Beware The Wheelers
Today on a whim I picked up the DVD of Return to Oz. If you are not familiar with this film, it was based off of the next two books in the Oz series after the Wizard of Oz. It was made back in 1985 before Disney lost its balls. And because of that, like other classics such as Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Treasure Island, and Return from Witch Mountain, it is very focused on the story and less on being politically correct and cutesy. When I saw it, it struck a chord in me, as I had vague memories of watching it as a small child and that it scared the crap out of me.
Watching it again after all this time was interesting. It is definitely a kids movie, so there is plenty of cheesy dialogue and goofy characters, in fact there is an overabundance of this, which I think makes it less timeless of a film as say Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal, but the themes are profoundly disturbing. When you look past some of the goofy characters and the occasional cheesy costume, it is a truly dark little story. In fact, the only light in the story seems to emanate from Dorothy (played by Fairuza Balk in her first screen role ever), who is so sweet and innocent even at its moments of darkest horror. I am all grown up now, and this movie still disturbed me.
As you may have guessed, this is nowhere near the musical and whimsical Wizard of Oz put out by MGM. No, Return to Oz takes a slightly darker path, which apparently is a little more true to the original books, which I must acquire and read now. The movie starts with a disturbed, but sweet Dorothy who cannot sleep at night and cannot stop thinking about her previous adventures in Oz. Her Aunt Em is concerned and stressed as they try to rebuild their home from the tornado damage, and so she decides to take Dorothy in for treatment. This "treatment" is to be taken to a sanitarium for electro-shock treatments, which is chillingly portrayed. Dorothy's sweet and childish innocence in this situation is heart-wrenching. Without giving spoilers, Dorothy escapes to Oz to find it a wasteland as the Nome King (Nicol Williamson, the Man himself) turns people to stone and an evil princess steals the heads of young girls, with her "foot-soldiers" the Wheelers.
It was a surprise to be affected by this movie so much after so many years, but while it isn't as immediately accessible to adults as Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal, I think the experience is worth it if you have never seen it. I found myself wishing for a longer version of the film, and perhaps for it to explore the themes even more, although it is already questionably too dark for very young children.
Although, when you think about it where did this notion of "too dark" or "too serious" for children come from? Think about our ancient fairy tales, stories that were told to children and adults. Those tales were in many ways as dark and frightening as a lot of our modern horror fiction. Maybe we coddle children too much, and try to hold too much back from them. This is probably going to need to be the subject of another essay, but my point is check out Return to Oz, if you have not seen it, and revisit it if you have.
And keep a close eye on your chickens.