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Return to Oz Disney DVD Review

Return to Oz

Theatrical Release: June 21, 1985 / Running Time: 110 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Walter Murch

Cast: Fairuza Balk (Dorothy Gale), Nicol Williamson (Dr. J.B. Worley/Nome King), Jean Marsh (Nurse Wilson/Princess Mombi), Piper Laurie (Aunt Em), Matt Clark (Uncle Henry), Sean Barrett (Tik-Tok), Mark Wilson (Billina), Brian Henson (Jack Pumpkinhead), Lyle Conway (Gump), Justin Case (Scarecrow), Emma Ridley (Ozma), Denise Bryer (voice of Billina)


Attempting to make a follow-up to what is widely considered one of the best films created does seem like a strange and impossible task. But that is pretty much what Walt Disney Pictures tried with the release of Return to Oz in 1985.

Based on two of L. Frank Baum's follow-ups to The Wizard of Oz, Return to Oz tells of the adventures young Dorothy Gale faces after returning home from her magical encounters with wicked witches, munchkins, and a trio of companions who are all lacking something. In her film debut, ten-year-old Fairuza Balk plays Dorothy with the right amount of curiosity, as some more fantastical events occur around her.

Dorothy is having trouble sleeping, and her Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) takes her to see a specialist J.B. Worley (Nicol Williamson). Dorothy explains again her incredible story about her trip to Oz and losing her ruby slippers. Using some state-of-the-art 20th-century-ready electricity technology, Dr. Worley intends to remove the burden of these memories and restore Dorothy's ability to rest easy at night. Before the doctor can perform on her, some strange things happen, and Dorothy escapes with the help of another girl.

It's no secret from the title that Dorothy winds up back in Oz, although this is not the Oz she remembers. Accompanied by her chicken Billina, who now can talk, Dorothy finds the yellow brick road and the Emerald City in ruins, and all the people have been turned to stone.

You may wonder, 'What has happened to the Oz I know and love?' As does Dorothy, and as she figures it out and hopes to restore order, the viewer is bound to notice that even at its best, this Oz won't resemble the Oz of the 1939 MGM musical. No, this Oz remains more faithful to the darker world described in Baum's writings. There are no Frank Morgans to be found here.

Dorothy and Billina meet up with a wind-up warrior robot (and delightfully restrained comic element) named Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead (whose name matches his appearance), and an incomplete moose named Gump. Together they join forces to confront the Nome King, who is apparently responsible for the current state of Oz.

Return to Oz is jolly good fun, with its cast of colorful characters and well-crafted fantastic adventures. It is pretty much a prerequisite to not go into the film expecting The Wizard of Oz, Part II, as I've tried to make clear a number of times in this review. It is less a departure from the classic 1939 film than it is an attempt to stay closer to the text. In any event, if Return to Oz doesn't blow you away like Victor Fleming's film, it does work incredibly well and manages to delight the senses and appeal to the childhood imaginations we may tend to forget about as we age.

Although it was considered a failure for Disney when it was released in the summer of 1985, Return to Oz is a quality film and it holds up rather well. Even the undeniably '80s Claymation-heavy visual effects are still somewhat impressive all these years later.

Return to Oz was first released to DVD in August 1999, as one of a number of live action Disney films (predominantly from the '70s and early '80s) that the studio leased out to the small studio called Anchor Bay. Anchor Bay's DVDs from several years ago still often outdo the type of plain catalogue releases Disney bestows upon its live action films by the bushel. Anchor Bay's Return to Oz DVD contained both fullscreen and widescreen versions of the film, remastered in 5.1, and with the added bonus of a new interview with star Fairuza Balk.

In 2003, all of Anchor Bay's DVD releases of Disney films went out of print, and this month (February 2004), Disney began reissuing these titles in DVDs of their own. You might be wondering, does Disney's DVD offer anything over Anchor Bay's pleasantly adequate disc?

Buy Return to Oz from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Dolby Surround (French)
Subtitles: English
Closed Captioned
Release Date: February 3, 2004
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99


The answer is a modest 'yes.' With a retail price of $19.99, Disney's disc goes for $5 more than the Anchor Bay disc sold before discontinuing, but it does offer some benefits.

VIDEO and AUDIO

Disney's DVD presents Return to Oz in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The film has been enhanced for 16 x 9 televisions, unlike Anchor Bay's disc. The transfer doesn't look a whole lot better, but Anchor Bay's presentation wasn't too bad to begin with. Since Disney's disc loses the fullscreen transfer that was included on the old DVD, the film is considerably less compressed, which results in fewer of the tiny artifacts that occassionally riddled the Anchor Bay DVD. Disney's transfer is sharp and clear, as was the Anchor Bay DVD. The increase in resolution offered by the anamorphic transfer is a noteworthy improvement, and those who own both the previous DVD and a 16 x 9 television set may be compelled to re-purchase it on Disney's enhanced disc.

Like the Anchor Bay release, Disney's DVD offers a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. While the surrounds don't get used too much, this is a satisfying audio experience. Return to Oz is the only film directed by Walter Murch, who is famous for his sound editing work on such films as Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. While Murch isn't credited with sound design on Oz, it's clear that those who were in charge of it did a job that the master would be proud of. The bass in the film may give subwoofers a pretty active workout. All in all, the film's soundtrack is engulfing, but not overbearing. The audio on Disney's disc doesn't sound much different from Anchor Bay's release, but as that too was commendable.

Fairuza Returns to Oz

EXTRAS

Disney's disc retains the main bonus feature from the Anchor Bay DVD: "Fairuza Returns to Oz." In this 11-minute interview featurette, the actress recalls the film's production. Topics discussed include the casting process, the film's special effects, working with director Walter Murch, how the interesting cast of characters were achieved, and the film's elaborate final scene. Naturally, it's limited as the major supplement, but it is nonetheless, rewarding to hear Balk reflect upon this filmmaking experience, her first.

New to DVD are the film's original theatrical trailer and four TV spots. As trailers are almost always excluded from Disney's catalogue releases nowadays, these promos are a welcome surprise, even if the TV spots don't look so hot.

Disney's DVD loses the 10-second introduction from Fairuza Balk that was on the Anchor Bay DVD as the first chapter of the film. It's really not even worth mentioning, but whoops, I already did. Also worth noting, I suppose, are that Disney's menus are less elaborate than Anchor Bay's lively animated screens.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Return to Oz is an enjoyable fantasy movie, which departs from the warm and friendly feel that have marked most of Disney's live action films. Disney's DVD release is a step-up from Anchor Bay's now out-of-print disc, and presents the film with high quality video and audio, and even a nice little helping of extras. While not the all-out Special Edition fans might have hoped for, this Return to Oz DVD is a keeper and very much worth checking out.

More details on the DVD

UltimateDisney.com | Review Index | Recent Live Action (1980-Present) Films Page

Other 1980s Films Reviewed:
Disney DVDs: The Journey of Natty Gann (1985) | Cheetah (1989)
Anchor Bay DVDs: Midnight Madness (1980) | One Magic Christmas (1985) | Never Cry Wolf (1983)
Animated Films: The Great Mouse Detective (1986) | Oliver & Company (1988)

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