The Return to Oz Documentary Is a Worthwhile Journey for the Ultra-Fan

An image from the film Return to Oz features from left to right: The Gump, while Tik-Tok and Dorothy sit on a couch, and Jack Pumpkinhead at the end.
The Gump, Tik-Tok, Dorothy, and Jack.

If you’re a kid of the 80s you are either very familiar with Return to Oz…or you’ve never heard of it. Such is its complicated legacy. The Disney film—which celebrated its 37th anniversary this past June—has such a devoted following that director Aaron Schultz and producer Aaron Pacentine created the documentary Remembering Return to Oz.

Remembering Return to Oz details how the film was made from almost every angle. There are two versions of the documentary currently available; the original/festival version (running 93 minutes long) and a director’s cut (137 minutes). According to one of their websites, “The ‘Director’s Cut’ is quite different from the Festival Version. It has 137 minutes of content, and is a bit rougher of a cut, but it delivers the best story the film’s director A Schultz wanted to tell.”

Since I have watched Return to Oz over 30 times (Halloween-time is usually when I pick it up each year) and even own some props from the film, I absolutely had to check it out. And you know I had to go all in and rent the director’s cut to make sure I didn’t miss anything!

What Is Return to Oz?

A screenshot from documentary Remembering Return to Oz features actor Fairuza Balk with a pair of ruby slippers to her left. She's got black hair in a bob style with bangs and is wearing a black and white horizontally striped shirt with a navy blue scarf.
Actor Fairuza Balk being interviewed next to ruby slippers for the Remembering Return to Oz documentary.

Return to Oz was directed by Walter Murch who—at the time of the film’s release in 1985—was already a favorite editor and sound designer in Hollywood working for the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas (remember this, it will come into play later). They, along with Steven Spielberg, all met in college. It was the first film Murch directed and, as it turns out, it would also be the only film he ever directed—with, unfortunately, “good” reason. Disney never truly supported Return to Oz, the film was not a success at the box office, nor was it liked by most critics. But, if this documentary is any indication, there was no shortage of love from those who made it.

Working from a screenplay by the late Gill Dennis (Walk the Line), Murch set out to do the impossible: make a sequel to the beloved Wizard of Oz adaptation starring Judy Garland. It was, however, not actually a sequel and the comparison would hurt the film in the long run. This story follows Dorothy Gale after her first visit to Oz and adapts L. Frank Baum’s second and third Oz books, The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz. With its use of claymation and puppetry, the film stands as a counterpart to similar, more famous, films of the decade like The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and The NeverEnding Story (Return to Oz even received an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects).

Remembering Return to Oz, a Documentary

The documentary features several interviews with Murch of course but also producers Paul Maslansky, Colin Michael Kitchens, the late Gary Kurtz, the late claymation director Will Vinton, and composer David Shire (Short Circuit). Additionally, actors Emma Ridley (Ozma), Pons Marr (Head Wheeler), Sophie Ward (Mombi II), Michael Sundin (the suit performer for Tik-Tok), the late Denise Bryer (voice of Belina), Justin Case (Scarecrow), and more were included. They also spoke with Brian Henson, who was a last-minute choice for the voice of Jack Pumpkinhead (puppeteered by Lyle Conway) and had wonderful insight into the whole process considering his background.

All of those who were interviewed had extremely vivid memories of their time working on the film–including, yes, Fairuza Balk (she rarely gives interviews). There were a lot of great anecdotes (hint: The Wheelers were impossibly silly off-camera) and many were stories I’d never heard before. A highlight was getting to hear Balk recount the casting process; she never thought she was going to get the gig and was actually upset when she did because it meant the other actor—the two had become great friends along the way—didn’t get it. Also…this is wild…Ridley explains that her voice was actually dubbed by Beatrice Murch, daughter of the director, because they wanted Ozma to sound American. (You can watch some really cool clips of this in practice in this video interview.)

An image from the film Return to Oz. Round, bronze mechanical soldier Tik-Tok holds the Head Wheeler captive while Dorothy interrogates him. The Wheeler is wearing a red and black striped bowtie and has elongated arms, Dorothy is holding her chicken Belina and is has her hair styled in  pigtails.
Tik-Tok holds the Head Wheeler captive while Dorothy interrogates him.

But one of the most interesting tidbits was an expansion of something I already knew. Two different instances of executive leadership changes at Disney meant the release of the film was not certain (Hollywood never changes) and Murch was even fired for a short period after the film fell behind schedule. In what can only be described as a true Hollywood story ready to be its own film (Call me!), George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppalo, and Steven Spielberg showed up on set to support Murch and even act as a buffer from Disney (Lucas went to England all the way from Japan!).

As an aside, two other fun Star Wars connections from this film: Drew Stuzan created the poster for Return to Oz and Murch is responsible for R2-D2’s name. True story! (But that one wasn’t from the doc, I found it on FilmFreakCentral while doing some research.)

Behind-the-Scenes Details

Like Murch, the documentary’s director Aaron Schultz has never directed a film before. Unfortunately, he didn’t have famous director friends to call in. If you’re a film buff or someone in the industry, it’s a little tough to watch the extended cut at times due to some technical issues. Interview lighting and set-ups look very different from one to the next and the audio levels are not equalized. But it may be something that doesn’t even register for other folks.

Also, some of those being interviewed were able to show behind-the-scenes pictures from their time on set—and we get a look at some fun storyboards—but unfortunately, there are no clips from the film itself, which hurts the documentary immensely. Because of rights issues, the team wasn’t able to use any of the original film which is the kind of thing that would normally be edited in while people are talking to move away from the static interview shot.

An image from the film Return to Oz featuring Jean Marsh's Mombi with her eyes closed in a tight space. She's only a head and is surrounded by bottles of potions, including the Powder of Life.
Jean Marsh as Mombi(‘s head) in Return to Oz.

Director Schultz explained on the Facebook page:

This is a fan film. We made it with the sole intent on getting this information out to the fans, as I thought there was a story to tell. Some participants in the film were professionally filmed, some were not. This was due to working around these very busy artist’s schedule, covid, etc. So we took what we could get. They were so wonderful to give us the interview in the first place. I felt it was best to use the footage we had instead of only using the professional footage.

Remembering Return to Oz is not about our notoriety as filmmakers, it’s about telling the story of the making of Return to Oz.

I made this movie with what little spare time I have in my personal life. It was exhausting at times. I wanted to make it for all of my friends who worked on Return to Oz. But I also wanted to make it for all of you, the fans, as I am one too.

Aside from the technical issues, there’s really only one disappointment to be had; namely that some of the actors involved in the film did not make an appearance. Jean Marsh (Mombi), Sean Barrett (the voice of Tik-Tok), Piper Laurie (Aunt Em), and a few other key players were unfortunately not involved for one reason or another. In the case of Nicol Williamson (the Nome King), he sadly passed away back in 2011. Otherwise, Remembering Return to Oz is a wonderful way to relive the cult fantasy film from an entirely new perspective.

The documentary was funded through out-of-pocket costs from the creators, Kickstarter, and many other donors so you can’t deny it was a labor of love; one that took a lot of time and effort and is sure to be enjoyed by Return to Oz fans. Sincerely, as a fellow fanatic, I thank you.

If you’d like to give Remembering Return to Oz a watch you can rent/buy the original version or the director’s cut. Murch’s Return to Oz is currently on Disney+ and able to be rented or purchased on pretty much every other service.