The Case That Returns to Oz

In the summer of 1985, Walt Disney studios released a sequel to one of Hollywood’s most iconic films. Except–it wasn’t really a sequel. There were some characters with the same names, and it was based on the same source material, but the setting and tone were completely different. The director of this new movie, Walter Murch, called it “dark” and “bleak,” and audiences would agree. Disney itself didn’t know how to market the movie, with a dreaded PG rating that was sure to keep parents from taking their children. Their biggest challenge was to shatter the expectations set by the original film, the brightly-colored musical, “The Wizard of Oz.” 

Return to Oz takes place after Dorothy has already visited Oz once before. Concerned for her well-being, Auntie Em takes Dorothy to a mental institution where she will undergo electro-shock therapy. But, during a terrible storm, a mysterious girl appears to help Dorothy escape, and leads her back to the land of Oz. 

Alone with only her chicken, Billina, Dorothy must navigate unfamiliar terrain, like the “Deadly Desert,” and a now-shattered yellow brick road. She discovers that Oz has lost all its emeralds, and its residents have been turned to stone. Much like the original, Dorothy picks up friends along the way–friends like a mechanical man that needs to be wound, a stick-figure man with a pumpkin head, and a flying couch with the head of a moose-like creature called a “Gump.” 

Infamous for horrifying villains, such as: Princess Mombi, an evil witch that stole the heads of beautiful women and keeps them in glass cases; Return to Oz may not be a Halloween movie per se, but it’s definitely scary enough to be considered one!

Packed with horrors from the real world and the land of Oz, this film has enthralled generations of children with its imaginative design and memorable characters. This dark fantasy introduced children to an Oz much closer to the one of the books, and bravely trudged through swampy territory that children’s films of today would likely avoid. 

So friends, mechanical and mythical alike, it’s time to Return to Oz!


  • In 1900, a failed actor and journalist published a children’s book that is now considered to be the first truly American fairytale. It was called, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” 
  • L. Frank Baum named the location of his story after the last drawer in his filing cabinet. He gave his main protagonist the name Dorothy, after his infant niece who had just passed away. 
  • It was his mother in law, a notable feminist, who convinced Baum to write for children, and he had published a book of nursery rhymes a couple years before.
  • Baum wrote of a utopia called, “The Emerald City,” and used influences from his own life to create the story of Dorothy Gale, a young girl living a plain life on a farm, who gets transported to a strange fantasy land, filled with witches, talking animals, and metal men.
    • One of the most notable facets of the story is the fact that Dorothy is an ordinary girl, not a witch or a princess, and she becomes her own hero with very little help from her companions (though they do protect her in some dangerous situations.)
    • Baum acted as if the stories were true, and he was the historian of Oz–young readers were meant to believe that Dorothy and Ozma were real people, recounting their stories to him. This technique is similar to Lemony Snicket, another children’s author of a dark fiction.
  • The book has never been out of print, and its fame places it among the ranks of other prominent fairytales.
    • American children know the story of Dorothy as much as they might know about Sleeping Beauty or Little Red Riding Hood.
  • Baum continued to write the story of Dorothy and her adventures in Oz, until his death in 1919. His final Oz book, Glinda of Oz, was published a year later. Other authors continued the series, and there are 40 official Oz books in total, not including unofficial adaptations and sequels! 
  • In the 1930’s, when Walt Disney was working on his first full-length animated movie, he wanted to make “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” next. But, when his brother Roy called the Baum estate, they found that another film studio, MGM, had beat them to the rights! 
    • This resulted in “The Wizard of Oz,” a technicolor marvel that turned Judy Garland into a megastar. This Oz was bright, filled with happy songs, and had notable changes from the book–for example, Dorothy’s magical silver slippers were now ruby!
    • This movie is now one of the most classic films in cinema. This has become the most well-known version of Oz, despite the fact that it is just one drop in the ocean of Oz lore.
  • In 1985, Disney finally produced its take on the Oz universe. This new movie swapped joyful songs for a somber and foreboding film score, and introduced audiences to an Oz filled with dark horrors. 


