Return to Oz (1985)

return to oz poster 1985 movie
7.0 Overall Score
Story: 6/10
Acting: 7/10
Visuals: 8/10

Nice designs on Tik-Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead

Too dark for younger kids

Movie Info

Movie Name:  Return to Oz

Studio: Walt Disney Pictures/Silver Screen Partners II/BMI (No. 9) Ltd.

Genre(s):  Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Family

Release Date(s):  June 21, 1985

MPAA Rating:  PG

return to oz wheelers mask

I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore (or the Oz you knew)

Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) has been lost since tornado that tore through the her home and whisked her away to Oz.  Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) worry about her delusions of Oz, and her stories of talking scarecrows, tin-woodsmen, and cowardly lions.  Dorothy is taken to Dr. J.B. Worley (Nicol Williamson) help her deal with her delusions, but when Dorothy flees with an unknown girl (Emma Ridley), she finds herself back in Oz with her chicken Billina.  Oz isn’t the fairy land it was before and it isn’t how Dorothy remembers it.  It is ruled by a cruel woman named Mombi (Jean Marsh) and the Nome King (Nicol Williamson) destroyed the world…now Dorothy and Billina with Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead, and a creature called the Gump could be Oz’s only hope.

return to oz mombi fiona victory headless

Off with her head!

Directed by Walter Murch (who also penned the screenplay with Gill Dennis), Return to Oz is a sci-fi fantasy adventure.  The Disney film is a loose adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904) and Ozma of Oz (1907).  It performed poorly at the box office but gained a cult following over the years.  The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects.

I actually saw Return to Oz in the theater as a fan of the Oz books growing up.  The movie was odd and the tone of the film was pretty dark…something that actually worked for it (my friend and I ended up playing “Deadly Desert” instead of “the floor is lava” as a result of the movie).  The movie is unbalanced, but one of those uniquely 1980s kids movie.

return to oz nome king dorothy gale fairuza balk nicol williamson

Care for some electro shock therapy?

The story picks at aspects of other Wizard of Oz books and does get the story points from Ozma and Oz and The Marvelous Land of Oz, but it doesn’t have the “happy-happy” nature of the Oz books overall.  The movie ends with a lot of fun and lightness, but it is largely a dark tale of mental disease and monsters menacing Dorothy and her friends.  It was an odd choice, but in comparison to movies like The Goonies, Gremlins, and Tron, it does fit in.

Fairuza Balk won the role of Dorothy after a big casting call.  She does a decent job as a first role, but the character doesn’t seem to really fit the tone of the Dorothy from the book (and definitely not that of Judy Garland).  Like the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz, characters were cast in multiple roles.  Nicol Williamson plays the insane Dr. J.B. Worley and the Nome King while Jean Marsh plays Nurse Wilson and Mombi (with alternate heads played by Sophie Ward and Fiona Victory).  Piper Laurie and Matt Clark have small roles as Aunt Em and Uncle Henry.  Emma Ridley plays the hospital girl and Princess Ozma (but it chooses to avoid the odd Ozma is transformed into a boy storyline of The Marvelous Land of Oz).

return to oz cast fairuza balk

The Oz you expect

The visuals are decent (especially for the time with pre-computer animation).  The stop motion in the film is led by claymation legend Will Vinton.  The practical designs of the characters are fun, but sometimes (like with the Cowardly Lion), they look kind of like giant Disney World characters.  Fans of the books might notice a number of the books characters appearing in the parade at the end (though unnamed).

Return to Oz is a weird trip.  It is a lot darker than parents might expect and would have a totally different feel if made today.  It is refreshing to return to a time when “scaring” kids wasn’t such a bad thing, and movies were allowed to be creepy.  I wish that the film had done better and wonder what would have happened if we had more Oz movies.

Related Links:

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wiz (1978)

Legends of Oz:  Dorothy’s Return (2013)

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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