Return to Oz is a 1985 fantasy adventure film based on L. Frank Baum's Oz books, mainly The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz. The plot begins with Dorothy's return to the Land of Oz, and her discovery that the land has been destroyed. Upon her return, Dorothy, alongside her chicken Billina, is befriended by a group of new companions, including Tik-Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead, who help her restore Oz to its former glory.
Directed by Walter Murch, an editor and sound designer, Return to Oz stars Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh, Piper Laurie, Matt Clark, and introducing Fairuza Balk as Dorothy Gale. Released on June 26, 1985, it performed poorly at the box office and received mixed reviews from critics. However, Return to Oz is considered by fans as a more faithful adaptation of the novel than the 1939 film, and has since established a cult following. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects.
Six months after returning home from the Land of Oz, Dorothy Gale has become a melancholic child who cannot sleep, as she is obsessed with her memories of Oz. This worries Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, who decide to take her to Dr. Worley, known for his revolutionary electric healing treatments. Before going, Dorothy searches for her favorite chicken Billina, and finds a key with an OZ glyph that she believes her friends from Oz sent to her by shooting star. At Dr. Worley's laboratory, Aunt Em leaves Dorothy under the strict care of Nurse Wilson. Dorothy is taken to have treatment during the onset of a huge thunderstorm, during which the lab has a blackout and Dorothy is saved by a mysterious girl, who reveals that some patients have been driven insane by Worley's treatment and are hidden in the basement. The two escape the building with Nurse Wilson in pursuit, and fall into a river. The girl vanishes underwater, but Dorothy survives by clambering on board a chicken coop.
Upon awakening, Dorothy finds herself back in Oz with Billina who can now talk. The two discover Dorothy's old house, surrounded by woods. When Dorothy wonders why they aren't in Munchkinland, and where all the Munchkins are, the two discover the Yellow Brick Road, now torn apart, which leads them to the Emerald City, now in ruins. All of its citizens (including the Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion) have been turned to stone. Pursued by Wheelers (creatures who have wheels instead of hands and feet), Dorothy and Billina hide in a secret room accessed by the OZ glyph key and meet a clockwork mechanical man named Tik-Tok. Tik-Tok explains that King Scarecrow had been captured by the Nome King, who is responsible for the destruction of the Emerald City. The three visit a witch named Mombi in the hopes of getting more information, but she is working together with the Nome King and imprisons them in her attic.
Dorothy, Billina, and Tik-Tok meet Jack Pumpkinhead, who explains that he was brought to life via Mombi's Powder of Life. Dorothy formulates a plan to go to the Nome King's mountain, by stealing the Powder of Life and using it to vivify The Gump, the head of a moose-like animal whose body they put together using a sofa, palm fronds and rope. The group escape and fly across the Deadly Desert to the Nome King's mountain.
The group enter the Nome King's underground domain. The Nome King tells Dorothy that the Scarecrow stole the emeralds from him to build the Emerald City, and should be punished. The Scarecrow has been turned into an ornament, and the group have three guesses each to identify which one he is, or they will be turned into ornaments themselves. Dorothy is the last to try, and is given the chance to go home unscathed. The Nome King has her discarded Ruby Slippers, which he used to conquer the Emerald City. Dorothy refuses to use them to leave for Kansas.
On Dorothy's last guess, she successfully locates the Scarecrow, who has been changed into a green ornament. With the Scarecrow back to normal, he and Dorothy restore all the others who are also green ornaments. The enraged Nome King confronts Dorothy and company in a gigantic, monstrous form where he eats the Gump's couch body. He then tries to eat Jack Pumpkinhead, but Billina (who was hiding in Jack Pumpkinhead's head) lays an egg in fright and it falls into the Nome King's mouth. Eggs turn out to be poisonous to Nomes and the Nome King and his kingdom crumble to pieces. Dorothy finds the Ruby Slippers and wishes for the Emerald City to return to normal and for her and her friends to escape, which they do.
During the celebrations at the restored Emerald City, Dorothy spots the girl who helped her escape the hospital at the beginning: she is Princess Ozma, Jack's long-lost creator, and the rightful ruler of Oz who had been enchanted into the mirror by Mombi. Ozma takes her place on the throne and Dorothy hands over the Ruby Slippers. Ozma sends Dorothy home, promising that Dorothy is welcome to return whenever she likes.
Back in Kansas, Dorothy is located on a riverbank by her family. Aunt Em reveals that Worley's hospital was struck by lightning and burned down and Dr. Worley was killed in the fire trying to save his machines. At the same time, Nurse Wilson is being arrested while being locked in a cage on a horse buggy. Upon returning to the farmhouse, Dorothy sees Billina and Ozma peering at her through her bedroom mirror. When Dorothy entreats Aunt Em to come to her room to see Ozma, Ozma silently instructs her to keep her and Oz a secret. Dorothy and Toto then run outside and play.