  • Director Walter Murch based Return to Oz on the second and third books in the Oz series: The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz
  • After Dorothy has returned to her normal life in Kansas, she can’t stop thinking about the friends she left behind. One day she finds a key from Oz, and takes it as a message that her friends need her to return. Upset that Dorothy hasn’t moved on from her delusions, Auntie Em takes her to see Dr. Worley, a Psychiatrist. He admits Dorothy to his hospital, and prescribes electro-shock therapy. Dorothy endures the horrors of being locked in a room, strapped to a bed, and hearing the screams of other patients. 
  • While Dorothy undergoes her first session, a storm knocks out the power, and a mysterious girl appears to help Dorothy escape. Dorothy runs from the institution, and climbs into a cage that is soon washed away down the river. When Dorothy wakes, she discovers that she has landed in the Deadly Desert, on the outskirts of Oz, and her chicken Billina has arrived with her, too. 
  • While making her way into Oz, Dorothy discovers a destroyed yellow brick road, and follows it to a bleak and empty Emerald City, where all the residents have been turned to stone, courtesy of the evil Nome King.
  • With the help of Billina and some new friends, Dorothy must escape Princess Mombi and her horrible henchmen, the wheelers (men with wheels for hands and feet), as she confronts the Nome King and demands that he restore Oz to its former glory!


  • Director Walter Murch spent 3 years planning and researching for Return to Oz
    • His goal was to present it in the style of early 20th century fantasy, the dark tone and twisted characters were more akin to the original books than the movie of the 1930’s.
    • Murch understood the story for what it was–a fairytale. And if you know anything about fairytales, they aren’t necessarily happy or colorful. He intended to continue the tradition of Oz by celebrating its strangeness. 
  • The scenes set in Dorothy’s Kansas were filmed in Salisbury, England, but the rest of the film was shot on Elstree stages and a studio lot.
  • Production designer Norman Reynolds (who served the same role for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Empire Strikes Back) built a new kind of Oz, with lunch pail trees and a crumbling emerald city, with set decoration by Michael Ford (who also has the same role for the original Star Wars trilogy!)

But, Murch’s biggest focus and concern with regards to Oz, were the fantastic creatures and odd new friends that audiences had never seen on screen.

