Thursday, 14 January 2016

Return to Oz (1985)

Ah, the long forgotten sequel, of sorts, to the classic 1939 movie starring Judy Garland. Now, this little gem of a movie was actually loosely based on the novel The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum and in part his other novel Ozma of Oz. The plot takes place six months after Dorothy's (Fairuza Balk) original adventure to Oz (in the year 1899) and sees her struggling with insomnia. She is sent off for electric shock treatment at some spooky clinic because in this era people didn't know any better, she isn't being punished, people just thought these methods helped. Anyway, Ozma appears and helps Dorothy escape during a frightful storm, in the midst of the panic Dorothy leaps into a fast flowing river and is swept away. Exit the real world, welcome to the fantasy zone. Dorothy awakes after the storm, but she is no longer in Kansas, she is now once again in the magical land of Oz.

Okay lets get down n dirty here, this movie didn't do very well upon release, although I have no idea why. It was 1985, [i]Star Wars[/i] mania was still in full flow, Lucas, Spielberg and Henson were the grand overlords of Hollywood. Fantasy was the big thing in the movie industry and this movie had plenty of that. Just looking at the films poster you can see the influence people like Lucas and Henson had on everything. That recognisable, glorious hand drawn style with the typical character posing positions which you saw in many 80's fantasy posters, it looks like a Lucasfilm/Henson Film product. Next to that the visuals even looked like something from Lucas or Henson, the effects in this movie were of a high standard for the time and anyone of a certain age can instantly see the similarities to other movies of the genre, from that that era. Basically I'm saying the movie felt very much like a Lucas or Henson movie, so the fact it didn't do well was a curious one (although many of these films got greater recognition later in life).

Now admittedly I don't know much about Baum's stories, I haven't read the books, but just with a little bit of research I found myself genuinely impressed with the levels of faithfulness this movie incorporated. The movie appears to pick n choose bits to use from the books and they aren't exactly the same, but in general the essence is there. The first and most obvious nod to the original material are the characters. Now back in the day I was always confused why the characters looked so vastly different to the 1939 version, but its actually the 39 version that was way off base (obviously for limited technical reasons). In this movie the characters are actually very faithfully recreated and what's more, they all look fudging brilliant!

First up the Scarecrow, gotta be honest, I don't like the look of this character in this movie, he looks bloody creepy. Its a bloke in a suit wearing a large full covering mask, but the masks face doesn't actually move, the expression was fixed, its only in quick cuts do we see a different expression, bloody creepy I tells ya. But as I already said he does look exactly as drawn way back in the 1904 novel. The tin woodsman doesn't really show in this film, he's there but only in briefly and doesn't say anything, a shame because this character looks awesome, they really nailed his look perfectly. The same can be said for the Cowardly Lion, again he only pops up at the end in a cameo, we don't hear him speak or anything, he's just a large but very well created animatronic puppet.

The new characters are a joy, a real blend of fantasy and imagination brought to life with much scope. Tik-Tok is a squat, big and round, completely copper, wind-up soldier from the Army of Oz, with the appearance of a typical WWI soldier. Now this character is easily one of the most impressive feats in this film, he's a full blown complete costume that does actually look like its been made out of actual metal. The character waddles around awkwardly, so much so that it makes it hard to believe this guy could actually be of any use because he moves so slowly and loudly and constantly requires winding-up, a lot of artistic license and suspension of disbelief required for this guy. Jack Pumpkinhead immediately serves up one thought, did Tim Burton see this movie and get the idea for Jack Skellington? Bloody looks like it doesn't it. Anyway again its another fantastic full body suit for a very tall slender fellow, the head being slightly animatronic as it does appear to shift at times for expressions of horror, although not too much. The Gump is, I believe, based very loosely on the sawhorse that Dorothy uses to escape Mombi? This guy is a collection of various items all tied together to create a flying creature, mainly a large couch with wings and a moose-like head, the head being fully animatronic. There is also Dorothy's faithful chicken that appears to be completely animatronic for the most part, and again is damn impressive, looks pretty real.

