Return to Oz - overlooked treasure
posted by Paul on 2/16/01
My psychological mis-alignment goes way back. I had a good upbringing. Everything I wanted, lots of friends and a host of great shows for my viewing pleasure. Back then, I could sit through endless loops of " Knight Rider ", " The A Team " and " Airwolf ". Catching them on the ubiquitous rerun channels has only served to disppoint me now. How could shows I loved so much look so lame now? Hindsight is a beautiful thing.
One movie I still treasure is the hugely under-rated " Return To Oz ". It was released in 1985, when although I wasn't exactly Roger Ebert, I still knew what I liked. From the opening reel, I was won over. I may have enjoyed " The Care Bear's Movie " and " American Ninja ", but I LOVED " Return to Oz ". There's a brilliance about it which many of the stuffier critics refused to acknowledge. Their indifference to it probably has something to do with it daring to follow on from every critic's wet dream: "The Wizard of Oz".
But, you know what? I don't care what the majority say, and I never will. I prefer " Return to Oz ". To me, " Wizard of Oz " is just a stage show with cameras. And it's an incredibly fucked up exercise in camp. It featured squeaky-voiced midgets, the least intimidating villain of all time and a big Mongoloid dancing around as a make-up clad lion. I'm aware that it has hidden psychological messages about identity and sexuality, but so did " Showgirls ", and I didn't see it getting any Oscars. Call me strange, but I'd rather see those " weighty " themes handled by horny strippers and bad dialogue than some freak dressed up to look like tin.
The whole series is incredibly surreal, but " Return to Oz " is so kitsch, it's impossible not to enjoy it on some level. It follows on from the original story of a virginal young girl ( " little Dorothy Gale from Kansas " ) discovering a magical land of talking lions and wooden sets. Judy Garland taped down her ta-tas to play little Dorothy. Here, Dorothy is played by vacuum-mouthed Fairuza Balk, then aged ten.
However, this is much more dark than the original " clap and kick your legs " fest. For a start, it begins in a psychiatric ward, which is probably, upon reflecting what I'm writing here, where I belong. Except, this ward is eerie and bleak, unlike the joke-a-minute chick circus of " Girl, Interrupted ". Whoever thought mental hospitals could be that much fun? Dorothy is taken away, institutionalized, and promised electro-shock treatment, because her tales of Oz are seen as particularly kooky. Well, if someone told you they were dancing with lions and scarecrows, wouldn't you be just a trite suspicious? The characters in the hospital are creepy and repressive ( hint: society ), and we get a nice little foreshadowing here - the hospital personnel emerge as the nasty villains in the alternate universe of Oz. That's important, is you want to delve into the subtext.
From there, it all goes absolutely nuts, and the enjoyment level kicks up a gear. There's so much to enjoy. A talking hen called Billina who any sensible person would kill and cook for supper; rocks with faces; and the fucking Wheelers.
Yes, the Wheelers: possibly the greatest characters of all time. Essentially, they were just bald guys with make-up and futuristic attire. They had skates attached to their hands and feet, skating around and screeching like hyperactive teenyboppers. If you thought Fran Drescher's cackle was unbearable, you haven't listened to a Wheeler. I personally find humor in the strangest situations, but the Wheelers laugh at virtually anything. They make me look as comedically sophisticated as Sinbad.
Mombi is the wicked witch of Oz. She's not at all like the original wicked witch from " Wizard of Oz ", who, let's face it, just looked like Jennifer Connolly with green make-up. So what if she spooked a couple of munchkins, and was angry that her sister was was flattened by a house. These days she'd be given twenty minutes on " Oprah ". Mombi is the real deal. Here's a witch who destroyed the Emerald City and turned the whole area into stone. I bet it took a long time for construction workers to swing that. With her unlimited choice of heads, Mombi can adopt any personality. Deep down, she's a spiteful bitch with an identity crisis - much like Barbra Streisand, but with a proper nose.