  • In order to create the many faces in the land of Oz, a huge team was assembled of animators, puppeteers, and sculptors. 
  • They didn’t want to simply make suits for actors to walk in, but to create full-fledged fantasy creatures that the audience would whole-heartedly believe in.
    • The original Wizard of Oz is great, but it was easy to see that the cowardly lion was a man with whiskers. The creative forces behind Return to Oz wanted to avoid this, helping the audience suspend their belief.
  • The characters’ designs were taken directly from the Oz books, with technicians and animators employing similar techniques as they did for The Dark Crystal! Their movements took months of study to create seamless performances between actors and puppeteers alike! 
    • Billina lives on the Kansas farm with Dorothy, and makes her first appearance as the chicken that finds the key sent from Oz to alert Dorothy that her friends are in need of help.
      • Once she has arrived in Oz, Billina can now talk! 
      • Bilina was handcrafted by Val Jones with woven elastic fabric interlaced with wool to which real chicken feathers were then glued to. It was an arduous process but the result was very realistic. 
      • Lyle Conway, the creature design supervisor, said that Billina the chicken was the hardest to create. The puppeteers and technicians practiced for weeks to try to make sure that her movements were familiar and lifelike. They practiced with a closed circuit television to see the movements and make sure they were perfect for filming.
      • Different versions of Billina were used, with the operator’s hand entering from either the back or underside of the puppet. The operator’s fingers would extend through the neck and into two cups at the base of her skull for head movements, while a tiny cable system was responsible for her eye and mouth movement! For the longer, faraway shots, a real chicken took Billina’s place.
  • Tik-Tok 
    • After Dorothy first arrives at the Emerald City, she meets a mechanical man named Tik-Tok, the royal army of Oz! 
      • In order to work, Tik-Tok needs to be wound. He has dials for thought, speech, and action.
    • Michael Sundin was the actor that had to fit himself inside the round suit, placing his head between his legs and operating the controls of the body.
    • Sean Barret provided the mechanical man’s voice, while Tim Rose used remote control to move his head and eyes.
  • Jack Pumpkin Head is a creature made of sticks with a jack-o-lantern head. He was created by Queen Ozma, and brought to life to scare the evil Princess Mombi! Dorothy meets Jack after she has been captured and imprisoned by Mombi, and he helps her escape.
    • Jack was brought to life by actor Stewart Harvey-Wilson in the suit, with Brian Henson controlling the puppet version of the character! Brian Henson was also the voice of Jack! 
    • The character was difficult because of the difference between the human version and the puppet version. The human was much more stiff and rigid in movement, whereas the puppet was looser and had to have his arms up because of the control levers in them. When he moved his head, his entire torso would move with it. Pons Maar, the lead performance coordinator, taught Stewart-Wilson to be looser and to give little “pops” of movement. 
  • The Gump was a favorite of Walter Murch, a mis-match of items with the head of a green, moose-like creature. Dorothy builds the character out of couches and palm leaves, and uses him to escape Mombi’s castle.
    • Gump was fully mechanical, and cable operated *approximately 20 ft of cable. Those that operated it were just out of view behind scenery or just off camera.
    • Creature design supervisor Lyle Conway was also the voice of the Gump, while Steve Norrington operated his controls.
  • The Wheelers
    • Return to Oz has quite the group of villains. But, some of the most nightmarish scenes in the film include The Wheelers, a nasty gang of humanoids that have wheels for hands and feet. They also wear terrifying masks atop their heads!
    • The head Wheeler was actually played by the lead performance coordinator, Pons Maar! He was responsible for coordinating movement for The Cowardly Lion, The Tin Man, Jack Pumpkinhead, and sometimes, Tik-Tok! 
      • The Cowardly Lion had a fully mechanized head with a human being in the body.
    • The actors playing The Wheelers began movement training on and off the wheels, which then evolved into just being on the wheels most the day. 
    • The process was grueling, because the performers had to use muscles that they were not used to. Pons Maar said that there was nothing like being on the wheels! Operating these new rigs took 17 actors several weeks to perfect.
    • The Rear wheels were fixed to tennis shoes and leg reinforcements, while the front wheels were built with elbow supports, hand grips and brake mechanisms. 
  • The Nome King is the main villain of the film, who has turned all the inhabitants of Oz into stone and stolen the Emeralds from the Emerald CIty. 
    • Played by seasoned stage actor, Nicol Williamson, the only part of the actor that the audience could see, was his eyes. The rest of him was covered in make-up and prosthetics.
      • The process to make him the Nome King took 5 hours!
    • As the Nome King succeeds in turning Dorothy’s friends into ornaments, he slowly seems more and more human! That is, until the end when he angrily attempts to eat Dorothy and her friends.
    • The Nome King also has minions, other nomes that surround him constantly and spy on Dorothy as she makes her way through Oz. These creatures were stop-motion creations by non-other than Will Vinton! He was one of the people nominated for an Oscar when Return to Oz was recognized for its groundbreaking special and visual effects.


