Color, 1985, 109 mins.

Directed by Walter Murch

Starring Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh, Piper Laurie, Fairuza Balk, Matt Clark / Produced by Paul Maslansky / Music by David Shire / Cinematography by David Watkin

Format: DVD - Anchor Bay (MSRP $29.95)

Letterboxed (1.85:1) / Dolby Digital 5.1

Finally! After years of unavailability, this strangely neglected adaptation of L. Frank Baum's Ozma of Oz and The Land of Oz has finally hit U.S. video in a version that does it justice. Not really a sequel to the popular MGM musical, this film marked the sole directorial outing for esteemed editor Walter Murch (making him perhaps the '80s equivalent of Charles Laughton and Night of the Hunter). Fairuza Balk, now best known for her memorable turns in films like The Craft and American History X, made a terrific debut as Dorothy, giving a remarkably insightful and convincing performance for an eleven year old actress. Visually, the film is unlike any other and faithfully evokes the off-kilter and sometimes frightening look of Baum's illustrated stories, while Murch also makes excellent use of music (David Shire's score is among the finest of the decade) and visual motifs like mirrors and metal vs. flesh. Perhaps not suitable for all children due to some frightening imagery, Return to Oz should prove extremely satisfying to fans of fantastic cinema and iconoclastic filmmaking in general.

Six months after her trip to Oz, little Dorothy Gayle finds herself plagued by distress and insomnia. No one believes her stories, and Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) takes her to visit Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson), a man who proclaims that his use of shock therapy will revolutionize medical treatment in the 20th Century. Dorothy escapes the doctor's clutches thanks to the aid of a mysterious young girl in the asylum, and Dorothy leaps into a river during a thunderstorm to escape. Upon waking, Dorothy finds herself back in Oz along with her chicken, Bellina, who now talks. Unfortunately, the yellow brick road has crumbled and the inhabitants of the Emerald City have been turned to stone. Strange sentinels called Wheelers (men strangely contorned onto huge wheel limbs) trap Dorothy and eventually force her into the clutches of the petulant Princess Mombi (Jean Marsh), who keeps a gallery of severed female heads that she changes for her own on a regular basis. With the aid of a robotic Emerald City guard, Tik-Tok, and the Gump (a reanimated creature consisting of a couch and a moose head - don't ask), Dorothy escapes Mombi's castle and tries to find the Nome King, who is apparently responsible for the troubles plaguing the once-happy land of Oz.

Anchor Bay's DVD of Return to Oz looks simply stunning. Though non-anamorphic, the detail and color fidelity are remarkable. Some very minor signs of wear are evident in the first reel, but otherwise the print is in excellent condition and easily blows away the old Disney VHS edition and even the letterboxed but murky Japanese LD. The film was shot hard-matted at 1.85:1, so the alternate full frame version on the DVD is actually pan and scan. The widescreen version satisfies far more in every respect, and the 5.1 remix delivers the beautiful score and occasional sound effects well if unspectacularly (this is a pretty quiet film overall aside from the finale). The elaborate Claymation effects and Jim Henson animatronics still look quite good, and on a supplementary interview, Fairuza goes into detail describing how some of the effects were achieved. Surprisingly, her anecdote about the operation of Tik-Tok is one of the most painful concepts imaginable! Like The Black Hole, Anchor Bay has done justice to a film unfortunately negelcted for far too long. Hopefully their other treatments of films from this strange and wonderful period of Disney's history (namely Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Watcher in the Woods) will live up to the reverant treatment shown so far. It doesn't have Judy Garland and it doesn't have musical numbers, but if approached on its own terms, Return to Oz easily belongs in any self-respecting fantasy film lover's library.

Mondo Digital Reviews Mondo Digital Links Frequently Asked Questions