Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.


Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Wizard of Oz / Return to Oz

Year: 1939 (Wizard), 1985 (Return)
Running time: 102 minutes (Wizard), 113 minutes (Return)
Certificate: U (Wizard), PG (Return)
Language: English
Screenplay: Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf (Wizard), Walter Murch, Gill Dennis (Return)
Director: Victor Fleming (Wizard), Walter Murch (Return)
Starring: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin, Clara Blandick, Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh, Piper Laurie, Matt Clark, Sean Barrett (voice), Denise Bryer (voice), Brian Henson (voice), Lyle Conway (voice), Emma Ridley, Justin Case, Pons Maar

Dorothy and friends are having second thoughts about visiting the wizard.
An undeniable classic, The Wizard of Oz is a delight to experience for the 1st or 41st time. Brimming over with character, colour and weirdness, it entertains and confounds in equal measure.

Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) is a young girl living on a Kansas farm who dreams of seeing the big wide world. Her wish is granted when a tornado rips through her farm and knocks her unconscious. She comes to in the fantastical land of Oz, where she embarks on a quest to get back home, befriending Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), Tin Man (Jack Haley) and Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) on the way to ask the mysterious Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan) to grant her wish. All the while, the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) is determined to destroy her.

That extremely brief plot synopsis was probably entirely pointless, since pretty much everybody is familiar with the story, whether they've actually seen it or not. The Wizard of Oz is one of those beautiful examples, like Bambi, Toy Story or Spirited Away (all of which tap similar thematic material as The Wizard of Oz, being childhood fears of finding yourself alone, having to fend for yourself, forced to assume responsibility before you're ready), of a children's film that is actually amongst the best films ever made despite the limitations involved with ensuring suitability for a younger target audience. While it taps some primal childhood fears about losing the safety net of your family, it also hits a nostalgic sweet spot for adults, allowing them to reminisce about how they managed to negotiate the choppy waters of growing up.

To be fair, Dorothy has just dropped a house on her sister...
Judy Garland's wistful delivery of Over the Rainbow is mesmerising and remains the best version by a comfortable margin, Eva Cassidy notwithstanding. The switch from black and white (or sepia, depending on the version you're watching) to full on Technicolour is still dazzling even now; goodness knows how effective it would have been in 1939, when a lot of films were still being released in black and white.

There are imperfections. Some of the songs, particularly the overlong introduction to the munchkins and If I Were King of the Forest are pretty dated. Of course, the signature tunes are all still brilliant, and just because a couple of them are slightly off it doesn’t detract much from the overall quality of the film. The effects are what you might expect from the time, but they somehow manage only to add to the charm in a way that seamless CGI wouldn't.
Dorothy's collection of freaky new friends.
46 years later comes Disney's sequel, Return to Oz. Cleaving much closer to the spirit of L. Frank Baum's Oz novels, it is an entirely different beast. It does, however, manage to defy all expectations by being a glorious, horrifying childhood headfuck. While The Wizard of Oz is a fantasyland dreamt up by an unconscious Dorothy, Return to Oz is an escape from an asylum and electro-shock therapy, as because of all her talk of munchkins, Dorothy's family have had her committed. Dorothy is played by a young Fairuza Balk, who nails the look and mannerisms of a haunted, wide-eyed young girl perfectly.

Oz is no longer a Technicolour marvel, instead it's a little post-apocalyptic, where the rightful king Scarecrow (Justin Case. Seriously, that is his name) and his subjects have been usurped by the sinister Nome King (Nicol Williamson). Gangs of roaming creatures called the wheelies (oh-my-god-what-the-hell-are-the-wheelies-get-them-off-the-screen-they’re-freaking-me-out) harass Dorothy in a scary, nightmarish world.

Dorothy tries not to get freaked out by the Nome King.
Even here, she makes a few friends - Tic-Tok (voiced by Sean Barratt, performed by someone inside the suit walking on their hands!) is a mechanical man and Jack Pumpkinhead (voiced by Brian Henson) is literally a collection of sticks with a pumpkin for a head. Before taking on the Nome King, Dorothy must best Princess Mombi (Jean Marsh), a woman so obsessed with retaining her youth she's taken to stealing the heads of young women and changing them over to suit her mood like some kind of macabre Worzel Gummidge.

