Dorothy Gale Week Day 5: Fairuza Balk in Return to Oz (1985)

returnozDirector: Walter Murch

Writer: Walter Murch, Gill Dennis, based on the novels The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Cast: Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh, Piper Laurie, Matt Clark, Sean Barrett, Michael Sundin, Tim Rose, Mak Wilson, Denise Bryer, Brian Henson, Lyle Conway, Justin Case, John Alexander, Deep Roy, Emma Ridley, Sophie Ward, Fiona Victory, Pons Maar

Plot: It has been six months since Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) came home following her adventure in Oz. Her Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) is working to rebuild the farm, destroyed by the tornado, and Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) is worried that the little girl is sleepless, stuck imagining the fairy land she “dreamed” about before. Dorothy scolds a chicken named Billina who has been unable to produce eggs, and finds an old key in the chicken coop. The design on the end of it seems to bear an “O-Z” – the symbol of the land of Oz. She shows it to Em as proof of her stories, but it only furthers her resolve to bring Dorothy to the a doctor. She tells Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson) her stories of Oz, of her friends, of the Ruby Slippers that were lost as she flew home. Worley unveils an electrical device with a “face” that may cure her, and Dorothy sees a reflection of a girl (Emma Ridley) looking at her. The doctor and his nurse (Jean Marsh) prepare Dorothy to stay overnight for treatment. Dorothy is strapped onto a gurney for treatment, but she’s frightened by the device placed on her head. Before the Doctor can turn it on, the power to the hospital is knocked out by a storm. The Nurse goes to check on a screaming patient while the Doctor tries to repair the power, leaving Dorothy alone so the mysterious girl can unstrap her and let her free. Rushing outside, the girls are separated by a flash flood, and Dorothy clings to a floating chicken coop to ride out the storm.

In the morning, Dorothy finds that her hen Billina is in the coop with her, she begins speaking (voice of Denise Bryer). The coop has washed up on the edge of a desert, with lush, green land nearby. Dorothy realizes they must be in Oz, which means the sands beneath them are those of the Deadly Desert, which transforms any living creature that touches it to sand. Dorothy carries Billina to safety, leaping from one stone to another until she reaches the grass, unaware that some of those stones are watching her. The creature watching from the rocks rushes off to inform his king that she has returned to Oz, and has a chicken with her.

Dorothy and Billina find the old farmhouse where it crashed in Munchkinland, but realize the Munchkin City is gone, and the Munchkins with it. The Yellow Brick Road has been reduced to rubble, and she races along it until she comes to the destroyed remains of the Emerald City. The people have been turned to stone, including the Tin Woodsman and Cowardly Lion. They are attacked by creatures with wheels for hands and feet, who chase them into a hidden chamber. The lead Wheeler (Pans Maar) tells them they’ll destroy them, for the Nome King doesn’t allow chickens in Oz. Turning around, Dorothy finds a clockwork man with a plate that proclaims him “The Royal Army of Oz.” Winding him up with the key she found in Kansas, he activates and introduces himself at Tik-Tok (Sean Barrett). Upon the orders of the Scarecrow, he was locked in the chamber to wait for Dorothy’s return after the people began to turn to stone. Tik-Tok defeats the Wheelers and interrogates the leader, who tells them the Nome King is responsible for Oz’s devastation, and that only Princess Mombi can tell them where the Scarecrow is. In Mombi’s palace, they find a beautiful woman with a room full of interchangeable heads. She imprisons Dorothy in the attic, planning to come back for her when her own head is a bit older.

In the attic, Dorothy finds a pumpkin-headed man named Jack (Brian Henson), who tells her he was built by Mombi’s former servant to scare the witch. Instead of destroying him, Mombi tested a “Powder of Life” on him, then locked up the remaining powder with her original head. Jack believes his “mother” was enchanted by Mombi and hidden away. Dorothy and Jack sneaks out to steal the powder, but Mombi is alerted when her original head (Jean Marsh again) wakes up and shouts for help. The others have constructed a flying contraption from couches, leaves, and the mounted head of a Gump (Lyle Conway), which they bring to life with the powder and escape. They fly until the Gump comes apart and crashes on the mountain of the Nome King (Williamson), where the Scarecrow (Justin Case) is imprisoned.

The Nome King (happy that Billina has seemingly disappeared, although she is merely resting inside Jack’s hollow head) has transformed the Scarecrow into an amusing ornament for his vast collection, and claims his conquest of Oz was simply taking back what belonged to him – the gems from the Emerald City were all mined from his underground kingdom, after all. As she weeps for her missing friend, the Nome King seems genuinely touched by her tears, and offers her an opportunity to win him back – if she or her friends can guess which ornament he is, he will be set free. The Gump goes first, but fails in his effort and is transformed into an ornament himself – a condition of the contest the Nome King failed to mention before. Jack goes next, then Tik-Tok, and each are transformed. The Nome King offers to send Dorothy back home using the Ruby Slippers, which he found after she lost them, but she insists on trying to save her friends. She manages to rescue the Scarecrow, who was turned into an emerald, and realizes the people from Oz are all green ornaments. They quickly rescue the Gump, and the Nome King grows angry, sending an earthquake through the mountain. They find and transform Jack as the Nome King attacks them, enraged, tired of the games. He grabs Jack, lifting him to his mouth, but he’s stopped by a sudden clucking sound. Inside Jack’s head, Billina lays an egg, which rolls into the Nome King’s mouth. As he shrieks, he begins to crumble away, revealing that eggs are poison to Nomes. The mountain collapses, and Dorothy takes the Ruby Slippers from the Nome King’s body, using the magic to bring them back to the Emerald City, bring the people back to life, and return Oz to its former glory. With them is a green medal that was somehow stuck to the Gump. Dorothy guesses the truth, and transforms the medal back into the missing Tik-Tok.

