Return to Oz has gumption. It’s got confidence and professionalism too, but its gumption is something different. Director Murch is making it work with what he’s got—a scale limited by budget and reality—because he’s sure of the project. Gumption.
He knows he’s got the right lead—eleven year-old Fairuza Balk as Dorothy. He knows the special effects he’s going to rely on are going to be impressive, whether the grand claymation as stop motion finale, the various mechanical aspects of the suits (Return raises the question of whether it’s people in costumes or people in suits), the talking chicken as second lead for the beginning of the second act, all of it. Except the street gang villains, who have wheels attached to their hands and feet. The effects are fine because they’re doing it and the design of the outfits is… inventive, but they’re still nerdy white guy street gang villains from the eighties. It’s campy—eighties camp. And Return’s never campy.
Also impressive are the voice performances. Denise Bryer as the chicken, Sean Barrett as the steampunk robot, Brian Henson as the effects-heavier Scarecrow-stand in, Jack Pumpkinhead. Murch knows how to time the effects shots to get the later effect. Return is beautifully edited; director Murch cut his teeth editing before directing it and the film editor Leslie Hodgson has some wonderful cuts. The film’s technically strong. It’s principal cast is good. Balk’s great. So what’s the problem. Besides the budget and effects only being able to do so much? It doesn’t have a good ending. It’s way too small. While the film isn’t a sequel to The Wizard of Oz: The Movie, it does acknowledge that film’s legacy. Return is grittier, late nineteenth century Kansas far less idealized, Balk is a tween in definite danger, there is a villain who takes off their head, and there’s electro-shock therapy. And there’s Piper Laurie as Aunt Em, which is an interesting casting decision and maybe not the best one. Laurie’s playing a literal “Piper Laurie mom-type” to the point I wondered who they got who looked so much like Piper Laurie. Because I assumed Laurie would be able to handle the accent and she’s not. It’s not good. It’s a missed opportunity. Same goes for Uncle Owen (sorry, Uncle Henry) Matt Clark. Missed opportunity. Clark’s fine, but he’s got no added value presence. Return is a perfect franchise starter thirty years too soon; Murch is too busy focusing on how they’re going to realize the magic to worry about the supporting performances. Same goes for Jean Marsh as the bad witch. She’s got no charm, no energy.
On the other hand, Nicol Williamson is amazing as the villain. Like, Murch gets it with Williamson, because he’s voicing the villain; the visual villain is an effects sequence and Murch knows he’s got to sell that effects sequence. So Williamson’s performance matters. Again, bigger budget, more time, it’d probably have been fine. But Return is very much a victim of reality. Besides the budget, there’s the weight of the de facto sequel, there’s the state of special effects. Most of Return is really, really good. They just don’t have the ending. It’s too little. The film’s promising Balk’s Return to Oz, Oz meaning her friends—and the familiar characters—it’s promising the magic. Balk finds herself having to fight through a lot of darkness to find the happy again. She’s got a hero arc and needs a solid resolution to it. Murch doesn’t have the money for it and rushes it, minimizes it. Maybe it could be rushed, maybe it could be minimized, but it can’t be both. It’s too little for what the film’s built up.
And then the epilogue is sweet enough but not strong enough. Return to Oz is almost there. It’s so close and for a good while, it seems like it’s going to make it. And you want it to succeed because, maybe Henson’s Jack Pumpkinhead aside, the new sidekicks are good enough, especially in the grittier Oz.
Finally, David Shire’s score. It’s a perfect metaphor for the film. It gets really close to clicking, then doesn’t. Shire’s music is perfectly adequate for a “kid in the olden times” picture, but not for a magical adventure.
Return to Oz is rather awesome, but it’s also a bummer. They made the magic, they just didn’t know what to do with it.