MOVIE REVIEW : BREATHING A NEW LIFE INTO BAUM'S LAND OF 'OZ'

Times Film Critic

As a young boy, Walter Murch's imagination must have bloomed under the sweet spell of the Oz books.

You can feel it in the way he has approached "Return to Oz" (citywide) as director and co-adapter.

With executive producer Gary Kurtz, Murch has gone directly to those wonderful John R. Neill illustrations and--magically--breathed life into his characters: Tik Tok; Jack Pumpkinhead; the flying Gump; the sassy talking chicken Bellina, and Ozma herself. For that fidelity, everyone who grew up with the full range of the Oz books is deeply in Murch's debt.

"Return to Oz" has other wonders, many of them from clay animation master Will Vinton, who has created rocks with sly, shale eyes that roll up and down to spy on Dorothy, under orders from their rumbling master, the Nome King. (It's ironic that in this Disney-produced spectacle, Vinton's patented Claymation almost steals the movie.)

However, the framework surrounding "Return to Oz" is dark and, I suspect, terribly frightening for very young children. And while this 9-year-old Dorothy (Canadian Fairuza Balk) is intrepid, serious and utterly engaging, she seems to ricochet from one awful circumstance to another with a minimum of joy and a maximum of wide-eyed apprehension.

It's hardly surprising. As the film begins, Dorothy has returned from Oz only weeks before, and cannot sleep for thinking about it. With the best of intentions, her beloved Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) turn little Dorothy over to a cure-all doctor, who is sure his electric shock treatment will remove her memory of this pesky place called Oz.

It's almost a half-hour of action before Dorothy finds her way back to Oz--dour, scary action in a nightmarish, dark Victorian house whose basement is filled with moaning, crying patients, their minds stolen by the doctor's machine. That night, Dorothy is strapped onto a gurney and wheeled down to face electroshock; escaping, she is almost lost in a raging torrent that (apparently) sweeps away her mysterious young rescuer (Emma Ridley).

(To keep the continuity with the 1939 MGM movie version, two characters appear both in Kansas and Oz. Nicol Williamson plays the doctor and the Nome King; Jean Marsh, looking like a malevolent Vivien Leigh, plays the doctor's nurse and the evil Princess Mombi.)

If Kansas, representing home and stability, is awash with psychological disorders, then Oz, that magical land of escape, is fairyland gone bankrupt, with only a child to save it.

There are weeds in the Yellow Brick Road and graffiti all over the Emerald City. Here Mombi, holds sway, with her screaming, nasty guards, the Wheelers--roller-skaters with wheels instead of hands and feet. (Precious Oz suffering from every city blight--it's a disquieting image for adults as well as for children.)

Mombi must report to the stony-hearted Nome King, who has sacked and wrecked the Emerald City as he has taken over Ozma's throne. He plays a particularly paralyzing guessing game: Lose and you become bric-a-brac. As a result, the Nome King's antechambers look like bargain day at the Getty Museum, crammed with objets that used to be the friendly citizens of Oz. All this is what Dorothy must set to rights.

This Dorothy is quite up to the task, particularly with her hen at her side, uttering flat, Kansas-accented pearls of common sense. With the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion as more minor characters, Dorothy's chief allies are the stork-legged Jack Pumpkinhead; a talking stuffed moose head that will become the Gump, and Tik Tok, a clockwork mechanical fighting man. With his handsome copper mustaches, Tik-Tok looks like a cross between Colonel Blimp and a bathysphere out of Jules Verne; an art nouveau R2D2.

No L. Frank Baum lover could fault the physical details of "Return to Oz." It must have taken a tremendous strength of vision to resist duplicating the first film, but these vistas and characters are not only breathtakingly faithful to the original spirit of Oz, they are beautiful on their own.

Yet "Return to Oz" doesn't soar when it so clearly should. The escape from Mombi's mirrored castle in the Gump, a flying creature made from two sofas lashed together like a boat, should be one of the high points of the film, as exhilarating as the boys' bike ride in "E.T.," but it isn't. The final triumphant pageant, reuniting all of Oz, looks like something from the Main Street of Disneyland on a Saturday night--all the great style of the earlier sections is gone.

(Mombi's castle may stick in the memory, however. In individual cabinets she has the living heads of 22 beautiful young girls, interchangeable on Mombi's own slim neck. But at night, Dorothy discovers that Mombi sleeps with no head at all--an eerie metaphor for the perils of vanity, and a heavy-duty fright for the young.)

Most of all, the film lacks the core that pulled the original together, that powerful tug toward home. Home for Judy Garland's Dorothy may have been discouraging or unpleasant, but it wasn't life-threatening, and a grandmotherly Aunt Em was there to give Miss Gulch a piece of her mind.

Home in "Return to Oz" comes with no sense of security at all. And when Dorothy does get back, there's so little between her and Aunt Em that what we want--her aunt's admission of what an awful mistake she made, abandoning her precious child to evil hands--never comes. That may indeed be a reflection of the times in which this film has been made, but it's not what you could call comforting.

'RETURN TO OZ' A Buena Vista release of a Walt Disney Pictures presentation, produced in association with Silver Screen Partners II. Producer Paul Maslansky. Executive producer Gary Kurtz. Director Walter Murch. Screenplay, Murch, Gill Dennis, based on "The Land of Oz" and "Ozma of Oz" by L. Frank Baum. Camera David Watkin. Editor Leslie Hodgson. Music David Shire. Production design Norman Reynolds. Supervising art director Charles Bishop. Art direction Fred Hole, set decoration Michael Ford. Costumes Raymond Hughes. Makeup supervision Robin Grantham. Sound Robert Allen. Associate producer Colin Michael Kitchens. Second-unit director, camera James Devis. Creature design supervision Lyle Conway. Special-effects supervision Ian Wingrove. Optical editorial supervision Peter Krook. Claymation director Will Vinton. Claymation producer David Altschul. With Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh, Piper Laurie, Matt Clark, Michael Sundin, Tim Rose, Emma Ridley, Pons Maar, Mak Wilson, Brian Henson, Stewart Larange, Lyle Conway, Steve Norrington, Justin Case, John Alexander, Deep Roy, Sophie Ward, Fiona Victory. Voices: Sean Barrett, Denise Bryer, Brian Henson, Lyle Conway.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).

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