An asylum filled with the screams of the “damaged” ones in the cellar, Screeching freaks with wheels for hands, a witch who collects heads, a desert that turns all that touch it to sand and an effeminate King made of stone with a penchant for ruby footwear. Some of the, quite frankly, messed up ingredients that Disney came up with for a sequel to one of the most beloved family films of all time.
It is very clear from the off that Return to Oz is a very different beast to The Wizard of Oz, the obvious being that it isn’t a musical. No whimsical musical numbers to break up the scary parts here, nowhere to hide.
Return continues the story of Dorothy Gale, some time after the traumatic tornado incident turned her world literally upside down. Her aunt & uncle become increasingly concerned by the stories she is telling of a far away land she visited. Believing their niece to have some kind of tornado related PTSD, they ship her off to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. As you can pretty much tell already, this is a pretty dark tale, one people were no doubt not expecting in 1985, least of all from the house of mouse. It gets darker still when we discover that she is to undergo electroshock therapy to cure her of her delusions. Dorothy hears screams in the night from the patients damaged by the fledgling treatment, kept locked in the cellar. Dark, dark stuff and this is all in the opening 20 minutes!
When we finally return to Oz things don’t get any lighter. In a devastated Emerald City we are very quickly exposed to the Wheelers. At first we don’t see them, we hear them, an ominous squeaking as they stalk Dorothy and then we see them. Cackling, demented creatures with wheels for hands, personal army to Princess Mombi. A sense of queasy unease is set up from the moment she is introduced from the eerie mandolin music that she plays. The true traumatising moments come when we discover that she changes heads from a collection she keeps in glass cabinets and intends to do the same to Dorothy. The true nightmare fuel occurs when Dorothy awakes Mombi’s true head which bone chillingly calls out her name waking all her, now screaming, head collection and her body which gives chase. To a 4 year old me, this was the first thing I recall being terrified by on film, like proper traumatised, I remember it vividly and it has never left me, it certainly is imagery that leaves a lasting impression.
If you also factor in the film’s chief antagonist, The Nome King, a creepy assed mixture of claymation and live action performance by the wonderful Nicol Williamson and you basically have one of the most left field, unexpected and yet strangely satisfying sequels to a family favourite you could want. It’s odd, creepy, terrifying, memorable and full of the kind of great stuff, if you are a little bit twisted, that will stay with you from childhood to adulthood, pretty much like it did with me.