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.

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