Between Botany and Alchemy: A Return to Return to Oz

By

The boy with the birthmark hasn’t collected enough. He sits in his room during the twilight hour, between his times for botany and alchemy, his day and night. Outside, there are vegetable roots taking hold in shallow soil. Inside, puppet strings are being untangled very carefully. It’s always a process.

There are no imaginary friends like you’d think. There are only ideas of dark magic, especially creating a means to bring life to the inanimate. Smiles always have to be painted on.

He wants more; of course he does. He already has Spain, the Czech Republic, and Germany but he needs characters from every corner of the world. It’d have to be like the jamboree his school hosts every October.

*

As far as I knew, no one knew about Return to Oz [1985]. I can’t even recall an origin story, how the movie actually showed up in my hands. My sister claims we just found the VHS somewhere, maybe in an overlooked bin, at some video store that may have been Blockbuster. I do remember looking at the cover and knowing immediately that I wanted it. We went home and watched it. And watched it again. And watched it again. And watched it. Again.

This is an Oz you might unfamiliar with. The film begins with Dorothy Gale—the same Dorothy character previously played by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, but now played by a younger Fairuza Balk—shortly after her return to Kansas. Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are growing concerned with Dorothy’s inability to sleep, and what they see as her obsessive delusions, this odd fixation on a place she’s created in her head. In order to help cure her, they bring her to a mental institution to be treated overnight via electroshock therapy. It’s nighttime, it’s raining, and Dorothy can hear the howls of other patients in pain.

This unexpected premise resonated with me as a child. At that age, I felt just as Dorothy did—misunderstood to the point of feeling like an alien, finding home only in imagined worlds. I was brought to see a psychiatrist for similar reasons. Why this obsession with the imagined? Where was reality? I was always more concerned with my inner world than socializing with the other kids around me. So prone to fantasy, I hardly even noticed my peers. In pictures, always looked both meek and haunted. My eyes darted elsewhere.

*

The boy’s father makes him a stage for his marionettes out of an old refrigerator box. A window is cut and punched out, small kitchen drapes are used for the curtains. He puts on shows for his family like the ones he saw in Pinocchio and charges everyone for admission. He isn’t a bad person though. He won’t be like that puppet master. He certainly won’t turn into a donkey.

Perhaps there’s a method to wish away the strings, to have a pull without directing, to set things in motion organically. He is encouraged by his mother, who told him stories about how he saw the shadows of his deceased grandfather in the hallways of their old pink house. He is encouraged by correctly guessing the scores of baseball games, by receiving the highest score in ESP abilities for a class science fair project. Conclusion: There must be a way to channel these productive energies into something that draws breath, or at least causes breath to be stolen away. He’d collect these gasps like he collects his gemstones, coins, rosaries.

Bottles of breath, an underground lair for alchemy. Spell-weaving witch or scientist with a scrutinizing lens? He’d be both.

He can’t have normal friends, anyway.

*

Critics panned Return to Oz for being too dark for children, despite it being supposedly more faithful to the original book series by L. Frank Baum than the previous movie they lauded. Of course, because of these qualities, it was destined to become a cult classic.

Just in time, a mysterious girl shows up to rescue Dorothy from the asylum. They both flee from the nurse in a downpour and are swept down a river.

Dorothy wakes up in Oz. As she comes to her senses, she immediately realizes just how much everything has changed since she’s been gone: the Yellow Brick Road has been destroyed, the Emerald City is in ruins, and all her old friends have turned to stone. It’s a rather bleak portrait. Nonetheless, she begins a search to find the Scarecrow, skipping on stones across the Deadly Desert—the aptly named terrain that surrounds Oz and turns everyone who touches it to sand.

I loved how the movie indulged all my early fascinations with the weird and macabre. This was a world I wished I’d created myself. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory had a similar effect on me. Children falling down garbage shoots for being privileged brats? Why yes, please. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie was another influence. Mysterious murders prophesied in nursery rhymes! At the time, I was already writing books of my own, all of them featuring characters dying or disappearing in the most unusual ways I could think of. There was a lot of tasty retribution. I hoped Edward Gorey would approve of my books. I remember one having the title: THE QUICKSAND, HELP!!! I had a pseudonym that was just my last name with extra letters tacked on at the end. I had a vision.

It keeps going. Dorothy learns about ominous figures with very powerful dark magic—they are the ones responsible for Oz’s transformation. Princess Mombi is the first she meets—an enchantress with interchangeable heads. She stole the heads from some of the statues outside the palace and keeps them alive with her Powder of Life. They sleep in cabinets. It’s a museum of heads. Her original head is the head of the terrifying nurse who had Dorothy strapped down at the mental institution. It’s located in cabinet #31—the same number of Dorothy’s hospital room.

This was one of the more startling moments for me—when fantasy so gracefully blurs into reality, when dreams become symbols. When you realize this may be Dorothy’s only way of escape from the adults who don’t understand her. How she has these same adult antagonists even in her dreams, how she has to fix what has come undone because of the damage they have caused. How she always has to return, regardless.

