A tween-aged Fairuza Balk plays Dorothy, whose insistence on recounting her adventures following her return from Oz has Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) convinced that she must be experiencing delusional depression. They nearly bankrupt themselves (in a town already so broke that it can’t afford a flagpole, no less) in order for Dorothy to see a psychiatrist. Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson) is less interested in her mental health than in ensuring that Dorothy’s perceived problems stop bothering the adults around her, though. He is obsessed with what he perceives to be progress, declaring that the 20th century (the film is set in 1900) will be “a century of electricity.” During a storm, this relentless push for modernity quite literally backfires: The lights go out, and Dorothy is finally able to hear the screams of discarded patients in the absence of the ominously cheerful hum of electricity. With the help of a mysterious young girl, she escapes down a stream and miraculously wakes up in Oz.
The eponymous land appears quite different here than in previous adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s books. The yellow brick road has faded, and what it leads to consistently contrasts Dorothy’s dreamy expectations of life with the cartoonish but nonetheless terrifying nightmares that time sows. Whereas Judy Garland’s Dorothy from 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” fell gracefully into these circumstances, Balk’s portrayal stands formidably against the increasingly dangerous obstacles preventing the restoration of Oz to the world she once knew and loved. Her old travel companions make appearances, but the Dorothy of this adaptation is more about ingenuity through adversity than retracing old patterns; she allies with the few remnants of the Oz she once visited and moves forward. Rather than growing up and losing her imagination while merely maintaining a youthful facade, Dorothy earns a room of her own by thinking creatively and continuing to reify her fantasy life.
The sole feature-length venture of legendary film editor Walter Murch, “Return to Oz” is a debut with mostly serviceable cinematography, save for animator Will Vinton’s claymation sequences that still hold up almost 30 years later, along with a couple of choice scenes in which the camera pulls back to reveal a barren Oz in its entirety; the latter lends a chilling contrast to the memories of both Dorothy and, by extension, the film’s audience. The sets enable the viewer to fully invest in Dorothy’s heartbreak, keeping the film’s theoretical levity from overshadowing its genuinely terrifying moments. “Return to Oz” ultimately discusses how adults damage children by destroying their curiosity in a vain attempt to make them supposedly grow up.
And “Return to Oz” treats youth with dignity. Murch presents Oz as a real place whose inhabitants struggle with simultaneous, opposing urges to dominate and retreat. This fantasy is just like reality: a fever dream emerging from a nightmare and lulling you back to sleep.