  • Fairuza Balk as Dorothy Gale
    • Early on in the movie process, Walter Murch knew it was important to find the perfect Dorothy. Murch took 10 months to search in 8 different cities, auditioning 1500 young girls. He eventually found Fairuza, a 9-year-old from Vancouver.
      • Fairuza was not only a great actress, but she was the same age as the Dorothy character in the books. They dressed her in drab farm clothes to drive home her plainness, this was an every-day girl, lost in an extraordinary land
      • Fairuza did her own stunts, really only being afraid of the scene where the Gump jumps off the balcony, because it was similar to a roller coaster.
    • She is also known for The Craft, American History X, The Waterboy, and Almost Famous!
    • Fun fact: Disney had to pay a large licensing fee in order to use the image of ruby slippers for Dorothy, since the red shoes were unique to the 1939 movie!
  • Piper Laurie as Aunt Em
    • Known for The Hustler, Carrie, and Twin Peaks from 1990-1991.
  • Justin Case as the Scarecrow
    • He has very few credits, but he was also in Superman 3 and Hamlet (1990). Through he is best known for Return to Oz.
  • Nicol Williamson as Dr. J.B. Worley and the Nome King
    • He was the leading role of a different version of Hamlet from 1969. He was also in six episodes of Masterpiece Theatre: Lord Mountbatten.
    • He described the Nome King as being an English Pantomime with an over the top performance.
  • Matt Clark as Uncle Henry
    • He can be found in a few westerns from the 1970’s such as Jeremiah Johnson and The Outlaw Josey Wales. But we know him as Chester the Bartender in Back to the Future 3 which is very fitting!
  • Jean Marsh as Nurse Wilson and the main head, of the multi-faced Princess Mombi
    • Like we said before, there were quite a lot of terrifying villains in Return to Oz, but one that continues to stay burned on our retinas is Princess Mombi and her glass cases filled with human heads.
      • Mombi stole the heads from the beautiful women of Oz, and switches them based on her mood, and sleeps headless.
      • There was apparently a deleted scene, where Princess Mombi chased Dorothy while headless, that was omitted from many versions! 
    • Other heads were portrayed by Sophie Ward and Fiona Victory. The latter being the one that says to Dorothy, “I believe I’ll lock you in the tower for a few years till your head is ready. Then I’ll take it!”
    • Jean plays a similarly evil role as Queen Bavmorda in 1988’s Willow, a less successful George Lucas film.


  • Since the original Oz books were published, there have been many theories about hidden meanings within the stories, and their connection to American politics of the late 19th century.
    • Cue all the history teachers talking about the gold and silver standard AKA the Yellow-Brick Road and Silver Slippers.
  • But, these theories have never been confirmed or proven, and they remain to be speculation. However, there is no denying that Return to Oz (and possibly the Oz books themselves) contained complex themes involving mental illness.
  • In the 1939 Wizard of Oz AND in Return to Oz, the films made a very distinct creative choice: They had actors play roles in both “Kansas” and “Oz.” 
    • This is interesting, because it hints at the idea that Dorothy has used the influences of her world to create the fantastic people and creatures in the land of Oz. BUT, Dorothy doesn’t think that Oz is a dream, at least not in the 1985 version of the story. 
      • Auntie Em sees Dorothy’s delusions as a problem, and she seeks out a popular solution for the time period. Watching the movie now, it can be really easy to criticize her for bringing a young child to a mental institution. But Auntie Em seems to think that Dorothy’s visions and beliefs are causing her to be depressed. 
      • Depression is serious, and Dorothy does seem to be incredibly lonesome without the friends she met (or thought up) from Oz.
  • One prominent theory about Return to Oz, is that Dorothy may suffer from multiple personality disorder, which would explain the reason that she often sees another girl in the mirror. In her mind, this young girl is Ozma, the queen of Oz, but some think she could be the alternate version of Dorothy created in her mind.
  • Some believe it’s possible that Dorothy created Oz to deal with the loss of her home in the tornado. When she undergoes therapy in Return to Oz, a storm comes and gives her a chance to escape. But, what if Dorothy created the delusion of Oz to distract her from her treatment, and she really did undergo the electric shock? 
    • And this begs the question, what really happened that night? Auntie Em says that the institution burned to the ground, but the head nurse is being carted away in a prison, similar to the one Mombi was stuck in. What really happened that night? 
  • When Dorothy wakes up, Auntie Em seems remorseful for putting her in a dangerous situation. But in the end, when Dorothy sees Ozma in the mirror, she doesn’t tell Auntie Em, she knows to keep her “delusions” to herself. Is this the case of a child stifling her active imagination? Or is Dorothy in need of help that she may never receive? Or, of course, the third option, is that Oz does exist! 
  • After Dorothy is found safe and returns home, there’s a noticeable change with her Aunt and Uncle–As Uncle Henry seems to find the motivation to finally fix the house, and Auntie Em seems warmer toward Dorothy.


