Monday, March 11, 2013

In Defense Of: Return To Oz

Looking back on my childhood, I turned out surprisingly well-adjusted considering the kinds of movies I watched as a kid. Growing up during the hey day of Don Bluth and Jim Henson's Creature Shop, my generation experienced an ethos where films meant for children could contain some of the most disturbing and horrifying imagery as long as a happy ending was tacked on in the last few minutes. This probably sounds like a thinly veiled criticism of that era, but God do I miss it now, as every film with any potential to appeal to children is so sanitized that I literally fear the dullards that will result from the current crop of family entertainment. Sure I was warped, sure I was traumatized, but I was also inspired. Maybe I wouldn't be as morbid today without them, but I wouldn't be as creative either. To my mind, the best of these, or the worst depending on your perspective, is Return To Oz.

Though I've never actually sat down and cataloged it and might go insane if I tried, Return To Oz is probably somewhere on the list of my top ten favorite movies of all time. I understand completely why there are people who vehemently dislike it, and at the same time I find it just so perplexing that so many can't see the brilliance of it. Its definitely weird, which is frankly an understatement - its a total mind screw pretty much from start to finish, and if you consider the original 1939 film a sacred cinematic classic, than its nothing short of blasphemous. And yet, its just so damn awesome. A little girl and her pet talking chicken team up with a Steampunk soldier and not one but two nightmarish golems to fight a multi-headed witch and the very Earth itself as the stones under their feet come to life to freaking eat them. Oh, but it doesn't have criminally underpaid little people in it, so damn it to Hell.

I know the original is considered a hallmark of children's fantasy, but you know what? It's also kind of terrible. Don't get me wrong, as a kid, and for other kids, I think its a wonderful movie, but its not the kind of movie that you can really grow up with and continue to appreciate over time. I know that sounds weird considering how many people seem to hold such never ending reverence for it, but there's a difference between a movie having nostalgic value and a movie actually having staying power. I'm not disputing how iconic it is, but is it really the kind of thing you can just pop in and enjoy just as much as you did when you were a kid, or are you maybe just telling yourself that because you hold it so dear? Naturally, much of my love for Return To Oz is based on nostalgia, but I think that I would count it among my favorites even if I didn't have any familiar connection to it, if only for the incredibly unique visual experience alone.

Its very possible that this film might have been my first introduction to concepts like Steampunk, or the idea that in a fictional context you could Frankenstein a being into existence as they do with the Gump, or that heads could live independent of their bodies and be interchangeable, or that the shapes in rocks that look like faces could actually be faces and have malicious intent. I just linked to a number of ideas I've presented on this blog in the past that may very well be movies one day, and that I might not have had if this film hadn't subversively laid the groundwork in my psyche with all this crazy stuff tailor made to seep into a young child's brain. The most frequent criticism I hear against this movie is that its too dark for its intended audience, but I don't know a single adult who watched this as a kid and regrets it on those grounds. If anything, I think every kid needs to experience this kind of off kilter reality when they're young enough to appreciate it, so that they don't grow up too normal for their own good.

While the entire film is visually amazing and bizarre in the best way possible, nothing in it compares to the last fifteen minutes of the movie in the Nome King's lair. Will Vinton, perhaps best known as the stop motion animator behind the California Raisins, is at his best when applying his style to more serious material, and this is easily his greatest work. If you've ever seen The Adventures Of Mark Twain, or more likely the Youtube clip of the Chronicle of Young Satan segment, the Nome King and his minions are more in keeping with this darker tone, and despite a claymation style that is clearly dated by today's standards, it still holds up as one of the most frightening things, and he as one of the best villains, in film history. Granted, there's a specifically eerie quality that is only accomplished through that medium, but it works even after almost thirty years.

I'm going to reuse this image so much from now on.

When I talk about this movie, I often refer to it in the context of similar films of the time like The Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, or The Neverending Story, and yet as much as I always associate them together in my mind because I saw them all at around the same age, I think the biggest thing they have in common is that individually and collectively they aren't like anything else. Return To Oz is one of those singular movie experiences that even beyond the original should be mandatory for anyone interested in cinematic fantasy. It would be cliched to call it an acid trip on film, and I can't say I've ever been on an acid trip for the purposes of comparison, but I can only imagine its the closest thing to one that's safe for children. Again, that sounds bad, but in light of the vast array of soulless pablum passing for family entertainment these days, designed to distract the minds of children rather than expand them, a twisted jaunt into kid-friendly madness is worth a few nightmares. And like me, they'll ultimately be better for it.

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