Throwback Thursday: Leaving Kansas Again in Return to Oz

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

In 1985, Disney decided to go back to the well of one of the biggest family classics ever. Having acquired the rights to L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels, Disney decided to make a sequel to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, mixing and melding two novels and that film to create Return to Oz.

Original theatrical poster for Return to Oz.

Original theatrical poster for Return to Oz. Note that the Cowardly Lion and Tin-Man are in the film less than a minute.

Eschewing the musical path of the original, Disney decided to focus on a little darker Oz. This film has shock treatments, headless women, men with wheels instead of hands and feet, voyeuristic Nomes, and a King who gives no *expletive deleted* about wearing women’s clothing. Pretty dark stuff for a kids’ film. Some spoilers ahead for a 30-year-old film, so you’ve been warned. If you haven’t seen the film yet, know that I’m talking about it because I think it’s a good film, so watch it and then come back. We can wait.

Nicol Williamson as the Nome King

Nicol Williamson as the Nome King. Totally butch and smoking a pipe.

OK. From this point on, I’m going to assume you’ve now seen the film. Read on at your own peril if you haven’t.

Let’s jump right in and talk about the Nome king and his tastes. Walter Murch, the writer and director, wanted to focus more on the elements of the novels than the original did, but at the same time, call back to the classic film. To accomplish this, the filmmakers decided that instead of having a belt that would give the Nome King his powers, they would use the ruby slippers from the original film (silver slippers in the book), but that means the Nome King is definitely wearing women’s shoes. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) The Nome King as played by Nicol Williamson (I talked about him in my Excalibur column) is a gruff, deep-voiced, evil character who wants to become more human. I’m sure other advocates of queer cinema could talk much more at length as to how this random choice affected cross dressers and the trans movement, but in our current political climate, it registered with me a lot more than it did when I was ten and saw the film for the first time. If anything, it made me think that the Nome King, who is made of rock, has very dainty feet (and is really into ornaments).

The Nome King wearing the ruby slippers.

It doesn’t matter what he’s wearing. You can still pay attention in school.

The film does try to plant the seeds that the Nome King isn’t fully evil. In an interesting idea, he destroys the Emerald City to take back all the jewels he feels are rightfully his. His Nomes have mined and created them for his underground society, so when people take them, they’re taking his property. Unfortunately, this is literally a couple lines of dialogue and then he goes back to being an evil King. This is a kids’ film after all and we can’t dwell too much on social commentary.

One of the King’s underlings is a headless witch he has put in charge of Oz, named Mombi. She and her Wheelers (the men with wheels for hands and feet I mentioned earlier) rule the dilapidated Emerald City. For following the Nome King, Mombi required the heads of 12 beautiful maidens which she uses on her own body depending on her mood. She keeps all the heads in a mirrored changing room and changes heads as if she were changing clothes. The main Mombi head is played by Jean Marsh (She also played an evil witch in Willow) and is just as vain and haughty as you would expect of a witch holding maiden heads hostage. There’s a scene where Dorothy tries to sneak into the changing room to steal some powder and she accidentally awakens all of the heads, and as a 10 year old, it freaked me out a bit (in a good way).

Mombi wearing one of the heads.

Mombi. Not pictured – Jean Marsh’s head

I don’t tend to notice costumes a lot in films. Unless they stand out as really bad, I’ll just go with it, focusing instead on scenic design, characters, plot, and cameras, but I have to say, the costumes Mombi wears are gorgeous. Raymond Hughes designed them, as well as the Wheeler costumes, and the level of detail that went into them is breathtaking.

An image of a scowling Wheeler

A Wheeler eyes its prey.

The film does take about 20 minutes to get from Kansas to Oz, and with the lack of a pretty standard sung by Judy Garland, it does drag a bit. Instead of hanging out on the farm and running away, Dorothy is sent to a sanitarium where, no joke, the doctors want to give her shock treatment. I know it’s supposed to be 1899, but that’s harsh; even harsher than a neighbor hating your dog. Once Dorothy gets to Oz, the film does pick up the pace and rushes briskly through the additional 80 minutes.

Also, have you thought about the ramifications of the Nomes’ ability to travel through all the rock? That’s practically a superpower, used to spy on Dorothy. Let’s hope they don’t have the same failures as humanity if we had those types of powers. It’s the fantasy equivalent of drones with cameras on them mixed with Will Smith’s Enemy of the State.

It is a kids’ film that skews to the darker side, but there’s nothing wrong with that. When Neil Gaiman started writing children’s books, he kept getting asked if “such and such” was appropriate for their children. To paraphrase,  every kid is different. What might be too scary for one children won’t be scary enough for another. (Sidenote – Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite living authors, so I would recommend this link as well if you want to hear him discuss why we like being scared.) Return to Oz is a detailed, ornate, but fun family film. If you like dark kids’ films, Return to Oz should definitely be on the viewing pile.

Mombi's heads screaming inside the glass cases.

Screaming heads. Not freaky at all to a 10 year old.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently unavailable via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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