The people of Oz ask Dorothy to stay and be their queen, but she wishes to return to Kansas. As she debates what to do, the women whose heads Mombi took tell the truth about her serving-girl: she is Ozma, queen and rightful ruler of Oz. (Also Jack’s “mother” and the girl who helped Dorothy escape the hospital), lost after the Wizard came. Freed from Mombi’s magic, Ozma is restored to the throne and promises to send Dorothy home, on the condition that she signal her should she ever wish to return to Oz again.

Thoughts: This film is an old favorite of mine, probably my first experience with Oz beyond the MGM Musical. It may, in fact, be what first stirred me on to read the further Oz books, when I heard it was essentially a combination of the second and third novels in the series, The Marvelous Land of Oz and Return to Oz. (Honestly, I don’t remember if I read the books before I saw the movie or vice-versa. I would have been 8 years old when this movie was released, and certainly old enough to have discovered the Oz shelf at the St. Charles Parish Public Library where I would be utterly lost for the next few years – a sojourn for which I am eternally grateful.) The writers took the characters and plots of both books and blended them together in a very satisfying way, creating a story that evokes parts of each of them, but manages to feel complete in and of itself. I won’t go into what parts came from which book (read them yourself – they’re in the public domain and free on the internet), but I can say that if I hadn’t read them myself, I wouldn’t have guessed the movie is a mash-up.

Fairuza Balk is the most age-appropriate Dorothy we’ve had yet (she was 11 at the time the film was released), and puts out a decent performance. She’s a young actor, obviously still learning, and you frequently hear the stilted delivery of a child actor trying to remember her lines. But there’s a nice bit of emotion and determination in her voice, even during those abrupt and unnecessary pauses. She feels like a Dorothy who’s already been through a lot and has to reconcile the world she experienced with the ordinary one in which she was raised. It’s a nuanced idea, one that Baum never dealt with much in the books (except perhaps in The Emerald City of Oz), and rather daring for Disney to attempt in the 80s.

Except for Dorothy and Mombi, most of the cast is realized through the use of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, doing a job that these days would probably be mostly CGI. I find the practical puppetry of Tik-Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead far more impressive than most computer animated creations, however, and they add a sense of realism to this fantastic setting. The character designs also skew very close to the illustrations in the original Oz books  — even the three characters from the original Wizard of Oz are made up to look like their book versions rather than Jack Haley, Ray Bolger or Bert Lahr. Of all the versions of Oz I’ve looked at this week, this is the one that feels most like the fantasy epic it is at its heart, and I attribute a lot of that to the designs of the characters and sets used here. There’s also some well-done stop motion animation for the Nomes, which are more like living rocks here than the dumpy creatures of the novel. The animation, done by Claymation creator Will Vinton, looks very impressive, and I can try to reconcile the changes to the characters with an attempt to make them more menacing – although the Nome King in Baum’s novels is one of the few truly credible threats to the power of Ozma and Glinda, his appearance is by no means something that will inspire fright.

Return to Oz was thought of by many people as an attempt to do a sequel to the Judy Garland movie, but this film has only a few nods to the MGM musical – the use of Ruby Slippers being the most obvious. The sequence in Kansas at the beginning, like in the MGM movie, introduces actors that would reoccur in Oz and elements that would reflect back on Dorothy’s second adventure (the pumpkin, the lunchpail, and the mechanical man most obviously). Fortunately, the end of the movie makes it pretty clear this time, it’s not just a dream, which Baum never intended in the first place.

As far as deviating from Baum’s intentions, the villains are farther off than anything else. Mombi has little in common with her counterpart from the books, borrowing her most distinctive aspects from Langwidere, the head-swappin’ princess from Ozma of Oz. The Nome King himself, though, is the biggest departure, showing a sense of compassion that doesn’t bespeak the character from the book at all, although the temper he displays at the end feels appropriate. His appearance is also very different from the pudgy, deceptively silly character he is in the books. In this version, he begins as a creature made of solid rock, and slowly becomes more human with each person added to his collection of ornaments. Once Dorothy starts setting her friends free he grows more and more inhuman again, finally crumbling to skeletal rock after Billina’s egg poisons him. It’s an interesting idea that would probably work with some villains, but doesn’t really fit the Nome King of L. Frank Baum’s novels all that well.

Despite that, this movie feels more like Baum’s Oz than any Oz movie I’ve ever seen – not perfect, mind you (the Emerald City’s sudden proximity to the very edge of Oz still strikes me as being somewhat ridiculous in the context of any version of the first story), but closer than anything else. We’ve still yet to have a truly faithful big-screen adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, let alone the rest of the books in the series, but if we ever get them, the look and flavor of this movie wouldn’t be a bad template to use at all.

Now I know I promised you five films for each week of this project, but I feel a little bad, as the most recent significant version of Dorothy Gale I can find in cinema is nearly 30 years old. Hollywood really needs to pick up the pace. But in order to have something a little more recent, just for perspective, come back tomorrow for a Dorothy Gale Week bonus! This time we’re going to the small screen to see how Zooey Deschanel depicted Dorothy Gale (or “D.G.”) in the 2007 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries Tin Man.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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About blakemp

Blake M. Petit. Author. Podcaster. Teacher. Actor. Geek Pundit.

Posted on April 26, 2013, in 4-Icons, Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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