Saturday, October 22, 2011

Return to Oz (1985)

For the longest time I've been trying to revisit this film from my childhood.  As I recall it was the only movie I remember seeing that actually terrified me.  There were many elements I didn't appreciate at the time, due to my seeing everything in the film as weird.  Now that I've seen it again I can say its a true underrated classic.
 The film only loosely tries to connect with the 1939 Warner Bros. film, and attempts a more faithful adaptation of the Baum novels.  This was also the only film directed by Walter Murch, who won an Oscar for his sound editing on Apocalypse Now and another for his editing on The English Patient.  What is striking to me from the beginning is the way the scenery is filmed, stark and lonely Kansas.  Dorothy's aunt takes her to a clinic where she is to be given electro shock therapy.  Now, this isn't specified, but its a rather dark, yet honest scenario for this turn of the 19th century piece.  Dorothy escapes into Oz again, and this time is accompanied by a chicken named Billina, from her farm.  They find Oz to be run down and the Emerald City in ruins.  She finds that the calamity was caused by the evil Princess Mombi and the Gnome King.

Seriously, I don't know what to make of them, either.

Keeping in line with the tone of the film, there are many things in this that can be considered dark and frightening.  The Wheelers, with their odd movement and freaky masks end up being more silly than scary later.

However, Princess Mombi is by far the scariest thing in the film.  She starts off as an odd woman who keeps beautiful heads locked in glass cases, but the one scene that terrified me as a child is when her headless body is awoken at night.  That still sent a shiver down my spine.  All of the visual effects in this film are quite impressive.  However, I was most impressed by how Billina the chicken was brought to life as a talking animal.  The animatronic puppet had a great range of movement to it, and it seemed well suited for a bird.  Denise Bryer is the perfect voice for Billina as nervous, old poultry.

Most thrilling and effective is the claymation done by Will Vinton and his studio for the Gnome King and his minions.  They do a fantastic job bringing convincing movement to stone characters and faces.  I also just loved the production design, as its an amalgamation of 19th century design with some ties to Symbolist art.

Mombi's costume we first see her in is just wonderful.  The depiction of a restored Emerald City at night really grabbed my attention and was unique to the film and not trying to imitate its 1939 predecessor.  I was also pleasantly surprised at the score by David Shire, it not only suits the film very well in capturing the spirit of the story, but also has some great compositions that could stand on their own.

Overall the film is a lot of fun and would seem best watched with a lot of people.  The characters are interesting and the non human ones are extremely well created, its well paced and is an all around fantastic production.  This film may not be acknowledged as much as it should, but it definitely deserves a watch!    (Also, I'd make note that the Disney DVD looks all right, but definitely needs an upgrade to Blu-ray soon)

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