Posts Tagged ‘gregory maguire’

Film Review: “Return to Oz”

This review contains moderate spoilers for Return to Oz.


The land of Oz has received a lot of different interpretations since the days of L. Frank Baum’s original novels. From the technicolor dreamland of the film starring Judy Garland to the urban-style play The Wiz to Gregory Maguire’s Wicked series, Oz has been seen in literally dozens of different ways.

But never has it been so creepy as in Walter Murch’s “sequel” to the original film, Return to Oz.

Return to Oz, which was released in 1985 by Walt Disney Pictures, starts six months after the twister that brought Dorothy to Oz in the first place. Dorothy can’t sleep, and when Uncle Henry and Aunt Em see an ad in the paper for “electrical healing”, they decide to bring Dorothy to Dr. Worley to be “healed”. However, a massive thunderstorm blows in just before the doctor can use the machine, and a mysterious blond girl “rescues” Dorothy. They run, fall into a river, and Dorothy manages to crawl into a wooden crib and save herself.

The next morning, Dorothy wakes up in the middle of a desert with only her pet chicken Billina for company (Toto was back on the farm all this time). To her surprise, Billina can talk. This clues Dorothy into the fact that she’s back in Oz. With the sassy-talking chicken, Dorothy makes her way to what’s left of Munchkinland — which amounts to nothing but her old house. She finds a nearly-destroyed Yellow Brick Road and follows it to the Emerald City, which is bereft of gems and full of stone statues. Eventually Dorothy adds Tik-Tok (the Royal Army of Oz) to her retinue, and they find out that Princess Mombi, not the Scarecrow, is in charge now. But her boss is a much more evil individual, the Nome King, who has captured the Scarecrow. Dorothy decides she must rescue him, and in the process eventually joins up with Jack Pumpkinhead (a wooden man with a pumpkin for a head) and The Gump (the head of a moose with the body of a sofa and wings made of palm fronds).

Watching Return to Oz almost thirty years after its release, I found it to be a very dark film, full of scary images, creepy animatronic puppets, and 31 severed heads. The villains include a nurse dressed like a crow, a princess who took the heads of beautiful women to use herself, creatures with wheels for hands and feet, and a king made of stone who uses other people to make him more human. Plus, in this film Dorothy is only about eight or nine — the actual age of the character in the books, instead of the teenage girl from the original film — and the first thing she must overcome is an electroshock therapy machine. Fortunately, the doctor who’s going to use it is rather kindly, but his head nurse and orderlies would be extremely frightening, especially for a girl born in the 1890s.

The film stars Fairuza Balk (The Craft, American History X) as Dorothy. It’s her first feature film role, and although she seems a little stilted in the beginning, she grows into the role and is pretty believable by the time she has to face the Nome King. Nicol Williamson (Excalibur) plays the doctor and the king (depending upon if you’re in Kansas or Oz), and he does an admirable job being a kindly doctor in one and an evil, somewhat crazy king in the other. Piper Laurie (Carrie, Twin Peaks) and Matt Clark (The Jeff Foxworthy Show) are Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. However, the most notable human character in the film is Princess Mombi, played by Jean Marsh (Upstairs, Downstairs, Frenzy). Mombi, a vain sorceress who mostly sleeps and plays the lute, has collected the heads of the thirty most beautiful women in Oz and interchanges them depending upon her mood. She also portrays Nurse Wilson from the hospital Aunt Em brings Dorothy to, and she is most definitely not nurturing. She rarely smiles, dresses in all black, and when Dorothy escapes, she sweeps after her like a predatory bird.

The other stars are mostly puppets and animatronics, although they include Deep Roy as the Tin Man and Brian Henson as Jack Pumpkinhead. David Shire, who up to that point had mostly composed television music (and also 2010: The Year We Make Contact), was responsible for a score that was better when it was slow than fast. Of course, a lot of the film moves slowly — when we’re not in the middle of an action sequence — so he has time to shine.

Unlike the original Oz film, which was based mostly on Baum’s original The Wonderful Wizard of Oz novel, Return to Oz primarily draws from The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, along with Tik-Tok of Oz for its eponymous main character. According to an interview with director Walter Murch, the film itself almost didn’t happen when Murch was fired by Disney. However, George Lucas intervened on Murch’s behalf and that kept him on the project until its completion and release. The poster for the film looks relatively innocuous (I put an image of it above), and it has the tagline “It’s an all-new live-action fantasy — filled with Disney adventure and magic.” The poster does have the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, even though only the straw man actually has any lines. Overall, the film was pretty dark, especially for a Disney movie, and in fact a documentary in 2007, The Joy That Got Away (which you can watch in its entirety online), examines the film itself and Oz fandom in general, including the genesis of this rather dark tale.

I vaguely remember seeing Return to Oz in theaters as a child and deciding that the movie was good, but scary. As an adult, I’m quite surprised at how creepy and disturbing the film’s imagery was. In Oz alone, we have the insane behavior of the Wheelers, the mirror-palace where Mombi resides, and even the Gump, who should’ve quit while he was a head. Back in Kansas, there’s storms, desolate landscapes, and an electroshock therapy machine. In fact, even the ending is a little weird, with its overblown colors and the portrayals of the Scarecrow (who looks really peculiar) and the Cowardly Lion (an animatronic who looks even less lion-y than the one played by a human in the original film). I still think the film is good, though — I enjoyed watching it, even now, and it kept my attention and interest throughout.

