Walter Murch, a renowned film editor and sound designer, made his directorial debut with “Return to Oz.”
With a background in editing and sound mixing for iconic films like “Apocalypse Now” and “The Godfather Part II,” Murch brought a distinct and innovative vision to “Return to Oz.”
His directorial approach resulted in a visually striking and thematically rich reimagining of the Oz universe, showcasing his talent for creating immersive cinematic experiences that resonate with audiences of all ages.
“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.
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The Legacy of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Return to Oz”
For decades, MGM’s 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was one of the films that the executives at Walt Disney Pictures regretted not making, along with the original 1977 Star Wars.
Ironically, MGM was motivated to produce “The Wizard of Oz” after Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937) became a massive success, setting the stage for a rivalry between the two studios.
While “The Wizard of Oz” was successful at the box office, its exorbitant budget meant that it needed to be a huge hit to turn a profit.
It wasn’t until the film started being broadcast on television that it became financially successful. Over time, “The Wizard of Oz” became a cultural icon, surpassing Disney’s “Snow White” in cultural impact.
However, Disney’s own attempt at an Oz movie, “Return to Oz,” faced significant financial disappointment in 1985, largely due to unfavourable comparisons with the MGM film.
Nonetheless, “Return to Oz” has garnered a dedicated following over the years and is increasingly recognized as the most faithful adaptation of Baum’s work.
While “The Wizard of Oz” was a significant achievement, it has been overrated for what it isn’t and underrated for what it is.
The film is often credited as the first “integrated musical,” with songs that effectively advance the story.
However, it is criticized for not fully capturing Baum’s literary vision and the wonderment found in other fantasy films. In contrast, “Return to Oz” is seen as the live-action fantasy film that Disney aimed to create but struggled to achieve.
The negative comparisons to MGM’s film, “The Wizard of Oz,” and the criticism that “Return to Oz” was “too dark” for children’s entertainment were unfounded, as many critics seemed unfamiliar with L. Frank Baum’s original Oz novels.
In reality, the nightmarish elements in “Return to Oz,” such as the Wheelers, the hall of living disembodied heads, the deadly desert, and the Nome King’s underground world, were directly drawn from Baum’s third Oz book, “Ozma of Oz,” and some elements from the second Oz novel, “The Marvelous Land of Oz.”
The notion that the film was too dark overlooked the similar frightening aspects present in “The Wizard of Oz,” notably the flying monkeys.
Walter Murch, an award-winning film editor and sound designer, inadvertently initiated the “Return to Oz” project during an interview with Disney in 1980.
He expressed his interest in another Oz story, having grown up with the specific books that served as the basis for “Return to Oz.”
Unbeknownst to Murch, Disney owned the rights to all of the Oz stories and was particularly interested in producing an Oz-related film before the copyright expiration.
Despite facing challenges during filming, including being briefly fired due to budget concerns, Murch’s friend George Lucas advocated for him, resulting in his reinstatement to the project.
In 1980, Walter Murch initiated “Return to Oz” development during a meeting with Tom Wilhite, the production chief at Walt Disney Productions.
Unbeknownst to Murch, Disney owned the rights to the Oz series and was keen on creating a new film due to the impending copyright expiration.
The film was based on L. Frank Baum’s “The Marvelous Land of Oz” and “Ozma of Oz,” and Murch co-wrote the screenplay with Gill Dennis to ensure a departure from the original film.
Murch took a darker approach to the source material, which led to concerns about the film’s commercial success.
“Return to Oz” (1985): Embracing the Darker Side of L. Frank Baum’s Oz Universe
Despite facing challenges, including a change in Disney’s leadership and budget increases, “Return to Oz” was completed and released in 1985.
The film, featuring Fairuza Balk as Dorothy, received mixed reviews and underperformed at the box office in the United States but gained a cult following internationally.
It was noted for its darker tone and was praised for its faithfulness to L. Frank Baum’s works, despite being considered too intense for young audiences.
The technical team, including executive producer Gary Kurtz, worked on the film with meticulous attention to detail, utilizing practical effects and stop-action animation.
The symphonic score by David Shire added depth to the film’s atmosphere, mirroring the setting in 1899.
“Return to Oz” was distinct from the original 1939 film, as it was not a musical and aimed to capture the essence of Baum’s original works.
The film’s plot revolves around Dorothy’s return to Oz, facing challenges and encounters with peculiar characters.
The production faced difficulties, but Balk’s performance and the film’s dedication to maintaining the spirit of Baum’s novels were lauded.
Despite its initial reception, “Return to Oz” has obtained a dedicated fan base and is recognized for its commitment to portraying the darker elements of Baum’s Oz universe.
n the film “Return to Oz,” Dorothy awakens to find herself in a desolate and peculiar version of Oz, accompanied by Bellina, a talking hen from her aunt’s farm.
The movie takes a darker and more macabre tone than the original “The Wizard of Oz.”
It introduces new characters such as the Wheelers, a fearsome gang, and Tik-Tok, a robot soldier, as Dorothy’s companions, deviating from the familiar characters of the original film.
As Dorothy and her companions confront the Nome King, they face challenges and engage in a battle of wits and courage to restore the petrified inhabitants of Oz.
Despite its dark and eerie nature, the film has garnered a dedicated fan base over the years and remains an intriguing and captivating experience for viewers.
The film’s portrayal of Oz deviates from the familiar and beloved version seen in “The Wizard of Oz,” offering a unique and somewhat unsettling interpretation that has both fascinated and perplexed audiences.
The darker tone and distinct characters have contributed to the film’s enduring appeal, attracting interest from both fans of the original Oz stories and those seeking a compelling and unconventional cinematic experience.
The movie’s presentation of Oz as a foreboding and mysterious realm has resonated with viewers, making it a noteworthy addition to the Oz cinematic universe.
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