Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Return to Oz (1985)

Reinvigorating and reinventing classic children's stories is an enterprise that is inevitably fraught with controversy. In the best cases, they can bring a new and stylish perspective to a nostalgic favorite. In the worst, they can be a pointless orgy of violence and iconoclasm.

There are a handful of favorites that, by virtue of expired copyrights or history's common judgment, either enjoy or suffer from frequent reimaginings. Peter Pan edges in at the bottom of the list, and demonstrates the best and at least most indifferent attempts. One short-lived comic called The Lost interpreted Peter and the Lost Boys as vampires, while the live-action film adaptation starring Jason Isaacs gave the story a very dark yet delightfully inspired and enjoyable tone. Another story is Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, which are another mixed bag, the most recent example being Tim Burton's live-action film for Disney, which drew from his later, post-Sleepy Hollow aesthetic milieu for the Hot Topic crowd.

The current crop of post-Lord of the Rings films have looked to fairy tales as a source for violent battles on an epic scale, as in Snow White and the Huntsman, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and Jack the Giant Slayer. Some of the greatest offenses, however, have been done to L. Frank Baum's Oz series. Video game creators, toymakers, comic book writers and many others can't seem to leave poor Dorothy alone. The Oz comic, which plunges a grown Dorothy into an Oz at war, was among the least offensive. Todd McFarlane's Twisted Land of Oz toyline is among the most. The second in a series of classic monsters "updated" by McFarlane's poor standards of decency and taste, Twisted Land mimics the first series' gory reimagining of the classic Universal Monsters. The Lion becomes a feral beast ripping at his own skin, the Tin Woodsman a biomechanical perversity, Toto a slug monster that has little if anything to do with a dog, and Dorothy becomes a leather-clad bondage queen.

What demarcates something like Twisted Land of Oz is the utter lack of innocence and appreciation for the subject matter. Many of these "updates" of classic tales attack the wrong target, divesting the story of any of the properties that made it a classic and imposing upon it a modern cynicism motivated by, at best, consumerist iconoclasm and, at worst, a perverse desire to corrupt innocence simply for the sake of doing so. Something like Twisted Land of Oz is tragically hip, urinating over goodness and good taste for reasons I choose not to debase myself enough to understand.

On the far side of the spectrum from Todd McFarlane's wet dreams is Disney's 1985 film Return to Oz, starring a young Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson and Jean Marsh (as well as featuring early credits for Henry "Nightmare Before Christmas" Selick as storyboard artist and Brian Henson as Jack Pumpkinhead). This film was roundly criticized on its release for its dark tone and its choice to adapt later and more unfamiliar Oz stories rather than remake the original Judy Garland musical. However, it is a film that is certainly worth another look.

The plot is based off of the line of Oz sequels written by Baum, and condenses several storylines into one adventure in which, with the assistance of the witch Mombi, the evil Nome King has imprisoned Princess Ozma of Oz and turned the inhabitants of the Emerald City into stone. When Dorothy Gale arrives in Oz after her escape from the mental institution, she finds a ripped-up Yellow Brick Road and a devastated land. As she moves along in her quest to repel the Nome King, Dorothy meets (or makes) a new group of friends, including Jack Pumpkinhead, the clockwork man Tik-Tok and the living flying beast of burden made out of furniture, Gump.

Opposite the Technicolor sensory overload that was the MGM musical, this Oz is subdued, filled with stone rubble and imposing mountains. The characters and visuals are striking in themselves as well. One of the most eerie of the new creations are the Wheelers, a gang of cackling cronies who have squeaky wheels in place of hands and feet. These characters are one part Goth and one part Eighties avant garde, with glittering purple coats, make-up and accessories that look to have been borrowed from Cirque Du Soleil. Though often derided by today's standards, one cannot argue against the fact that the affluence of the 1980's created a unique opportunity for a style of excess that may not have been seen since the Glam era and certainly hasn't been seen since. The Wheelers are perfect specimens of this style.

Another distinct Eightiesism of Return to Oz is the elemental stone Nome King, rendered in Wil Vinton's Claymation medium. The advantage of Claymation, the most notable product of which were the California Rasins, over regular stop motion is the fluidity of the movement. The nature of clay allows for a wider range of emotions and expression which at the same time can be somewhat disturbing. As the Nome King feeds off of the energy of captured souls to become more human, he ebbs disturbingly into and away from increasingly human-like appearance.

Considered relative to Oz the Great and Powerful and other modern films, one is struck by the wonderful practical effects like Claymation. Rather than fake sets and unconvincing CGI characters, Return to Oz has delightful puppetry, copstuming, sets and miniature work. The mix of costumes and puppetry in the protagonists is inspired, especially as their designs pull more closely from the original Edwardian illustrations by John R. Neill. This Oz is a post-apocalyptic landscape but is very much in keeping with other fantasy movies of the Eighties, like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. In the glittering golden halls of Oz's palace, Dorothy also runs afoul of Mombi and her gallery of heads, severed from the bodies of beautiful girls, much to outrage of parents. These examples demonstrate some of the more mature flavour of this film, in keeping with its melieu, which is said to have been ghost directed by Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola.

None of this maturity and style comes at the expense of the child-like (as opposed to childish) adventure and wonder. Children's movies of the decade didn't shy away from frightening imagery, which in turn made the acts of heroism and adventure that much more rewarding. Whether from a dedication to the source material or from the fact that this was still produced by Disney, the air of innocence still abounds. The style is never iconoclastic, and nothing is ripped down simply for the sake of ripping it down. One's appreciation for the style might wane depending on how enamoured one is with the aesthetic values of the Eighties, but Return to Oz fuses style and substance to become an admirable example of what can be done and ought to be done when updating children's stories.


Philip Reeve said...

Thank you for reminding me of 'Return to Oz'. I saw it when it came out, and remember at the time thinking that it was underrated and misunderstood by the critics. In particular the opening scenes in post-tornado Kansas, with their great, chilly, Andrew Wyeth-y landscapes and Nicol Williamson's creepy ECT-happy alienist, stuck in my mind. And your comments at the beginning of this post, about lesser re-imaginings, are, of course, spot on.

Cory Gross said...

Thank you for the compliments! Later on this month I'll be posting some other reimaginings that I think tap a similar vein: stylish, with a more modern sensibility, that become neither insipid nor iconoclastic. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a small field.

Niko said...

I usually avoid re-imaginings altogether, but this one sounds well worth tracking down. I love the original Oz books. Thanks, Cory!

Xenorama said...

I think it's pretty good, though some things were off to me- keeping the classic looks for everyone but the Nome King... granted the Nomes were pretty silly looking, but still...

have you read "A Barnstormer In Oz" by Philip Jose Farmer? it's pretty good too.

Natalie Belton said...

It's not a perfect film, but it certainly was a unique one with a vision entirely its own. As a child, I tended to watch The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth a bit more admittedly.