However, I personally wouldn’t recommend watching it with your younger kids. It’s a little too creepy for them — although, given how early kids are watching PG films these days, maybe a five-year-old could handle this.


Note to Parents: This film contains disturbing imagery and general creepiness, but nothing overly violent and no adult language or situations. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.

Book Review: “Out of Oz” by Gregory Maguire

The following review contains spoilers for the first three “Wicked Years” novels.


I’ve never seen the stage version of Wicked, but when I saw the book in the bookstore, I bought it and read it. I’ve always enjoyed Oz, from the original film to the original Baum books to the newer retellings (Tin Man, The Wiz, etc). And I enjoyed Wicked.

I didn’t really care for Son of a Witch, and I thought A Lion Among Men was pretty blah, but since Out of Oz was supposed to be the conclusion of the Gregory Maguire “Wicked Years” series, I figured it was worth taking a look.

Perhaps I should’ve just learned my lesson.

All of the Maguire Oz books start slow — very slow — and take many years, if not decades, to complete. They get good toward the end, but getting there is a long, sometimes arduous journey. Out of Oz was no different. It begins with a very long Dorothy story, sending her back to Oz so she, along with pretty much everyone else we’ve known along the way, can be in the book. Maguire included dozens of Oz characters — many in passing mention only — that readers of the Baum novels might recognize, including Jellia Jamb, Jack Pumpkinhead, and even the Woggle-Bug. But for the most part, this book focuses on Rain, granddaughter of Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) and daughter of Liir (the son of a witch) and Candle (a Quadling with the power to see the present).

The beginning of the novel, to me, was quite off-putting — it jumped from Rain’s long-lost memories to the Time Dragon to Glinda and back again until, finally, the plot got on track. It turns out that, sometime between the end of Wicked and the end of A Lion Among Men, Munchkinland seceded from Oz and took with it the nation’s largest source of fresh water, a lake mostly in Munchkinland territory called Restwater. The first act of the book takes place in and around Glinda’s country home — she is now the Lady Chuffrey and a former Throne Minister (president) of Oz. Soldiers usurp her home and lands in their attempt to take Restwater back for Oz, and it is at this point we meet Rain, who is a young girl sweeping the floors. We don’t know why Rain is important; we just know that she is.

Eventually Rain departs Glinda’s home with the Time Dragon — a machine important to the three previous books, run by a dwarf named Mr. Boss. With the Dragon we find Brrr (the Cowardly Lion), his wife Ilianora (daughter of Elphaba’s baby-daddy Fiyero), and the Grimmerie (a magic book that Elphaba once owned, now locked safely away in the Dragon). The travelers end up in Quadling Country (the south of Oz) and spend a year there* before finally meeting up with Liir and Candle, where Rain gets the whole story of her life.

The second act of the book focuses mostly on Rain, with detours into Dorothy’s trial for murder (she did, after all, kill two women the last time she was in Oz), and also introduces the character Tip, a boy about Rain’s age (maybe slightly older). I think you know what will happen between the two of them, so I won’t spend a lot of time on it except to say that, if you’ve read the Baum books… well… what happens to Tip is pretty similar when you compare the Baum books to the Maguire ones.

Act three is the grand finale. I can’t tell you much about it, except to say that after the climax the book goes on for another 100 pages** before ending in what, to me, was a rather unsatisfying fashion. I don’t need a happy ending, but I want to be satisfied.

As with the previous Oz books, Maguire does a masterful job tying his own interpretation of Oz into the Baum version. As someone who’s read about twenty of the original Oz books***, I appreciated the inclusion of events and characters from the original stories. I wasn’t surprised by what happens to Tip because I’d read it before, although I was waiting throughout most of the book for it to occur, so that was interesting. His worldbuilding is excellent, as is his characterization, and never once did I feel that I had learned either too much or too little about a place or a character. It’s also very funny in places — especially the parts with Daffy and Mr. Boss.

I think my biggest problem with the book was its time-scale. I realize that makes me somewhat of a hypocrite, given that my favorite book takes place over about the same scale (ten or so years) and its sequels occur almost twenty years after that, but there was just something about the way Maguire cavalierly tossed off “a year passed” or “a year later” that turned me off to the story. It took away from its urgency, and in a book that takes place against the backdrop of a nation at war, that is problematic for me. Also, as I said, I found the coda (the part after the climax) unsatisfying.

All in all, I found Out of Oz to be a good book, mostly enjoyable and mostly interesting, although it definitely wasn’t as good as Wicked — which, admittedly, suffered from many of the same problems. If you’ve read the other three Wicked Years books, you’ll probably like it just as much as you liked those. However, if you’ve only read Wicked and haven’t really wanted to pick up the others before now… I’m afraid I’ll have to suggest that you pass on them.


Note to Parents: I would rate this book a hard PG-13 or soft R. It contains lots of bad language, some violence, prurient humor, and a few sex scenes. There are mentions of self-inflicted mutilation, but it’s not actually shown, only discussed. I think teens could handle it, because none of those things are pervasive. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.


* There’s a fascinating treatise in the book about how time is measured in Oz, but even if you consider a year to be “four seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter”, that’s a long time to do absolutely nothing germane to the plot.

** I have the font set pretty large on my Kindle app, and according to it, the book was 1002 pages. The actual printed novel is 592, so if I do some math, that tells me it’s actually closer to 50 additional pages. Most of it contains whining on the part of Rain, sadly.

*** Admittedly, I read them about 20 years ago, so my memory might be muddled, but I did read them.