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Anchor Bay presents
Return to Oz (1985)

"This electrical marvel will make it possible for you to sleep again, and it will also get rid of all those bad waking dreams that you've been telling me about."
- Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson)

Review By: Dale Dobson   
Published: July 03, 2000

Stars: Fairuza Balk
Other Stars: Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh
Director: Walter Murch

Manufacturer: Nimbus
MPAA Rating: PG for (dark themes, threats, intense moments)
Run Time: 01h:49m:40s
Release Date: August 10, 1999
UPC: 013131082098
Genre: fantasy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A C+A-A C+

DVD Review

Return to Oz is a 1985 adaptation drawn from two of L. Frank Baum's beloved Oz books, The Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz. The big-budget film was greeted with box-office indifference, perhaps because audiences expecting a direct sequel to the colorful, tuneful MGM classic The Wizard of Oz were disappointed by the film's darker, non-musical approach, and has long been difficult to find on video.

A ten-year-old Fairuza Balk stars as Dorothy Gale in this story set six months after her original journey to Oz. Hearing her wild tales about talking tin men and wicked witches, Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) fears for Dorothy's sanity and takes her to a quack doctor (Nicol Williamson) for what amounts to electroshock therapy circa 1900. A heavy rainstorm descends on the clinic and Dorothy escapes with the aid of a mysterious young girl, floating down the river and waking up in Oz, accompanied by her now-speech-endowed chicken Billina. She finds Oz in ruins, destroyed by the Nome King who has turned all of its citizens to stone (including Dorothy's old friends the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion) and kidnapped the Scarecrow, ruler of Oz. In her quest to rescue the land, she encounters the nasty Wheelers and headless Queen Mombi and finds new friends in the clockwork soldier Tik-Tok, the gangly enchanted construction Jack Pumpkinhead and the plaque-mounted head of the Gump.

Return to Oz is a lavishly mounted production, featuring excellent creature designs by Lyle Conway (Little Shop of Horror's Audrey II) and skilled puppet performances by Conway, Brian Henson, Mak Wilson and many others. The four-wheeled Wheelers have a turn-of-the century Droog-ish punk feel, and Norman Reynolds' production design infuses the film with a distinctly other-worldly tone. Some of the optical matte effects are dated, but the physical production is downright amazing. Its darker, more naturalistic "look" helps sell the fantasy; the on-set puppetry and practical effects outdo recent CGI efforts that supposedly look more realistic but don't feel nearly as solid, and even Will Vinton's old-fashioned Claymation contributions retain an organic, lively quality often absent in computer-rendered animation. From a visual perspective, Return to Oz is a lost near-masterpiece of visual design and mechanical wizardry that evokes the "real" feel of the Baum books perfectly.

It's a pity that the story isn't as solid. I'm afraid some of the blame must be shouldered by the late Mr. Baum himself—this adaptation, at least, gives the impression that after his success with The Wizard of Oz, he kept writing the same story as long as the market would bear it. Having already been to Oz and back again, Dorothy's journey this time around is less significant—she cares about restoring her friends and their homeland, but she's not as personally involved in this quest. The villains are scary-looking, but we never feel like Dorothy's in any real danger—she handles herself so confidently and commands such loyalty from her unusual friends that we're sure everything will be all right.

The able cast does what it can with the script and story, delivering appropriately Baum-esque dialogue with no post-modern smirks or anachronistic references. But character development is secondary to the highly episodic plot—the film's one great sequence, the escape from Mombi's castle, is surrounded by rather mundane events (by Oz standards) and it never stops long enough to draw the audience in. Return to Oz is oddly cold—joy and pain are expressed only dimly, and its wonderfully realized world is populated by uninvolving characters.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen1.33:1 - P&S
Original Aspect Ratioyesno

Image Transfer Review: Return to Oz features two presentations of the film on a dual-layer single-sided DVD—it's presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio as well as in a pan-and-scan 1.33:1 edition. Both transfers are very nice (aside from the obvious composition damage suffered by the 1.33:1 version)—colors are muted but seem correct for the film's style, and image detail and black level are solid throughout. The widescreen transfer is not anamorphic, but that's the only real fault I can find here—Anchor Bay delivers an outstanding digital edition of this imagery-intensive film.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Anchor Bay presents Return to Oz with a full Dolby Digital 5.1 surround audio track, presumably drawn from the 70mm release mix. In an echo of the MGM film's black-and-white/Technicolor change, the soundtrack is restricted to the front soundstage until Dorothy begins her stormy journey back to Oz, at which point it opens up beautifully with David Shire's orchestral score and strong LFE bass effects filling the room. Dialogue is clear, frequency range is broad and this 1985 film easily sounds as good as any contemporary big-budget release. A fine transfer of an excellent soundtrack.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Packaging: other
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Fairuza Balk Interview
Extras Review: Anchor Bay doesn't include a lot of extra material on the Return to Oz DVD, but the full-motion title and chapter selection menus are very well-designed and evocative of the film. The significant extra that IS included is a nice piece of work—a new 11-minute video interview with Fairuza Balk, produced and directed by Mark Cerulli. Ms. Balk has a great memory, considering her tender age at the time of filming, and she recounts quite a few entertaining anecdotes with a surprising amount of information on the special effects. Not as informative as a full-length director's commentary or a behind-the-scenes documentary might have been, but it's still a significant enhancement to this DVD, and the effort is commendable considering the age of the film and the likely shortage of available "extra" material.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

Return to Oz has long been overlooked and should be savored by L. Frank Baum fans as the most faithful adaptation of his work to date. The movie lacks dramatic substance, but the visuals are gorgeous and the fairly lavish Disney budget did not go to waste. The film has been out of circulation for years, and Anchor Bay's fine DVD transfer and interesting (if limited) supplementary material make this a must-own for Oz and fantasy film fans. Definitely worth a look if you've never seen it.


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