So much of this film defies logical expectation and comes on like some kind of weird fever-dream it really shouldn't work at all, but, scaring young kids half to death aside, it really does. It shares stylistic DNA with Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, but for some reason isn't as readily remembered.

What we have then is a wonderful film fully deserving of its classic status and a forgotten fever-dream sequel that deserves reappraisal.

The Wizard of Oz: 8/10
Return to Oz: 7/10

You'll be unsurprised to hear that the original is beloved by all, evidenced best in this Roger Ebert review. I was pleasantly surprised by the love the sequel has out there, as shown in this review by Louisa at Den of Geek.

Monday, May 1, 2017


Year: 1992
Running time: 90 minutes
Certificate: U
Language: English
Screenplay: Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker
Starring (voices): Scott Weinger, Linda Larkin, Robin Williams, Jonathan Freeman, Frank Welker, Gilbert Gottfried, Douglas Seale 

Princess Jasmine's slightly sexualised character design did very strange things
to my 12-year-old self...just as I was getting over Jessica Rabbit.
What's the best Disney Classic ever? For my money, Aladdin has a decent chance at claiming the title. Disney was riding high on its Clements/Musker/Menken-led resurgence, and following huge hits The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin smashed it out of the park (it is generally thought that the following year The Lion King hit a creative peak even higher than Aladdin, but I can't find myself agreeing).

Agrabah street rat Aladdin (Scott Weinger) ekes out an existence by stealing food and living hand-to-mouth with his only friend, a little monkey called Abu (Frank Welker). Sultan's daughter Princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin) feels trapped by the luxury of the palace and resents being forced to choose a husband from a line of suitors just because the law dictates that she must. Jafar (Jonathan Freeman), scheming vizier and the top advisor to the sultan (Douglas Seale), makes secret plans with his parrot Iago (Gilbert Gottfried) to retrieve a magic lamp from the mysterious Cave of Wonders (Frank Welker). Jasmine runs away and meets Aladdin in the Agrabah marketplace, where they hit it off (naturally). Jafar learns that Aladdin is the only one who can enter the cave and retrieve the lamp and sets some sinister plans in motion.

Betrayed by Jafar, but, thanks to the light-fingered Abu, betraying him in turn, Aladdin finds himself stuck in the cave with the lamp. Noticing it's dull, he rubs it to give it a little shine and the rest is Disney history...

A little on the nose, but following the show-stopping 'Friend Like Me', it's hard
not to break into spontaneous applause.
The animation is of the superbly-drawn quality that is typical of early '90s Disney, with some use of computer generated imagery adding some additional layers, barely hinting at the glorious CG animation the following years would bring. The well-trodden story is given a wonderful freshness and is funny as hell (even without the Genie (Robin Williams), Abu and Iago provide plenty of laughs), emotional, scary (at times, Jafar is truly frightening), with just the right amount of cheese. Some of the very best songs in Disney's hugely impressive musical canon. It appeals to adults and kids alike. There's even a little hidden sexual innuendo (“Would you like to go for a ride?”).

To be fair, there are a great many Disney classics with all those things, but Aladdin has an extra ingredient to raise it above all others: Robin Williams as the Genie. When the character is on screen there are so many quick-fire jokes and impressions that you can barely catch them all. I heard a story once that Williams caused a huge headache for Disney by ad-libbing many of his lines, causing much of the initial work to be scrapped and reanimated from scratch. This, according the story, led to Williams not being paid for his work, presumably due to the extra cost of redrawing. Then when the film hit massive pay-dirt, the corporation gave him a Picasso for his trouble. Whether any of this is true, I cannot tell you for certain, but the Genie does have a humour that is distinctly Williams-like that nobody else could have delivered with anywhere near the same effectiveness. He even looks like him. Aladdin is great from start to finish, but when Williams has the mic it soars above every single one of its peers.

True genius, and, in my opinion, possibly Disney's best ever.

Score: 9/10

Other reviews are also full of high praise, although generally place Aladdin slightly lower in the pecking order, below The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast - see this review from Janet at the New York Times. There is also some fascinating information on the making of Aladdin in this review from Olly at Empire, which no doubt has more truth to it than the story I described hearing above.