America lost its innocence in 1963, when John F Kennedy was killed. That's the general wisdom, anyway, with the ensuing years of Vietnam and social upheaval and economic reversal as the proof. But that loss of innocence didn't simply happen on that day in Dallas; it spread out for decades yet to come.
It hit pop culture in a big way in the 1980s; this was the birth of the grim n' gritty era. It was the decade of revisionist fairy tales and psychoanalyzed superheroes. We're still living in its shadow. The 80s played out the way they did because the Baby Boomers, the generation whose first trauma was the JFK assassination, never quite let go of their childhood. They were the first (but certainly not the last) generation to carry their childhood movies and comics with them, and by the time the 80s rolled around - by the time they were adults but still carrying childish things - they decided to recreate these things in their own new image.
This is why the middle-to-end of the 80s gives us The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. Comics, I believe, got the brunt of this forced darkness, but they weren't alone. Before either of those seminal series hit shelves, Walter Murch had unleashed Return to Oz.
In the 1980s Disney owned the rights to L. Frank Baum's Oz novels (they have since passed into public domain) and they were looking to do something with them. The synergy was undebiable, but the Mouse House had not yet gotten anything off the ground.
Enter Walter Murch. When I say he wrote the book on film editing, I mean it quite literally - his In The Blink Of An Eye is one of the seminal works on the subject. And he had more or less invented modern sound design in his collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola. Murch was ready to step out of the editing room and try directing. He met with Disney and approached them with an idea for a new Oz movie, which happened to be exactly what they were looking for.
But Murch's vision was not quite the same as the 1939 version. While Disney would shell out money to license the Ruby Slippers from MGM (for more on that read this piece on why you won't see the Ruby Slippers in Oz the Great and Powerful), they weren't looking to make some hokey song and dance piece. They wanted something contemporary.
Right from the start it's clear that Murch's vision for Return to Oz is... problematic. It's been six months since the tornado took Dorothy to Oz, and she's having trouble readjusting to life on the farm. Nobody believes her stories of the Tin Man and the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion, and Auntie Em and Uncle Henry begin to wonder if there isn't something deeply wrong with the girl.
So they bring her to a sanitarium where she will receive shock treatment.
I feel like I should have that in boldface. Auntie Em brings Dorothy to a sanitarium where patients scream through the night and where she will be hooked up to a generator so her brain can be fried back into 'health.'
There's a lot going on there, thematically. The 1939 movie, coming out during the Depression and as Europe began to fall into war, offered a message that what you have right in front of you is better than what you'll find anywhere else. There's no place like home, Dorothy intones, returning to monochromatic Kansas which, it turns out, was all she needed all along. It's a message of comfort to people who were living in an unsteady world.
But by the 80s things were different. In Murch's movie Dorothy hasn't taken the 'There's no place like home' message to heart. She wants to get the fuck out of Kansas again, and as soon as possible. She's been to the candy-colored promised land and now she's stuck in flat old boring Kansas. What's happening here is a longing for the 60s, a desire to get out of Reagan's yuppie America and return to a place where things were weird and possible, where color and excitment were the rules, not the exceptions.
Dorothy's desire to leave Reagan's America is a dangerous, subversive thing, and so she must be not punished but homogenized. She must have her brain made as flat as the landscape; all the big ideas and thoughts and hopes and dreams must be zapped out of her head.
That's pretty dark stuff, but it gets even darker when Dorothy finally escapes to Oz. Just before she's to be electroshocked* the power in the santiarium goes out and another girl rescues her. Together they run to a river, which is flooded by a rainstorm, chased closely by the witchy doyenne of the santiarium. The two girls choose to jump into the river, to certain death, rather than go back.
But Dorothy survives, and finds herself washed up on the edges of the Land of Oz. With her is Bellina, a chicken from the farm back home (Toto makes only cameo appearances in this film). In Oz it seems that Bellina can talk (in endlessly irritating wisecracks), and the two of them begin to make their way to the Emerald City.
They soon discover all is not well in the Land of Oz. Munchkinland has been razed, replaced by a thick forest. The Yellow Brick Road is pitted and torn apart, weeds growing between the golden bricks. And the Emerald City is shattered, its green gems stolen and the people turned to stone. In this post-apocalyptic hellhole roam The Wheelers, strange, misshappen beings with wheels for hands and feet. They look like rejects from the 1970s musical The Wiz (which also approached Oz as post-industrial decaying city).
