What was Disney thinking?! Odds were stacked against RETURN TO OZ(1985) from the beginning. Imagine the “bizarro world” episode of Seinfeld and you have some idea of the uneasiness provided by this quasi-sequel to THE WIZARD OF OZ.
No matter that the creators returned to the original books of L. Frank Baum, which were now in the public domain. The yellow brick road had crumbled and the Emerald City lay in ruins. Fairuza Balk is no Judy Garland, though she creates her own interesting characterization. A talking hen, a metallic wind-up general, a Tommy Tune-esque jack-o-lantern, and a flying sofa led by a moose head could not compete with fond memories of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. The film was lambasted by critics and audiences stayed away in droves, though it has since gained a cult following.
On the plus side, the film contains some interesting geological special effects and makeup for the Gnome King. The true star of the film, however, remains David Shire’s score.
In an interview with David Kraft in Cinemascore magazine at the time, Shire explained, “I tried to find models for each theme from American music that the character of Dorothy could have heard, since the story is, in a sense, Dorothy’s dream—she’s creating it. I wanted the score to have a truly American flavor and even though symphonic, to employ various interesting smaller combinations within that texture. I also wanted each of the ‘little’ characters to have a characteristic small ensemble sound and pit all of them against the larger symphonic forces that mostly represent the ‘large’ forces of evil (the Nome king and Mombi) that they are up against.”
Shire wrote three themes for Dorothy. The “Home Theme” is “hymn-like—much like something Dorothy would have heard at Sunday services,” said Shire. Dorothy’s main theme and the theme for her alter-ego, Ozma, were, based on a suggestion from director Walter Murch, designed to work together in counterpoint.
And it is that counterpoint at the end of the film that provides the high point of the score. The two themes intertwine first in a duet between solo violin and cello as Dorothy and Ozma meet in the mirror in Dorothy’s bedroom. As the end titles crawl across the screen, Shire scores the themes for full orchestra in a highly emotional cue that provides a poignant end to an otherwise mediocre and unemotional film.
I was first introduced to Shire’s score in the chamber music suite on David Shire At the Movies, a delightful version of the score in its own way. The original soundtrack has long been out of print and commands top dollar on eBay, and rightfully so. Return to Oz is arguably Shire’s finest work, and certainly one of the best scores of the 1980s.