- Fairuza Balk as Dorothy Gale
- Nicol Williamson as Dr. Worley/Nome King
- Jean Marsh as Head Nurse Wilson/Mombi
- Piper Laurie as Aunt Em
- Matt Clark as Uncle Henry
- Michael Sundin & Tim Rose as Tik-Tok (puppeteers)
- Sean Barrett as Tik-Tok (voice)
- Mak Wilson as Billina (puppeteer)
- Denise Bryer as Billina (voice)
- Brian Henson & Stewart Larange as Jack Pumpkinhead (puppeteers)
- Brian Henson as Jack Pumpkinhead (voice)
- Lyle Conway & Steve Norrington as The Gump (puppeteer)
- Lyle Conway as The Gump (voice)
- Justin Case as The Scarecrow
- John Alexander as The Cowardly Lion, Wheeler
- Deep Roy as The Tin Man
- Emma Ridley as Girl at Dr. Worley's Clinic/Ozma
- Pons Maar as Lead Wheeler, Nome Messenger
- Sophie Ward as Mombi II
- Bruce Boa as Policeman
- Tansy as Toto
Walter Murch began development on the film in 1980, during a brainstorming session with Walt Disney Pictures production chief Tom Wilhite. “It was just a fishing expedition on both of our parts," Murch remembered. "But one of the questions he asked was, ‘What are you interested in that you think we might also be interested in?’, and I said, ‘Another Oz story.’ … And Tom sort of straightened up in his chair because it turned out, unbeknownst to me, that Disney owned the rights to all of the Oz stories. And they were particularly interested in doing something with them because the copyright was going to run out in the next five years.”
The film is based loosely on the second and third Oz books, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904) and Ozma of Oz (1907). The element about Tik-Tok being "The Royal Army of Oz" derives from Tik-Tok of Oz (1914), in which he is made the Royal Army of Oogaboo, and also makes frequent cries of "Pick me up!" That book was itself based on a dramatic production, The Tik-Tok Man of Oz (1913). Murch also used the book Wisconsin Death Trip as an historical source for the film.
Murch took a decidedly darker take on Baum's source material than the 1939 adaptation, which he knew starting out would be a gamble. Between the development period and actual shooting, there was a change of leadership at the Walt Disney studios (with Wilhite being replaced by Richard Berger), and the movie's budget increased. Once shooting began, Murch began to fall behind schedule, and there was further pressure from the studio, leading to Murch being fired as director for a short period. George Lucas and other high profile filmmakers including Francis Ford Coppola supported Murch in discussions with the studio, and Murch was reinstated and finished the film.
The film was made without the involvement of MGM, the studio that made the 1939 film. No approval was necessary, because by 1985, the Oz books on which the film was based were in the public domain, and the subsequent Oz books had been optioned to Disney many years earlier. A large fee was paid, however, to use the ruby slippers, which were still the intellectual property of MGM at the time (as the ruby slippers had been created for the 1939 film to replace the Silver Shoes of the original stories).
The movie received mixed reviews from critics, who described the film's content as too dark and intense for children. "Children are sure to be startled by the film's bleakness," said The New York Times's Janet Maslin. Canadian film critic Jay Scott felt the protagonists were too creepy for viewers to sympathize with: "Dorothy's friends are as weird as her enemies, which is faithful to the original Oz books but turns out not to be a virtue on film, where the eerie has a tendency to remain eerie no matter how often we're told it's not." "It's bleak, creepy, and occasionally terrifying," added Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader. The film earned $2,844,895 in its opening weekend, finishing in seventh place. The film ultimately grossed $11,137,801 in North America. Return to Oz currently holds a 55% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 22 reviews.
The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects, but lost to Cocoon. Fairuza Balk and Emma Ridley were nominated for Young Artist Awards. The film received two Saturn Award nominations for Best Fantasy Film (lost to Ladyhawke) and Best Younger Actor for Fairuza Balk (who lost to Barret Oliver for D.A.R.Y.L.).
The film’s interpretation of Oz is featured in the Storybook Land Canal Boats attraction at Disneyland Resort Paris. Amelie Gillette of the The A.V. Club frequently refers to the film's dark nature as unsuitable for its intended audience of young children despite it being one of her favorite movies growing up. The film inspired a fan-made documentary titled Return To Oz: The Joy That Got Away, made especially for the Internet.