Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) is having trouble sleeping ever since she was swept away by a tornado in her Kansas home. Her guardians, Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) are growing increasingly concerned about her mental state, especially as she continues to talk about an imaginary land called Oz where she believes she was transported during the storm. While out in the yard with her pet chicken Billina, Dorothy finds a key when looking for an egg, and is convinced it is a sign from Oz, but for Aunt Em this is the last straw and soon Dorothy is taken to a sanatarium, leaving her pining dog Toto far behind. The head of the establishment, Dr Worley (Nicol Williamson) tries to allay her fears, but the truth of the matter is that Dorothy is to undergo electric shock treatment unless she can escape somehow...
With its downbeat, low key mood, Return to Oz was not what popular audiences wanted from a sequel to the classic fantasy The Wizard of Oz, and some pointed out the film was best suited to indulgent adults than children, who might be put off by its unsettling tone. Adapted from two of L. Frank Baum's Oz books by director Walter Murch and Gill Dennis, the idea was to recreate the quality of those original novels rather than fashion a tribute to the 1939 film, so there were no songs here, for a start. For many this was an indication of how Disney, who produced the film, had lost their way and ability to appeal to family viewers in the nineteen-eighties, but over the years the film built up a loyal cult of fans who enjoyed its darkness, design and uncertainties.
The fact that Dorothy is regarded by the adults to need shock treatment should be enough evidence that this is no traditional children's film. Balk plays her as such a grave little girl (catchphrase: "It can't be helped!") that it's almost a relief when she smiles, and she makes the activity around her seem all the more serious. It's not the electricity that sends her back to Oz, for just as she has been strapped down and is about to have a current through her, Dorothy is saved by a lightning strike from the storm outside that cuts the power. When the doctors and nurses leave the room to attend to the problem, another girl (Emma Ridley, the future "Wild Child" of British tabloid infamy) releases her and they both flee into the night. Chased by the sinister head nurse (Jean Marsh), they end up falling into the fast-flowing river, and Dorothy loses consciousness.
When she wakes up, she is in Oz, and the place is in a bad way compared to how it was when she left it, with the Yellow Brick Road in ruins, and the Emerald City just as delapidated, its inhabitants turned to stone. As with the first film, the importance of friendship is paramount, and Dorothy knows she must find the Scarecrow who was supposed to be in charge, particularly as the Cowardly Lion and Tin Woodsman are found petrified as well. She gains a bunch of new friends, however, starting with Billina, who in this place can talk, and after a long wait we discover what has actually happened: the Nome King (Williamson) and Princess Mombi (Marsh) have taken over, stealing the emeralds and enslaving the populace.
As with the first film, you can take the story two ways; either Dorothy is transplanting her real life into her fantasy life, hence the appearance of various aspects in both under different guises, or she really has been swept away to Oz. Whatever, the significance of her fantasies is vital, as it renders her existence on a drab Kansas farm, to which she willingly returns yet again, all the more bearable. Return to Oz is a strange, handsome-looking but melancholy experience, with some feats of great imagination. The companions are excellent puppets and costumes, with the loyal metal soldier Tik-Tok (former Blue Peter presenter Michael Sundin is in there, moving him about), Jack Pumpkinhead, whose name is self-explanatory, and the Gump, a mounted animal head tied to a sofa and animated with magic powder. The villains are grotesque, Mombi having a habit of swapping heads, and the Nome King made out of rock thanks to Will Vinton's superb animation. Yet as impressive as all this is, there's little feeling of triumph at the finale, more of a pensive sigh. Music by David Shire.