For some reason, all the villains of Oz have an irrational hatred of chickens. It's their one weakness. Just another one of those movie oddities. Superman can spin the world on its axis, but show him a bar of kryptonite and he turns into a big knobbly-kneed pansy. Same deal here. Mombi can sleep without a head and pussywhip a bunch of retards on skates, but tell her a chicken is in the vicinity and she loses the plot. I wonder what these people do for Thanksgiving...
I wonder too much.
Dorothy is the antithesis of Oz. She is young, naive and generous; the Ozzies are lifeless and repressive. She meets with a guy robot called Tik Tok. Tik Tok has all the personality of Charles Grodin, but at least you have the option of turning him off. Jack the Pumpkinhead is also introduced. Jack is very strange. For three reasons. He has :
1) a body like Howard Stern.
2) a voice like Rocky Dennis.
3) a Mommy complex like Norman Bates.
Suppose it might also be considered odd that he has a fucking pumpkin in lieu of a head. But, like everyone else in Oz, he's looking for something. Freud drools. We have Dorothy looking to find the Scarecrow and end the reign of terror; Jack's looking for his Mom; Tik Tok's looking for some lubrication and an inkling of personality; and Billina is looking to lay...an egg. Chuckle, chuckle. I've had some weird friends in my time, but I'd know it's time to hit the self-help section if I wound up with these rejects:
Status: Whiny Social Reject.
Status: Fat piece of metal.
Status: Talking Moose. Or something.
Status: Angelic skank.
Status: Feathered tag-a-long
All is not complete for our freakish heroes. Oh, no. They have yet to encounter the true weirdness and cultish power of the Nome King. The Nome King rules over Oz. In the real world, he was represented by Dr Worley, the wise old owl who tried to repress Dorothy's memories of Oz. Here, he's made of rock. He lives in a cave. His servants are rocks with faces. Following?
Trippy indeed. My first sentence starting to make sense now?
The subtext in all of this is that adults try to repress childhood imagination and cultural diversity. That's what I think. Shot in the dark, maybe, but it sounds intellectual enough. And that's as intellectual as a " Return to Oz " article can be. Except pointing out the obvious sexual undertones.
The Nome King smokes a pipe, talks with a deep, soothing voice and tries to tell Dorothy everything's going to be all right. He's the good cop to Mombi's Mark Fuhrman. But he hides a guilty secret. He is actually a closeted homosexual.
That's what makes him the greatest villain of all time. Darth Vader wore a long cape and suffocated his lessers; The Joker had white make-up and cracked one-liners; The Nome King, however, wore red ruby slippers. A bearded man in his forties with red slippers. To hell with all that Macho crap. Nome is the new-age, sensitive " man " : made out of rock, outsmarting his adversaries and wearing ruby slippers.
However, his skills just aren't good enough to overcome our heroes. After devising a little " game " ( object: find the Scarecrow, who has been turned into an ornament ) with Dorothy, he begins to evolve into a human ( * phew * ). Each member of Dorothy's clique is assigned to finding Dorothy's long-lost friend. If they fail, they themselves are turned into an ornament, while Nome becomes more human. If they succeed, the Scarecrow can re-join them.
Against all odds, they manage to find The Scarecrow. Nome goes fucking insane. I mean, truly, truly insane. Starts breathing fire and all kinds of shit. He even tries to eat our trusty freaks. He picks up Jack and is about to introduce him to a flamy stomach of rocks. But Bellina pops out of Jack's pumpkin eye socket and lays an egg in King's mouth. Our hero. Dead.
Mombi is finished. The reign of terror is over. Oz is restored to the glittering mass of pseudo-homosexuality.
" Return to Oz " is, in all honesty, a classic. I can watch it now because it looks like it was made by an angry dwarf. But, when I was younger, I enjoyed it for the sheer flow of its story, the great visuals and the very unique characters. THE perfect kid's movie, and just like " The Neverending Story ", it imparts a few important messages - some of you may do well to abide by them. Dorothy, like many, is unhappy with her real-life situation. Her fiery imagination opens up a world of possibilities. She makes new friends, she learns a few lessons about life and about herself, and she talks to her hen. Maybe the message is: " insanity isn't that bad ".
A mass of cultish figures. A book of messages. An overlooked emerald of a movie.
Follow the piss-covered road... all the way to your local video store.