“Return to Oz”: Disney Film & Novelization
“The fortunes of ‘novelizations’ (books made from movies) rise or fall with the films they are tied to”
(from the Los Angeles Times Book Review)
Return to Oz
By Joan D. Vinge
Based on a screenplay by Walther Murch and Gil Dennis
Ballantine: paperback; 214 pp., illustrated
If the fortunes of “novelizations” (books made from movies) rise or fall with the films they are tied to, then “Return to Oz” seemed certain of success. No one could have imagined a surer thing—a children’s movie, made by Disney Studios, following the most popular film ever made (MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz”). But when the movie appeared, theatergoers were underwhelmed.
Defensively, Disney Studio has claimed that the film is a sleeper and (like the other Oz classic) may take a decade to find its niche. But another explanation for audiences tepid reactions may be found in director Walter Murch’s frequent assertion that his movie is “neither a musical nor a sequel” to the MGM classic but, rather, a return to the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. That is its great mistake; given memories and expectations, theatergoers might have welcomed a genuine “Return to Oz,” an unabashed sequel, even a musical.
As it is, elements from the MGM film trickle in anyway. To mention one of the most obvious: Readers of Baum’s book remember that Dorothy clicked together her silver slippers and said, “Take me home to Aunt Em”; but for better Technicolor contrasts and reasons of their own, MGM had Judy Garland click together ruby-red slippers and repeat “There’s no place like home.” It is surprising then—in this non-sequel, in this purist’s return to the Oz books—to find a villain wearing Dorothy’s ruby-red slippers and taunting her by whining, “There’s no place like home.”
At the end of the MGM film, a scene occurs that does not appear in Baum’s novel: Dorothy wakes up in bed and finds herself surrounded by friends who try to convince her that she dreamed up the Land of Oz. Disney’s “Return to Oz” begins here. When Dorothy has recurring dreams about Oz, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry try to convince the girl that she has imagined the place because of a head injury, but Dorothy insists that she was actually there.
In their fear that Dorothy has gone dotty, her aunt and uncle take her to an asylum for shock treatments. In the following scary scenes—not found in either of the Baum books upon which the film is based (“The Land of Oz” and “Ozma of Oz”)—the little girl is victimized by the terrifying Nurse Wilson and Dr. Worley. Fortunately, during a thunderstorm, Dorothy escapes the asylum and is transported back to the magic Land of Oz
Things have changed. The Yellow Brick Road is in disrepair. The inhabitants of Oz have been changed to stone. And Dorothy is not greeted by Munchkins but harassed by a band of traveling punks known as Wheelers.
Instead of Toto, Dorothy has a hen named Billina to accompany her. Instead of the Scarecrow and Tinman and Lion, the little girl makes new friends with the scarecrow Jack Pumpkinhead, the robot Tik-Tok, and the moose like Gump. And, instead of killing a witch and facing a wizard, Dorothy overcomes Princess Mombi and the evil Nome King and thereby brings the inhabitants of Oz back to life and restores Princess Ozma to the throne—all before she returns to Kansas and a search party finds her asleep near a river.
Joan D. Vinge’s novelization of the film is competent, accurate, and workmanlike. Any novelization seems to exist to translate a story into ink and alphabet for those who want to repeat an experience, muse on motive, luxuriate in atmosphere and there are enough of those satisfactions here. But in light of the film’s ho-hum reception, the question that remains is how many people will wish to return to “Return to Oz.”
This essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (September 8, 1985). “Return to Oz” would not be the last time Disney tried to hitch their wagon to the Oz franchise. In 2013 they released “Oz the Great and Powerful,” starring James Franco–a genuinely creepy and sexualized Oz sequel meant, apparently, to draw in the young adult crowd: like other recent films, for example, “Into the Woods.” For an account of L. Frank Baum–and the relationship between Oz and California–see this related essay.