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I’m convinced that children’s films were scarier in the 1980s than they are today. Return to Oz, which was released in 1985, is a prime example.
If you’re unfamiliar with the film, let me quickly fill you in.
The Plot (Careful, Spoilers Ahead!)
Dorothy is struggling to come to terms with being back in Kansas, and keeps talking about Oz. Her Aunt Em, concerned about her niece’s mental health, takes her to a local doctor, who proceeds to treat Dorothy with electrotherapy. Yes, really. He literally straps her onto a bed and prepares to send several watts through her skull.
Fortunately, Dorothy escapes (with her chicken Bellina), with the help of a mysterious girl. She finds herself in Oz, but it’s a ruin. The city is in a state of disrepair, there are strange stone statues everywhere (most without heads) and she’s all alone.
The Wheelers (horrifying men with ultra-long limbs who ride around on wheels) chase her into a room, where she locates Tic-Toc, a wind-up robot. They take a trip to visit Princess Mombi, who, it transpires, has a horrid habit of collecting other women’s heads and wearing them.
Trapped in her tower, they escape on a haphazardly constructed flying device with a moose’s head (called the Gump), with Jack Pumpkinhead in tow. Soaring over the deadly desert, they arrive at the Nome King’s castle.
The Nome King seems like such a reasonable chap; at first. He sets them a puzzle in a room full of random objects. To his fury, Dorothy cracks the code and they escape. The Nome King is destroyed, the mysterious girl from the start turns out to be Princess Ozma, and Dorothy returns to Kansas again. As a final note, we discover that the horrible hospital has burnt to the ground.
Dreams vs. Reality
We’d all like to believe in Oz. That’s the magic of the original Wizard of Oz film (yes, the lovely singing and dancing one)—we totally buy into Oz’s existence.
That’s not the same with this version of Oz. Dorothy is clearly one depressed little girl at the start, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the entire film’s events are all in her head. The key clue here is the actors themselves.
The doctor who wants to treat her with electrotherapy is also the Nome King.
The nasty nurse in the hospital is also Mombi.
The workmen in the hospital who wheel Dorothy to the operating theatre are also (you guessed it) the Wheelers.
It goes even further than this. The electroshock machine has (as the doctor points out) a nice face, that looks a lot like Tic-Toc. And there’s even a scene where the mysterious girl/Ozma brings Dorothy a carved pumpkin. Literally a pumpkinhead.
Anyone with a basic working knowledge of the sub-conscious knows that our dreams are influenced by what we see during the day; the things that delight or scare us, the puzzles that our sleeping brain likes to make sense of. It would seem here that Dorothy’s ‘Oz experience’ is simply her brain processing all those frightening things she’s seen in the hospital.
Mental Illness / Split Personality
I’m afraid we can read even darker into this film. You have been warned! Many of these ‘female quest’ films; Labyrinth, Pan’s Labyrinth, Alice in Wonderland…they could all be interpreted as a girl coping with mental or emotional trauma. The ‘magical world’ becomes a place to retreat to; a way of ‘fixing’ the problems in the real world.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s clear that Dorothy is depressed at the start of the film and look how depressing everything is! The director couldn’t have made Kansas look drearier if he’d tried. When she’s shown the electrotherapy machine (the one with the face of a robot), she sees Ozma’s reflection in the glass, staring back out at her. A supernatural occurrence? Or a sign that Dorothy has a split-personality disorder, and is literally seeing her ‘alternative’ self; the one she really wants to be?
The Trials of Growing Up
Again, a lot of these ‘female quest’ films are about a girl’s path to womanhood. Dorothy is yearning to return to Oz; a place of fun, colour, and life. This could be seen as a desire to remain a child forever, to stay in a place where you never have to face the real, boring world.
Once she arrives in Oz, however, she’s horrified at the change. It’s not the childish, garish place it was before. Things have become confusing and frightening. Let’s look at the individual ‘obstacles’ that Dorothy must overcome.
- The Wheelers. On the surface, they represent danger (which Dorothy must escape from). It’s interesting to note that they’re all male. They’re physically far stronger and faster than her. They all wear surprisingly dapper suits. I’d say they represent the threat of men to teenage girls (sorry any males reading this—I don’t mean all of you, just those few nasty ones!) Dorothy escapes by using a secret key and entering a locked room. Metaphors of the womb spring to mind, but perhaps I’m reading too much into it.
- Mombi. A vain, cruel woman, she literally steals the beauty from others. At first, it seems like she might train Dorothy to be just like her; to grow up into a cold, looks-obsessed lady; but no, she actually wants to rob Dorothy of her own beauty (her head!) She represents what Dorothy doesn’t want to grow into; the sort of adult she despises.
- The Nome King. He rules over everything and is brutal and merciless. I’d say he represents the patriarchy; the society which Dorothy doesn’t want to be a part of. Note how she defeats him; she chooses the objects in the room that remind her of Oz (her happy, childhood place). She doesn’t want to enter this stony, harsh adult world.
And Her Companions?
Companions always take on a vital role in these ‘quest’ films. Here, they are representative of the traits that Dorothy needs to have to survive.
Tic-Toc represents intellect and logical thinking. Jack Pumpkinhead is all heart (and not much brains). Bellina is surprisingly brave, given she’s a chicken. And the Gump is dependable and stoic.
Interestingly, they also hark back to the original companions of The Wizard of Oz. Tic-Toc isn’t a million miles from the Tin Man. Jack Pumpkinhead, with all his good intentions and clumsiness, is a little like the Scarecrow. And Bellina is perhaps our new Toto.