The new Walt Disney production Return to Oz is not drawn exclusively from any one of L. Frank Baum's stories. The scriptwriters have combined elements from The Land of Oz, Ozma of Oz, and probably The Emerald City of Oz. This synthetic approach makes sense. The Land is often considered Baum's best book but it contains several prominent elements which would not play well in 1985: the elaborate satire on feminism is dated (though it is exciting when General Jinjur and her army of housewives with knitting needles conquer the Emerald City); Tip's sex-change operation into Princess Ozma would probably seem kinky to present-day audiences, whether children or adults. While the movie retains much of The Land's plot, characters from Ozma (Billina the chicken, Tik-Tok the robot) and the threat against Oz itself in The Emerald City fill in what would otherwise be considerable gaps.
This material yields marvelous set-pieces. In one sequence, Dorothy must steal a magic powder from a kind of museum gallery where a sorceress, the Princess Mombi, displays her spare heads (culled from beautiful women). The heads nod on their pedestals in velvet cases while Dorothy tiptoes past; she reaches a case fronted with a mirror and opening it furtively finds herself facing the sorceress's original head, spiteful and restless in its slumbers perhaps because it has been tossed in this dark corner. As Dorothy grabs the powder the head awakens and screams her name at her—and then the other heads open their eyes and follow suit, and then we see (upstairs) Mombi's headless body rise from its bed, shaking with rage or fear, it is hard to say which.
There is much more to praise: the bowlegged walk of Tik-Tok, perfectly matching his rotund morphology; the mid western voice of Billina, who sounds like a Hoosier aunt of mine (and no doubt like other people's Hoosier aunts); the good grace of Dorothy, a young actress quite different from Judy Garland. So many scenes and details come out well that eventually the Ozophile viewer becomes a bit puzzled. Return to Oz has been cobbled together with great competence—but how can it sustain itself so consistently? A film that was merely professional wouldn't have this magic. Somehow a whole has been made from these diverse parts.
The film's energy comes from a positive respect for Baum. There is also a negative energy at work. No one could set out to make an Oz movie and ignore MGM's 1939 spectacular. In certain ways Return seems to evade the obvious precedent. It offers no songs and the characters resemble John Neill's illustrations to the original stories more than they do Ray Bolger and company in vaudeville getup. Nonetheless the second feature-length Oz movie comments implicitly and extensively on the first. The commentary is worth study as a skirmish in the history of film; also (and more importantly) because it is a means by which the later work keeps its imaginative integrity.
Since any real American has seen The Wizard of Oz at least three times, I need hardly explain the trick of plot whereby the black-and-white Kansas characters reappear as technicolor Oz characters. This device was invented by Noel Langley, who wrote four early drafts of The Wizard. Later, after Langley had been dismissed from the project, a new pair of scriptwriters developed his idea in a way that he had not anticipated.1 Oz is a dream version of Kansas? All right, then. Dorothy's overriding desire throughout her Oz adventures will be to get back to Kansas. She will learn from her adventures in a transfigured version of that no doubt excellent state that home is a wonderful place, replete with marvels and full of love she had previously overlooked. And just in case anybody misses the point, Glinda will prompt our heroine to state outright her philosophy of home, immediately before she returns to Auntie Em and immediately after too.
The last moments of this sequence are especially noteworthy. Dorothy wakes up in bed with a nasty crack on the head and all the friendly characters of her dream gathered about her, now in their Kansas personae. (What about the witch, bad Margaret Hamilton? Has she given up her plan to exterminate Toto? Was she blown away by the storm? We will never find out.) As the strains of "There's No Place Like Home" fade out gently, the following dialogue ensues. Dorothy: Oh, Auntie Em, it's you! Auntie Em: There there, lie quiet now, you've just had a bad dream. Dorothy: No, it wasn't a dream. This was a real truly-live-place—and I remember that some of it wasn't very nice. But most of it was beautiful. But just the same all I kept saying to everybody was, "I want to go home"—and they sent me home. (Nervous laughter from her assembled auditors.) Doesn't anybody believe me? But anyway, Toto, we're home, home—and this is my room and you're all here and I'm not going to leave here ever again because I love you all and—oh, Auntie Em, there's no place like homm”2
To quote Yip Harburg (lyricist for The Wizard and yet another tinkerer with its script): "The picture didn't need that 'Home, Sweet Home,' 'God Bless Our Home' tripe."3 I agree with Harburg—and yet, the offending sequence has its merits. Its combination of cloying sweetness with near-hysteria has no serious rival, unless in the Christmas stories of Charles Dickens. Something urgent is being communicated here, though the medium is less the words than it is the histrionics of Judy Garland. This Dorothy is eager but unable to convey the reality of her experience. No one will ever believe her, a fact she appears to realize already. She is doomed to a life with people who love her and humor her. They will always tap their heads a little when Dorothy starts talking about Oz. What then can our unfortunate heroine do but blather on about staying home forever with Auntie Em?
