesser film for that. I will give you that they did try to make it come off as a sequel, but it feels so far-removed and like a different beast that I can't help but not think of the original at all when I'm watching it. All I can see is this glorious nightmare world.

Tim said...

I have clearly miscommunicated something. Like most of you, I do in fact like the movie quite a lot, and if it was more overtly an adaption of Baum that wasn't trading on the audience's awareness of and affection for the '39 film, I'd have nothing to say against that; but it's so clear that the film wants us to make that connection, and there's just no comparing a very good, but not the best, dark children's fantasy of the '80s with my single favorite live-action fantasy movie.

Also, I'll confess that I hate the Oz books - Baum's prose is emblematic of everything I dislike about pre-WWII children's literature - so "it's more like the books!" is not, in and of itself, something that I'd consider to be an argument in favor of the movie.

poggy said...

Well, I guess I found myself to be in a particularly favorable position to become a fan of this movie - I saw it as a child in the 80's (my best friend from elementary school had it on VHS and for a while we had used to rewatch it every other time I visited), being familiar with a source material thanks to a condensed, illustrated version from the Story Teller series. But I had never seen the original (and I'm ashamed to say I've yet to get around to see it in its entirety to this day). So Return to Oz just captivated me on its own merits - even more so considering that after my childhood binge on that VHS, I hadn't seen it for almost two decades, and when I got around to watch it again I was afraid it wouldn't pass the test of time like many other old favorites. But I actually ended up loving it for new reasons; the "darker and edgier" take done right, the practical effects, and last but not least the fact that the plot doesn't exactly rule out the possibility that this is all in Dorothy's head. So yeah, I kind of love it too :)