Perhaps the film's single greatest virtue is that it is not a mass of syrupy sweetness. It can actually be fairly frightening. Although I can hardly speak for all children, I, as a child, enjoyed being a little afraid. I liked scary movies, and I do not believe that I am alone in this. Return to Oz is neither gory nor particularly intense, but it does have some moments that are likely to make its younger viewers tingle with anxious excitement. Admittedly, the initial scenes, in which Dorothy is taken to a clinic to receive shock treatment are not successful, and probably should have been omitted, but the thrills that follow are all delightful. At different times, the young protagonist is chased by threatening Wheelers, is shown her old friends turned into stone, plunges down a crack in the earth into the realm of the Nome King, and faces being magically transformed into an ornament. The movie's scariest moments are, however, those that feature Mombi. The witch has a collection of different heads, and she changes these as other people change clothes. She even locks Dorothy in a room to give the girl's head a few years to ripen so that she can harvest it and add it to her collection. The threat is deliciously scary. That said, the sight of Mombi's headless body rising up out of her bed to chase the girl is probably even better. The film really is pretty exciting.
Such adventurous content is, by and large, made even more engaging by the film's look. The character designs are, for the most part, inspired by John R. Neill's illustrations of Baum's Oz books, and are almost all a joy to see. Tik-Tok is a copper plated, round-bodied mechanical man. Jack Pumpkinhead is a stick figure topped with a jack-o'-lantern. The Gump is the head of a green-furred moose-like animal that is tied to a pair of sofas, decorated with palm frond wings, and brought to life with a magical powder. Even the Nome King and his subjects, though they bear no resemblance to the beings drawn by Neill, are delights. They are depicted using stop motion animation and are made to resemble living rocks. The effect achieved is almost always fascinating.
What is more, the most important members of the cast generally acquit themselves well. Balk is charming as the innocent yet spunky Dorothy, and both Marsh and Williamson are suitably villainous. Some of the supporting cast members can be a little sugary in their portrayals of their characters, or can ham it up a little too much, but they are never so extreme that they make the movie unwatchable by their presence.
Lastly, I should mention that although the designs of most of the characters do resemble the illustrations of them in the Oz books, the narrative itself is nothing like that of any of those books. There will, undoubtedly, be people who come to the movie expecting that it will be faithful to one of Baum's works, and, if they are going to judge the movie by its fidelity, they are going to be disappointed. That said, if a person is either unfamiliar with Baum's books or is willing to watch the movie as an independent creation, it is likely that he will find much to enjoy. In fact, it should be remembered that many of the Oz movies the production of which Baum himself was involved in differed markedly from his books. Even he realized that he could tell new stories with his movies.
While I will hardly claim that Return to Oz is the best children's film I have ever encountered, it is both beautiful to look at and often thrilling. It is certainly able to catch and hold the attention of adults and children alike.
Review by Keith Allen
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