Return to Oz begins with another prelude in Kansas, this time a more elaborate one. Uncle Henry can't seem to get the house rebuilt, even though winter is rapidly coming on, and Dorothy keeps babbling about scarecrows. Auntie Em is fed up with them both. She takes the little girl to a neighboring town for a course of electroshock therapy guaranteed to eliminate Oz from Dorothy's mind. While the doctor makes his pitch, Dorothy spots another little girl, more conventionally pretty than she, who pops up behind a window and then disappears. Later the same girl helps Dorothy escape just before the shock treatment is to begin. They rush out into a bad storm, followed by the horrible Nurse Wilson. Dorothy's new friend drowns (it is implied) in a swollen river while Dorothy herself manages to sail downstream in a chicken coop. She wakes up the next morning stranded on the edge of Oz with a miraculously articulate Billina.
None of this is very light-hearted. There is an edge of whimsy in some of the proceedings (e.g., Dorothy soliloquizing to Billina in the farmyard, shortly before she is taken off to the doctor) but the comic tonality of The Wizard's prelude is replaced by a pervasive melancholy. Home is not a comfortable place, despite the pieties of MGM. Kansas and Oz are not so much parallel as they are antithetical worlds. To put the point another way, Dorothy has to choose one or the other but can't have both without everybody coming down on her. The problem is underlined by the absence of Ray Bolger, Frank Haley, and Bert Lahr—that is, of the characters who lived on the farm but also had Oz identities. Not one of these doubled characters has reappeared so far in The Return. And even though the crackpot doctor may remind us of Frank Morgan/Professor Marvel, his function is to suppress imagination, not stimulate it. If home once had some Ozish elements, it doesn't anymore.
The Wizard is about Dorothy's return to Kansas (so, at least, its concluding scene insists); the new film is about her Return to Oz and her subsequent attempt to restore that elusive kingdom before she must leave it once again. As Dorothy soon discovers, Oz has fallen to a mysterious enemy. The Yellow Brick Road looks like the Dan Ryan expressway after a hard winter— except that there's no one to be victimized by the potholes. The Emerald City is in ruins, and all of Dorothy's companions have become statues. The petrified city recalls an unusually perverse Mannerist garden. Signs of life are frozen and distanced: the only "living" creatures are mechanical or semi-mechanical (the friendly Tik-Tok, the hostile Wheelers). The conqueror of Oz is the Gnome King, a monarch of the subterranean mineral world who doubles for the crackpot doctor. The king and the doctor have in common an ability to preserve the form but eliminate the motivating principle of life. The Gnome King's assistant in this endeavor is the above-mentioned Princess Mombi, a double for Nurse Wilson; if he assimilates everything to his own stony substance, she has her own methods for turning other people into herself.
Dorothy has to risk becoming an ornament of the Gnome King or a head of the Princess Mombi; she triumphs over both these compulsive collectors by using the Powder of Life, which animates the inanimate, and by respecting the independent existence of characters created to be servants or slaves (Jack Pumpkinhead, Tik-Tok). Her adventures survived, she can locate the Princess Ozma, who has been under an enchantment. Ozma turns out to be the girl who drowned in the river at the film's beginning. Ozma is a doubled character, one of whose incarnations is cut off by death. Her fate is not exactly like going to Heaven. She has had her existence in two realms all along, neither of them especially other-worldly. She continues to live in Oz while ceasing to exist in Kansas. She becomes—as the film makes clear by its use of mirrors and of visual compositions—the Oz side of Dorothy Gale herself.
The last scene of Return expands on Dorothy's relation with Ozma. She can see the Princess in her bedroom mirror (the house has been completed by Uncle Henry, who came out of his funk for reasons not explained). Our heroine smiles at the image of Ozma—but does so privately. Like Mombi, she has come to live her most intense imaginative life alone, in front of a mirror and trying on new heads. Dorothy, of course, came by her fantasy world honestly—and through that other version of self in the mirror she has access (or believes she does) to a world independent of her. She treats the mirror as a window rather than as a reflection. This distinction is perilously subtle, however. We are asked to agree that something resembling narcissism and terminal subjectivity is really nothing of the sort.
Dorothy's predicament will continue to seem pitiable until we recall the end of The Wizard. The new Dorothy has at least learned when to keep her mouth shut. She cannot commit herself wholeheartedly to Kansas, she makes no promises to stay there forever, but neither does she stop functioning in her everyday world. If she has to walk a tightrope, so be it. The diverse materials of Baum's Oz cycle and doubling gimmicks borrowed from MGM's Wizard have thus been newly interpreted: assimilated to a story which replaces one philosophy of home with another. Not quite a dream but not a socially shareable reality either, Oz has become the means by which one heroine draws back a little—by which she avoids the return to emotional infancy forced on that other Dorothy Gale of the movies.
1The story of the scripts, so far as it will ever be known, is set forth in Aljean Harmetz's The Making of the Wizard of Oz (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978), pp. 26-59. In Baum's books—where the dream framework is unthought of— Dorothy is able to convince her family that Oz exists; eventually she invites them to move there and they do. Baum is so matter-of-fact about the whole thing that the concept of doubled worlds never becomes a dominating concern.
2I quote from a phonograph record which gives an abridged version of the dialogue, so there may be some lines missing here.
3Harmetz, p. 57