There is something to be said about sequels. There are actually many things to say about sequels, many thought pieces, many essays, reviews, and arguments. Hollywood has been build on sequels for a long, long time now, one leg of the stool that supports the industry flanked by the institutions that are remakes and adaptations.
What is most curious, however, is our interest in returning to worlds created decades after their first inception. We’re talking Star Wars, we’re talking Terminator, we’re talking all these revisits to worlds that have become milestones in the history of cinema. We’re now talking Doctor Sleep, a curious sequel of both the Stanley Kubrick movie The Shining and the work of Stephen King. It’s a sequel that shouldn’t work, as it enters the battle between two completely different visions and interpretations. King notoriously didn’t care for 1980’s The Shining, especially having disdain for Jack Nicholson’s lack of transformation as Jack Torrance. How did Mike Flanagan manage to balance the essence of Kubrick’s iconic visual masterpiece with the essence and story of Stephen King’s writing and own revisit to his world?
It is, oddly, and still somehow tangentially related to King and the world of cinema…like The Wizard of Oz.
The Wizard of Oz has, frankly, become a landmark in American culture and the history of cinema. This of course mostly down to the 1939 film most of us should be familiar with, but it may surprise you to know how far the Yellow Brick Road stretches. Countless books, multiple writers, endless sequels, remakes, adaptations. There’s a musical based on the 1939 movie co-created by Andrew Lloyd Webber and there’s of course the Broadway musical based on a 1995 revisionist novel retelling the story of the original 1900 book and also the 1939 movie that we all know as…that one musical your aunt has been to (which, funnily enough, is not an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical).
The Muppets have gone to Oz, so has Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, Tom and Jerry have been there twice, not to mention Quentin fucking Tarantino. Stephen King even brought Oz into his ever-growing universe of The Dark Tower, where the parallels go straight into extended homage and embracing of the public domain.
It’s crazy yet understandable to see why one book from 1900 written by L. Frank Baum has exploded into one of the furthest reaching and broadest franchises ever. Deceptively so. Underneath everything, The Wizard of Oz (or more accurately, Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) is an American art phenomenon that has actually lasted longer than every other established icon of 20th Century Americana, more than even The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and beyond.
It’s also the only one in that list that even James Franco can be connected to.
The original American fairy tale, you may be wondering about a certain entry into the Wizard of Oz canon that hasn’t been mentioned yet. It might not be the most iconic, it might not be the most recent, it might be something that you only know if you know…But what if I told you that they actually made a sequel to the 1939 movie that started it all?
What if I said it was made 46 years after The Wizard of Oz? And that it was in the Guinness Book of World Records for that fact until Bambi II pranced along (Yes, that exists)? The fact that it was made by Disney, and that you’ll soon be able to watch it on Disney+ when it launches?
It’s the movie Return to Oz, and it’s probably the most fascinating entry in the world of Oz, even more so than the musicals, Sam Raimi movies, and the ABC show Once Upon a Time.
The year is 1980 and Walter Murch is in the sights of the Walt Disney Company. By this point in his career he’s had Academy Award nominations for sound and editing multiple times, even winning for Apocalypse Now, and Disney – who never changes – saw him as someone who would eventually go on to direct some big property himself. It must be noted that Murch is behind so many innovations and experimentations in the world of sound and film editing that it’s sad his name isn’t as frequently mentioned as his director peers, but thankfully by all accounts, his debut and sole directorial project is definitely not his legacy.
Even if it was himself that pitched the idea of doing another Oz movie.
You see, between THX-1138, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, and then all the way to being the first and only person to win an Oscar for Sound and Film Editing for the same movie (The English Patient) and beyond, Murch said that he wanted to make “another Oz Story” when pressed to think of a project both he and Disney would be interested in making. Little did he know he was in luck.
Even in the 80s, Disney was ahead of the game purchasing intellectual property. While MGM may have made The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into The Wizard of Oz in 1939, the Walt Disney Company had bought the rights to all of the remaining Oz books in 1954.
