Friday, October 19, 2012


Librarian, film enthusiast & hardcore soccer fanatic (and not one of those American soccer fans who suddenly loves the sport only when its world cup time) - Jersey native Leanne Kubicz picked the perfect film that pretty much embodies what this Halloween series is about this year on PINNLAND EMPIRE. Decades before Toy Story 3 had us going "Wait a minute, this is a kids movie??", Disney blessed us all with this strange nightmare. I give Leanne props for tackling such a creepy, flawed and forgotten about film.


There are films that I loved as a child that I still find excellent. E.T. continues to make me cry and the Anne of Green Gables miniseries is better now than when I was a kid (the dry Canadian humor completely went over my head the first time around). Yet there are films that I remember from childhood that do not hold up to my former memory. One such film is Return to Oz starring Fairuza Balk as Dorothy Gale taking another adventure through Oz.

Return to Oz is a forgotten fantasy movie for a reason; it’s an arduous slog that leaves you disappointed. This film debuted when I was six and I watched it about a year or two later on VHS. I recalled this film being really exciting but I find with adult eyes this falls far from what it could have been and left me annoyed. Though The Wizard of Oz is respected due to a nostalgia aspect, not for being an outstanding example of musical theatre, it handles Baum’s source material* better than the latter work. By holding too faithfully to the book illustrations and not simplifying the narrative, Return to Oz misses the mark that it ambitiously tried to reach. The main problem with Return to Oz is that it expects the audience to have prior knowledge of The Wizard of Oz but does not deliver the narrative in any way that resembles the classic. Everyone has imprinted the colorfully corny Garland Dorothy and the merry old Land of Oz and the 1985 version completely flips the standpoint to grim realism. We first meet Dorothy (six months after the tornado) in the middle of the night, unable to sleep as Auntie Em checks in on her. This time around Dorothy’s Aunt and Uncle are clearly anxious due to Dorothy’s constant chatter about Oz and her insomnia. Instead of chalking Dorothy’s imaginative tales and sleeping problems up to simply being a growth phase, they turn to a drastic measure - A clearly depressed Uncle Henry, unable to complete construction on his tornado-damaged home and with a too-fanciful niece to raise, decides to send Dorothy to have electroshock therapy. Yes, it has come to this; Dorothy is going to get her brain fried…

Dorothy is transported to the Land of Oz via a near-drowning in a raging river after escaping the ECT treatment with the help of a mysterious blond girl. The jarring aspect of Dorothy’s escape from an asylum into Oz renders the fantasy with a wash of unease and sadness that never lets one enjoy the kooky characters and magic fully. And so the film proceeds as a series of dark episodes with seemingly delightful characters sprinkled about that do not succeed in lightening the suffocating tone. Did I mention that Dorothy also has a chicken named Billina as a sidekick on this journey? Yes, a Jar Jar Binks-style comedic chicken whose jokes fail completely in every way. Toto gets scant screen time in this version and it is unfortunate that a wise-cracking chicken takes his place. Return to Oz is a gorgeous film, truth be told. The art direction is impeccable and lush. The villains’ costumes blend intricacy and terrifying details that have stuck in my mind for years. The Wheelers, this film’s substitute for Flying Monkeys, first appear with a flash of terror but ultimately show to be embarrassingly lame at battle. It is a shame that such well-crafted boogie-men did not deliver on my childhood memories. The Princess Mombi does deliver in her role as the many-headed pursuer of Dorothy thankfully. Princess Mombi is a particularly upsetting villain as she turns maidens into stone, steals their heads and wears them to suit her mood. Mombi captures Dorothy and intends in adding her head to her wardrobe. “What a happy story this is!” I thought as I was simultaneously creeped-out and bored. A headless evil princess imprisoning a young girl and her goofy mish-mash of found-friends should be highly suspenseful and stir emotional attachment, yet it never does.

No fault should be heaped upon Fairuza Balk who as a small child fills the role of this Dororthy. She did a very serviceable job with a script that is mostly implausible. Balk’s performance does not grate and plays well against the large cast of fanciful creatures (including a sofa) that populate Oz.
The overstuffed story and constant exposition serve to distance Dorothy from emotional connection with the audience. When I speak of constant exposition, I am not exaggerating. The amount of information that the audience has to process about the now-dilapidated Land of Oz and the new characters is introduced by random bits of dialogue. I became increasingly incredulous to this plot device as more implausible situations occurred and were not explained with anything more than a passing comment. The musical version employed songs to explain the various characters’ motivations; this film does nothing but state blunt facts and leaves you to deal with them with no warning. It’s an approach which separates the audience from the fantasy and leaves you perturbed. I was not invested in Dorothy’s journey; I just wanted this improbable film to end.

* I am cautious to compare films that are adapted from novels to their origin, for these are two wildly different mediums. Comparisons can lead to problems, as the mediums are processed differently. For example, when was the last time you heard someone complain, “Blade Runner sucks. Where are the empathy boxes?” Even the exclusion of a huge plot point from the source does not render the adaptation incorrect; it is how well the story is told, simply that.

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