  • Some similarities and differences between the books and movie
    • The Marvelous Land of Oz
      • Dorothy is not in this book, and it instead focuses on a boy named Tip who serves an old self-proclaimed witch named Mombi. This is where the movie gets the name for the villain but it is not the same character. 
      • Tip is the character that creates a scarecrow looking character with a pumpkin head to play a joke on Mombi. Mombi ends up bringing the creature to life and he becomes Jack Pumpkinhead. Tip becomes friends with this creature made of sticks and they escape with the magic powder that brought him to life.
      • The Emerald City is taken over by a woman army led by General Ginger and the characters must flee the city where they find the Tin Man in the Land of the Winkies. 
        • Each of the original characters like the Tin Man and Lion became leaders of the different sections of Oz. Tin Man is leader in the Land of the Winkies and with his help they are able to run off General Ginger and her army from the Emerald City. Soon after though they are planning another escape away for fear that General Ginger will return. This is where they create “The Thing with a Gump’s head.” The palm leaves used to create him were venerated and if taken is punishable by death 7 times and then put in prison. The Gump helps the group but is embarrassed to be a mixture of items. 
        • Other things happen but they return to the Emerald City to defeat General Ginger and capture Mombi who knows the secret of where Ozma (the true heir to the Emerald City Throne) is. It is revealed that Mombi had changed Ozma into the boy Tip. So she had in fact been there the whole time. Near  the end of the book The Gump implores Ozma to take him apart as a reward, and so she does.
    • Ozma of Oz
      • The movie plot was mostly taken from this book where Dorothy has returned. Just as in the movie, the characters of the Nome King, The Wheelers, and Tik-Tok are introduced.
      • The second half of the movie character of Mombi comes from this book’s character Princess Langwidere. Her physical attributes are similar because she is also able to switch heads.. The difference however, is that Princess Langwidere’s personality changes with each head, meaning that with certain heads she can be good. The book is more preoccupied with the true villain of the Nome King who does not transform into rock like in the movie. 
      • The rest of the book is basically what the movie was but with a few other big differences. One is that Tik-Tok is given a bigger origin story. The next is that the story takes place in The Land of Ev which is next to Oz. And there is a tiger character that is always hungry, specifically for a baby but he knows that it is terrible. The final big difference was that the ending dragged out longer in the book because they must establish the new royalty and piece Oz back together.


  • Upon release, Return to Oz was not a critical darling. Many praised the movie for its faithful adaptation to the books, while others wondered about the seriousness of the material and whether it was suitable for children. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin said in her review “Children are sure to be startled by the film’s bleakness,” and others would say Dorothy’s friends are as strange as her enemies. This is faithful to the original Oz books, but it didn’t seem to translate to screen the way Murch intended 
    • The film debuted, earning almost $3 million opening weekend, finishing in seventh place. It grossed just over $11 million in North America, but today is considered to be a cult classic
    • Return to Oz received an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects, but lost to Cocoon. It additionally received two Saturn Award nominations for Best Fantasy Film.
    • However, it was quite popular in Japan! 
    • When it was released, Return to Oz made it into the Guiness Book of Records for the longest time between a sequel and its prequel, as it was released 46 years after The Wizard of Oz!

Return to Oz is one of those films you can often find on internet lists about movies that scarred us all for life. It was filled with menacing villains and grotesque imagery, with sometimes-creepy characters. Return to Oz was a special effects marvel, combining talent with ingenuity to create a completely believable complex world, that until 1985, only truly existed between the pages of L Frank Baum’s books. 

This movie shouldn’t be solely defined by its scary characteristics alone. It featured a lead character believed to be suffering from mental illness, a child no less, something that many children’s films would shudder to mention. Sure, Dorothy’s friends seem as strange as the villains, but that just teaches us not to judge people on looks alone. Dorothy loves her friends, no matter how odd they may seem. 

Return to Oz is dark and twisted, but uniquely enchanting. It spoke to a lot of children in a way that no other film had before, with complex themes and dark imagery–with a lovable group of misfits too odd for more mainstream audiences. Return to Oz is strange, but in the most wonderful way. 


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