Everything has gone to shit. The dream of Oz - or the 60s - is dead. Scarecrow has been deposed from the throne and the land is ruled by two evil beings - Mombi, a witch who is obsessed with being beautiful, and the Gnome King, who is obsessed with material goods. They represent everything wrong with America in the 1980s (and let's not kid ourselves, the 2010s as well) - the greed and narcissism that had turned the Baby Boomer who marched on Washington into Gordon Gekko.
Dorothy and Bellina decide they must save Oz and rescue the Scarecrow, who is held captive by the Gnome King. They meet a group of new friends - the Tik-Tok Man, a mechanical man who was once a soldier for Oz (a Ron Kovick character?), Jack Pumpkinhead, a scarecrow with a terrifying pumpkin on his shoulders looking for his mother (the next generation?) and The Gump, a moose head tied to a couch with palm fronds for wings, brought to life by magical Powder of Life.
First they escape Mombi, who has a truly disturbing hall of severed heads that she changes out whenever the desire suits her. She wants to add Dororthy's head to the collection when the girl is old enough to be beautiful. This is the fate of girls in the 80s, to become interchangeable heads on a beauty beast.
The group makes their way to the mountain of the Gnome King, where they discover the Scarecrow has been changed into a knick-knack. The Gnome King's plan is devilish: when he has turned everyone who remembers the old Oz (Woodstock, etc) into stone, he'll transform from a being made of rock into a real man. It's only the memory of the magic of Oz that keeps him from completely dominating the land.
He offers the companions a deal: if they can walk among his knick-knacks and guess which one is Scarecrow, he'll let them all go. But if they guess wrong, he'll turn them into a knick-knack as well. It's the grand spectre of materialism literally realized - you will become defined by the goods you choose. Can you tell your friends from the brands that try to convince you they're your friends?
Dorothy, the last hope for the Oz counterculture, is able to guess correctly, and the Gnome King and Mombi are defeated. The people of Oz triumphantly return to life, and the Scarecrow returns to the throne. It turns out Dorothy's escape buddy is in Oz too, and she's actually Ozma, the rightful ruler of the land (this is handled in exactly as rushed and tossed off a way in the movie). Dorothy returns to Kansas, despite having no real reason to do so. But when she gets there she learns that Ozma has opened a magical portal to Oz, so that Dorothy can visit at any time. You can't live in the 60s anymore, it seems, but you can still keep it with you while navigating the flatlands of Reagan Kansas.
I fear I've made the movie sound more interesting than it is; Return to Oz is actually deathly dull. Murch the director didn't let Murch the editor make enough decisions, and so the pace of the movie is tedious. That slow pace really allows you to drink every disturbing design choice in the film; where the 1939 version has a storybook quality, Return to Oz constantly feels like a bad trip. The film is based largely on The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, and the character designs are often right from the books, but what works in pen and ink becomes scary in real life.
Jack Pumpkinhead, with his saw-toothed rictus smile, is a nightmare character. The Scarecrow, his painted on face barely moving, unsettles at all times. The Wheelers are bizarre, bestial things that make your skin crawl, and Mombi's hall of heads - each head moving and blinking and listening to every word you say - is right out of a horror movie. Only the Gnome King, realized largely in Claymation, feels magical enough to be in Oz. The Tik-Tok Man, a Ron Swanson-ish bronze being, is harmless enough, but foget about The Gump - it's a fucking severed moose head tied to a couch, animated through dark magic.
Even the Dorothy in Return to Oz is off. Fairuza Balk plays Dorothy Gale, and the same exotic looks that would make her so striking as an adult keep her from being the corn-fed Kansas girl we expect. Balk sometimes slips into vocal mannerisms that seem like Judy Garland imitations, but on the whole she's unable to ground the freaky phantasmagoria around her.
The general sense of darkness is overwhelming. Everything in Oz is a shamble. Dorothy's first encounter in the Land of Oz this time is in the Deadly Desert, one touch of whose sands will instantly kill you. I know that landing your house on a witch isn't exactly sunny (domicular manslaughter, I guess) but it beats ending up in a fatal wasteland.
The whole film is weirdly miscalculated, and it was a flop on release. Over the years some have embraced it as a cult classic, especially Oz fans who find this movie way more faithful to Baum than the 1939 film (and that's technically correct, but I think this film gets none of Baum's tone). To me Return to Oz is regarded exactly as it should be: a largely forgotten, deeply odd misfire.
* it's quite possible to read the entire film that follows as the result of her being shocked, by the way. It's sort of like a proto-Sucker Punch.