This meant that Murch was able to make his dream project, even if it be in the shadow of the MGM hit that came out in the 30s and was still played on TV at least once a Christmas to big numbers.
Return to Oz is, much like Doctor Sleep, the merging of two worlds. Walter Murch always envisioned it as a film that embraced worlds of the following books in the Oz series, yet it breathed the DNA of the movie The Wizard of Oz. He was the Proto-Mike Flanagan, here balancing adaptation and sequel and how similar and different they may be. To that end, while he could have kept the iconic slippers Dorothy uses to get home the original silver colour like in the books, Murch and Disney had to pay out to MGM to use the iconic ruby slippers to make sure audiences could connect their collective knowledge of what they think of the world of Oz with this new movie.
Return to Oz, much like Doctor Sleep, is a slave to adaptation canon. It’s why we get (poor) facsimiles of Jack Nicholson and (brilliant) facsimiles of Shelly Duvall in Doctor Sleep. Why we get the iconic hotel carpet, why we get cinematography aped from Kubrick. It’s why we don’t get the hedge animals from the book or the definitely not remembered mini-series. Return to Oz has to give us Ruby Slippers, the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Yellow Brick Road. Or at least, the seconds of screen time we get of those things.
Similar to Doctor Sleep, Return to Oz is not overly indulgent in what came before, but instead tries to create new things with new concepts and characters. The similarities do not stop there because Return to Oz is FUCKING SCARY.
Up to this point we’ve established that Return to Oz is a sequel to the Wizard of Oz. To those who have not seen Return but have seen Wizard, picture the classic Judy Garland movie. Now take away the music. The dancing. The vivid Technicolor. The quirky, jaunty, off to see the Wizard nature. You’re a small fraction of the way there to picturing Return to Oz.
Murch’s vision is dark and it’s bleak. The city of Oz we know and love starts off completely destroyed and everyone has been turned to stone. The ruins of the world are haunted by childhood Mad Max goons called The Wheelers, one of the most terrifying character designs you’ve seen in a supposed family movie. There’s an evil Queen that wears a selection of disembodied heads like a reject Enter the Dragon concept. There’s the Nome King, who is a sometimes stop-motion, sometimes man in makeup who turns all of Dorothy’s new companions into trinkets when they fail his tests. And not to mention…the entire first 20 minutes are something sinister.
You see, after the events of The Wizard of Oz and that iconic “You were there!” revelation, six months pass, and Dorothy can’t sleep. It would be cute, but Aunt Em is struggling. It’s that classic sequel problem, when the world isn’t exactly jazzed for our characters despite the resolution of the first movie. This is still somehow sadder than the Ghostbusters working birthday parties. Kansas is still reeling from that tornado, and Aunt Em whisks Dorothy away to…a doctor keen on using electrotherapy to cure Dorothy of her insomnia. This is 1899 after all.
Not only that, Aunt Em has brought Dorothy to an asylum. Where she can hear troubled people screaming. Where the Head Nurse is somehow crueller than Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Where Aunt Em just leaves and lets Dorothy be strapped down to a bed before almost being shocked her way into a Sucker Punch situation. It’s up to narrative convenience to pull a Chronicles of Narnia and find a new way to get Dorothy back to Oz, this time being…escaping an asylum in a storm after it gets struck by lightning, diving into a river and almost drowning while being chased by the head nurse.
This movie is rated PG, that all happens in the first few minutes, and it’s still not the scariest sight in this movie. Return to Oz is a movie that should be the barometer every family movie should be compared against to see what can and can’t scare children. If anything, it should be the absolute extreme. If a single frame of a movie is scarier than Return to Oz that’s exactly what the BBFC should start rating a 12A.
