Although maturity and wisdom are often gifts expected with old age, they don’t necessarily find their way into the arms of just anyone. With these two traits come respect, responsibility and frustration. If you’re the smartest person in the room, it can be difficult to find someone interesting to talk to. If you’ve seen it all, there are no new sights to tempt your eye.
Such is the sad case of Dorothy Gale, the much beloved heroine of The Wizard of Oz and, as of 1985, Return to Oz. A film as much of a sequel to the 1939 MGM hit as it is a prequel to Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. Return to Oz was the first and only film directed by editor extraordinaire Walter Murch. Deemed “bleak, creepy, and occasionally terrifying” by the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr, the film was released to much fanfare and yet little box office returns.
Set in 1899, six months after Dorothy’s first trip to that magical place, Return to Oz opens with Dorothy trying to tell her story to anyone who will listen. No one believes that she actually went to Oz and met a cowardly lion, a tin man and a scarecrow, and so her aunt and uncle, kind folk that they are, send her to a doctor who wants to zap the little tyke’s brain with some eclectic shock therapy. Dorothy quickly realizes she’s been sent to the cuckoo’s nest: as she’s strapped down to a stretcher, she asks, “why do you have to tie me down?” The evil Ms. Wilson responds, “so that you don’t fall off.” Dorothy is too smart for that and subsequently quips, “I came all the way from the farm on the buggy and didn’t fall off.” As played by the adorable but adult-like newcomer Fairuza Balk, Dorothy is a no-nonsense individual who has done more in her short time on Earth than her elder peers, and thus she must be punished.
Before she knows it (and before her brain turns to mush), Dorothy finds herself back in Oz courtesy of another storm. This Oz is not like the one she remembered, however. The once emerald city has been demolished and left for dead; it looks war-torn. The mise en scene is appropriately worn out and drab. Yes, things have run darker since Dorothy last set foot in Oz, and perhaps it represents a natural progression in her path to adulthood. Her innocence has been shattered upon her return; you only get to experience your first time once.
Dorothy nonetheless adapts well to this Oz de la ghetto, meeting new friends along the way whose creepiness further solidifies the idea of a “maturation of a dream.” Her new acquaintances, the self-described Jack Pumpkinhead, a talking chicken, a wind-up C3P0-looking concoction named Tick Tock, and a decapitated moose head, are more ghastly than welcoming. And yet, Dorothy remains strong and shows how much she’s grown over the past six months. She curtsies upon meeting a new face and even offers encouraging support when necessary. “Oh dear, my action has run down,” Tick Tock remarks when he temporarily loses the ability to move. “It can’t be helped, Tick Tock!” Dorothy responds, providing the film with a semi-hidden erectile dysfunction joke. And later, when Tick Tock goes berserk , Dorothy explains to Jack Pumpkinhead that “his brain’s ran down.” When asked how he could still speak if his brain had run down, Dorothy reminds Jack that “it happens to people all the time.”
The noble Tick Tock is a somewhat happy pessimist. His reflections on his mechanized predicament seem somewhat dark for a Disney movie but right at home in Dorothy’s expanding view of the world. “I am not alive and never will be, thank goodness,” Tick Tock once announces, before later reiterating, “I have always valued my lifelessness.” If we are to believe that Dorothy’s encounters with Oz are mere dreams, everything in them reflects of her current mindset somehow. Hence the inclusion of the character of Mombi, an evil witch who owns a collection of female heads to attach to her shoulders whenever she gets bored. Mombi’s vain and ironically vulnerable characterization represents an adult world of insecurity new but not completely foreign to Dorothy.
It may seem odd to consider Dorothy “over the hill” at such a young age, but by the time Return to Oz concludes, she’s grown up and seen it all. She’s outsmarted nome kings, repaired cities, rescued the Scarecrow (with a face so happily demented it would keep most people her age up at nights) and made it back to Kansas in time to console Toto and her folks. Upon the film’s closing credits, one gets the sense that Oz isn’t needed in Dorothy’s life anymore. The mutual, at times parasitic relationship has run its course, and Dorothy – older and wiser – is ready to conquer new challenges such as being a teenager and running the family farm.