January 8, 2013

Video Vault: Return to Oz

The following article originally appeared on ScreenInvasion.com:

My love of all things cinema can be traced back to my preschool days when we would make a stop at the local video rental store, Video Vault, after being dragged on a grocery trip. I have many fond memories of Land Before Time sequels and Vons deli rotisserie chicken. Video Vault was a place where a plastic square chip sat in front of an empty VHS box and you would take the chip to the clerk to exchange it for the real video that was housed in the stacks behind the counter. Being prior to my ability to read, I learned to pick out movies based on the box cover. Over time the many hours spent grazing these hallowed aisles had imprinted the video box art onto my brain, even from movies that I had never even seen (The Silence of the Lambs and Dune boxes come to mind). Of all the VHS boxes and white plastic chips I picked up during my childhood, no VHS has been more imprinted on my brain and become one with my being than Disney’s 1985 box-office flop, Return to Oz. 1939’s The Wizard of Oz would have been my most viewed movie at that time since we owned the VHS, so it was a natural choice for me to want to see the continuation of the story. Little did I know that the colorful illustrated cover art of Dorothy and her friends from Oz happily strolling down the yellow brick road and neutral tagline “Return to the land where the adventure began” would be deceptively unrepresentative of the disturbing, life-altering content that would later materialize on my TV.

 Directed by sound design legend Walter Murch with the help of Jim Henson‘s design team responsible for The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Return to Oz is one of those wondrously bizarre 80′s “children’s” films that has since established a small yet passionate cult following comprised mainly of kids who rented VHS’s in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The script was adapted from plot elements in L. Frank Baum’s The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), Ozma of Oz (1907), and Tik-Tok of Oz (1914), which Disney owned the rights to at the time. Frustrated with the film’s slow development process, Murch was originally fired from the film after only a few weeks. George Lucas, who was enjoying the power that came with his post Star Wars success and had several projects going in partnership with the Disney studio, stood behind his friend and fought for Murch’s re-hiring. While there are many reasons to despise Mr. Lucas today, this is one of his decisions that I am truly grateful for. Thanks to him, Murch was able to finish his only feature directorial effort to date, which perhaps adds to the mystique of this unbelievable film. Produced as an unofficial, non-musical sequel to the 1939 classic, Return has a much darker tone, but is more accurate to Baum’s original source material. The bleak and often terrifying vision of Oz is often credited for the film’s mixed reviews and low box office returns. It is for these reasons, however, that it was one of my most frequent rentals from Video Vault despite being responsible for sleepless nights and horrible nightmares. Forever scaring the brain of this impressionable kindergartener’s mind, it remains one of my all-time favorites!