The Nome King is responsible for stealing all the emeralds in Emerald City and turning its inhabitants to stone. He is made from stone himself, an actual cliff face, his movement and expressions all conveyed through clay animation. He is even more powerful than Mombi, with the ultimate goal of erasing all life and becoming completely human himself in the process. The source of his incredible magic comes from something Dorothy left behind: her ruby slippers, a single glimmer of color in this desolate wasteland.

*

The boy turns to spell-making. He watches movies like Mary Poppins, The Brave Little Toaster, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. All of them feature different ways of breathing life into what was originally only raw material, sometimes even junkyard heaps. “Substitutiary Locomotion,” that’s what Angela Lansbury calls it. Giving life to the inanimate. But of course, all this magic movement comes with a steep price or dire consequence—you could lose control, your power could outgrow you, you could die from laughing. You are playing god with your creations, and that could be a problem.

It doesn’t matter. The boy would consume all the darkness he could, all the underpinnings and underbellies you could imagine. He’d take these sources and come up with his own method. They had to have a pattern, they had to point somewhere. He’d take, and make and make and make.

*

Dorothy assembles a crew to aid her in her quest to restore Oz: her chicken Billina (who can now talk), a wind-up robot named Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead, Princess Ozma (“the rightful ruler of Oz”), and the Gump (a chimera of assembled furniture and a deer’s head sprinkled with Mombi’s Powder of Life).

When Dorothy first meets Tik-Tok, she reads the instructions for winding him up and a description on the back of him: Does everything but live. Once he gets going, he introduces himself as part of the Royal Army of Oz and gloats, “I am not alive and never will be, thank goodness.” That’s when he becomes my favorite character.

After their escape from Mombi, Dorothy and her posse confront the Nome King. They finally meet the Scarecrow, but in a flash, he’s gone. The King has turned him into an ornament, a new addition to his private collection that he has hoarded with all the emeralds. He asks Dorothy to play a game: ifs he and her friends can guess which ornament the Scarecrow is, Oz will be restored. They’re given three guesses each.

It’s not until the Gump has failed to guess correctly that Dorothy realizes the catch: if you fail, you’ll become yet another ornament in the King’s collection. Here we have a dangerous gamble in an already bleak situation. This particular scene seems like one that kids growing up in the 80s would later mistake for a dream from their childhood as adults. They remember the ornament room. They know the color green is important.

I was transfixed by this point: a game of sinister magic and dire consequences. The King’s collection of knickknacks rivaled my own. As her friends fail the test, the wicked King becomes more and more human, as if he’s absorbing their life essence. The clay animation becomes an actual person.

Real life comes knocking again: in his most human form, the King is easily recognized as the same actor who plays the psychiatrist that helps to cure Dorothy of her delusions.

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Services provided by Birthmark Boy’s Apothecary & Alchemy Lab:

1.Identify stones: FREE
2. Untangle strings: $2.50
3. Convert stone garden to string bean garden: $3.50
4. Convert dark dreams to booklets: 3 rough emeralds
5. Convert wooden characters to multi-faceted diamonds: a brand new Lego set

*

The final intrusion from the outside world: Dorothy realizes that Ozma is the same girl that saved her from the asylum. This is the first time she verbally acknowledges a person she left behind in Kansas. It is also this moment when she realizes she must return once again.

The girl from the asylum was lost underwater as she helped Dorothy escape the clutches of the head nurse. Ozma was trapped in a mirror by Mombi. That satisfying blur arrives again, the parallels. Perhaps the otherwise unnamed girl at the asylum actually drowns and the dream of Oz is really just a young girl’s way of dealing with death.

We must be reminded: this is a Walt Disney movie. There is a return to normalcy. There is a reunion with Toto. Aunt Em and Uncle Henry don’t seem too worried about Dorothy anymore, just glad that she’s home safe again. Regardless, we know Dorothy will continue to visit the world of Oz, even if she has to keep it a secret. This is unfortunate and perhaps lonely, but the idea that Oz will always be waiting to greet her is what made this movie strangely comforting to my childhood self and serves as a reminder to my adult self. A reminder of dreams serving as stepping stones to that quiet sanctum—apothecary, alchemy lab—to create freely, as I wish.

*

The boy brings other friends into this world he creates for himself. He gives them the benefit of the doubt. They believe in his ESP and ghosts; they like his magic tricks. They help make a haunted house out of his puppet stage for Halloween.

He stops going to the psychiatrist entirely—that is, until he grows up and learns about panic attacks. Panic attacks, it turns out, are not heart attacks.

The boy is man is boy, and he is not quite dying yet. He is using his life to create. He wonders if there are more inhales or exhales, whether these would be reactions to any of his work.

He gives his latest creation a voice: “I am not alive, and never will be, thank goodness.”

He wonders where it came from but he trusts it anyway.


Joseph Dante is a writer residing in South Florida. His writing has been featured in PANK, Pear Noir!, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. He's been a reader for literary journals Hobart and Keyhole Magazine. His writing has been nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net anthology. You can find him online at http://josephdante.com. More from this author →