Return to Oz (1985)

“This is a *children’s* movie?” That’s the rhetorical question that was going through my head just about the entire time I was watching this much-belated, sorely underappreciated sequel to 1939’s immortal “The Wizard of Oz.” Make no mistake: This is a bleak, almost nihilistic dramatic fantasy that doubles down on some of the darkness introduced in the first movie when it comes to Dorothy, who seems routinely mistreated by all those around her. Here, she begins the movie in a depressed state, missing her friends in Oz while her family believes she’s having a mental breakdown so they send her for… electroshock therapy! That’s only the beginning of the perilous journey she embarks on this time around with a new coterie of companions as they discover that Oz has been taken over by the malevolent Gnome King. The journey itself is littered with moments that would be more appropriate in a horror movie, including disembodied heads and a constant, palpable threat of death that follows the characters everywhere, which gives the movie a rather unforgiving edge. Ultimately, that harder edge is big part of what makes the movie so compelling and engaging: It really feels like anything could happen because director Walter Murch is willing to ‘go there.’ He’s not encumbered by a light touch in favor of his young audience, instead choosing to double down on the movie’s darker themes and its more grotesque, often nightmarish creature design, and while it’s not entirely appropriate for his intended audience, it sure is compelling as a grown-up. Fairuza Balk is perfect as Dorothy, capable of registering both vulnerability and steeliness in the same line delivery, and it’s a pleasure to see her navigate the narrative so confidently despite her young age. So, while it may not be a good choice for kids, it’s a wild ride for mature audiences.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of 5)

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