This leaves the Nome King (played by Nicol Williamson), a character that seems to be living rock and wants to become alive or human in form, presumably so he can rule easier. At first the King appears as just an aged face in the rock, but as time passes we see him in full humanoid form, looking more like a traditional King but made out of rock. The Kings visual appearance seems to be accomplished using claymation (in my opinion), just like all his demon-like minions whom only appear as faces on rock surfaces. The effect is simple stop-motion yet very effective, it clearly takes time and effort to accomplish and still holds up very well. Later makeup effects to make the King appear more human (or alive) are actually really fantastic, you can see its merely face paint/face makeup, prosthetics and clever lighting but my God its good. The combination of Williamson's acting and the spectacular makeup on top really make the Nome Kings scenes the best in the movie. Hell even the Wheelers are well created even though they are just blokes on stilts with wheels on the bottom. Their costumes may come across as a bit stupid looking these days (although their masks are pretty sweet) but their gangly, gaunt appearance accompanied by that eerie rusty, squeaky sound effect (their wheels) which precedes their emergence, is what makes them so bone-chilling.

Funny thing is, what can a Wheeler actually do to you?? These...people? have wheels for hands and feet. Literally all they can do is roll around. At the most they could either run you over or, I dunno...bite you? Hit you with their wheel hands maybe, but they might lose balance if they tried that. Yes the odd proportions of their bodies looks very peculiar and that was one factor that scared the kids methinks. But they are essentially bloody useless bad guys...unless you wanna make a rollerskating/blading team perhaps?

Other effects in the movie aren't quite up to speed though I must be honest. Whilst there are lots of decent matte paintings being used for landscapes, which work nicely, there is also a lot of bad bluescreen going on, every now and then you get a truly disastrous bluescreen effects shot that just pops up outta nowhere. Some of the sets range from being quite lavish and authentic, to being really fake looking, obviously plastic of foam. Whilst some sequences are really very very poor looking, Dorothy falling down into the Nome Kings lair is dreadful looking, like something from the 50's. Its basically a live action Balk pasted against a horrific kaleidoscope of colours in the background via bluescreen (or rear projection). Other sequences such as Dorothy and co falling through the sky were always gonna be crap looking and totally ridiculous.

What I did like about this movie, character effects aside, was the darkness, the fact that director Murch went out of his way to actually make this a much gloomier affair. This is supposed to be a kids flick but there is so much going on that will scare them, it always gave me the willy's back in the day. Right from the start with Dorothy being taken to Dr. Worley and his house of horrors for shock treatment. Then you have the witch Mombi played with such ferocity by Jean Marsh, she really lays into that character with such force and conviction, especially with all the heads she collects stored away neatly in glass cabinets. Add to that her headless body that stumbles around like Frankenstein's monster whilst all the disembodied heads scream from their glass prisons! Holy nightmare! hardly the stuff for children! The finale against the Nome King isn't for the faint-hearted child either as the giant stone head tries to devour everyone, until he gets poisoned and pretty much rots away roaring in agony leaving a skeletal stone structure.

Just like the original 1939 movie, the whole adventure is hinted at nothing more than a dream with some characters from the real world that manifest themselves in Oz. Of course there is always a little twist to make you keep wondering. Overall I really struggle to fault this movie despite its negative points and glaring plot holes (how did Billina the chicken wind up in Oz with Dorothy? come to think of it how did Dorothy wind up in Oz?). Yes the film is way too dark for kids which is the target audience, the heroes are just as scary as the baddies to be honest, visually at least. So that's an issue, Jack Pumpkinhead is suppose to be the nice, soft, scaredy-cat type fellow, but he looks bloody terrifying! (for kids), thus making it hard for people to relate. On the other hand I must applaud the bravery and attention to faithfulness of the source material. In general it all looks wonderful...if slightly cheesy and corny by today's standards naturally. Yes you could say I'm looking through rose tinted specs and you'd be a degree, nevertheless this film still makes a grand impact with solid performances (including the young Balk). A classic whimsical fairytale which is engaging, endearing and dare I say...retro, well worth your time.