Still, Return to Oz is still a testament to craft. The acting debut of Fairuza Balk (from The Craft…), Balk found herself acting for the majority of the movie against purely puppetry and stand-ins for post-production. This film is pre-Labyrinth and nowhere near on the same plane as Labyrinth, but it must be said…the animatronics, the puppetry, and the stop motion are actually well executed here. No wonder it got an Academy Award Nomination of its own for Visual Effects. (Side-note: Why the hell did Labyrinth not win any Academy Awards?)
Oddly, Return to Oz is actually not a Jim Henson production (despite having alumni including Henson’s son Brian as Jack Pumpkinhead). It’s interesting to see the ebbs and flows of puppetry, Muppetry, Oz, and Disney throughout the years, and how when all of those elements come together you get maybe the absolute worst Oz tale in the TV movie The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz.
One could argue that Return to Oz is one oddball of a perfect storm. A tornado of talent that rips the shine of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz away in order to place it in a new world. For its use of technology, its direction from an innovator of cinema, its producing from Star Wars’ Gary Kurtz, its Oscar-nominated visual effects, its curious edge on Oz media in light of Disney’s love of purchasing intellectual property (and then further spending into using the iconic MGM-owned ruby slippers)…Return to Oz is a movie full of risks and it should be rewarded for that, even if it was a complete flop that’s only more recently gotten a cult following.
Return to Oz is by all accounts an experiment and a passion project that Hollywood has taken the blueprint of and perfected on. Walter Murch never directed a movie again, instead taking different risks and experiments further into his other passions of editing and sound production. He’s the only editor to be Academy Award Nominated using four different systems for editing, including the easily accessible to consumer programs of today like Final Cut.
Disney continues to be a company that buys all manner of intellectual property with the intension to make sequels, remakes, and adaptations. This includes The Muppets, Marvel, and of course…Lucasfilm and Star Wars.
The Force Awakens, the passion project of a fan of the original source material, which Disney had acquired the rights to, full of practical effects, a love of the craft, and acknowledgement of the work that has come before it made over 2 billion dollars at the Box Office.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and all its subsequent books, continued to be turned into new works of art. Of all things, it is most curious that even with a big budget Disney prequel made in 2013, and its world being used in Disney-owned ABC show Once Upon a Time, and so many more projects…The next most recognisable piece of Oz-related media after the Judy Garland-starring classic is Wicked, which stands the most precarious in the entire murky world of intellectual property. It’s a wild west of creativity that, funnily enough, has been protected in no small part by the Walt Disney Company. So strange that if anything, Disney have made it even harder to just straight up remake The Wizard of Oz or at least easily procure what they need from that 1939 classic. By protecting copyright of their own intellectual property they have unintentionally pushed those ruby slippers even further out of sight. At least, unless they wanted to strike a deal with Warner Bros. (who now own the rights to The Wizard of Oz), but when have Disney ever done…oh right.
It all started with a mouse, and one day it will all finish with it.
Return to Oz is a forgotten, cult classic of a movie. Yet, it is unknowingly influential and ahead of its time, purely for it being a curiosity in adaptation rights, time between sequels, and the fuzzy line between film and literary adaptation/sequel.
At 43 years since the original publication of The Shining and 39 years since the Stanley Kubrick movie, Doctor Sleep is up there with Return to Oz for time between entries. For all intents and purposes, it is also a completely different beast, but in this case it has the convenience of Warner Bros. having the original rights to Kubrick’s masterpiece as well as those of Stephen King’s 2013 novel Doctor Sleep. No sidestepping necessary. Flanagan has made a film that evokes 1980s The Shining from the very first frame while once again channelling the best of King’s evolution of his ideas. It’s not as well crafted as Kubrick – what is? – but it is equally different as it is familiar, and yet consistently great.
Return to Oz is the poster child for doing it wrong but failing upwards. It has its fans and it’s still very watchable as its own beast. Doctor Sleep is the poster child for doing it right. You can’t use the same comparison to something like Blade Runner 2049, or even Mary Poppins Returns, or the movie franchise sequels like Terminator: Dark Fate but what I can say is…
Thank god Go Set a Watchman is bad. And that we stopped putting James Franco in franchises.