It’s enthralling as well as rambling, you do miss the songs, but there is clearly no place for them here. Best to see them as individual films with nothing in common apart from source material, one a classic, the other a strong enough picaresque amongst some decent fabulation.
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It's bleak, creepy, and occasionally terrifying. Studio pressure apparently forced Murch to back off from the full fury of his conception, but this is still strong stuff.
The Nome King looks like a moveable Mt. St. Helens and he alone is magical. In fact, he blows Dorothy and her tacky-looking friends off the screen. So we end up liking the Nome King and hating Dorothy and her crowd, which I doubt was the intention of the L. Frank Baum series. [21 Jun 1985, p.1]
The inventiveness that has gone into this, and into turning Oz into a land of lavish special effects, will be lost on anyone with a fondness for the 1939 musical classic. That film will always enchant adults and children alike. This joyless new Return to Oz isn't likely to appeal to the former, and may give many of the latter a good scare. Children are sure to be startled by the new film's bleakness.
The Disney people have taken such obvious care in making Return to Oz that it's a shame it didn't turn out better. It has its moments - mostly visual - but when it isn't a grim downer, it's largely inert. [21 Jun 1985, p.21]
Dorothy's friends are as weird as her enemies, which is faithful to the original Oz books but turns out not to be a virtue on film, where the eerie has a tendency to remain eerie no matter how often we're told it's not. [22 Jun 1985, p.E3]
The makers of Return to Oz say that their rather bleak, nonmusical fantasy is more faithful to Mr. Baum's vision than "The Wizard of Oz" was. What's appropriate, however, isn't always what's right. All Ms. Balk can do is look earnest and young; Ms. Garland opened her mouth and out came Dorothy's soul.
Kids probably will enjoy portions of Return to Oz, but at best, it's a mechanical movie that never finds a real heart to engage an audience. [21 Jun 1985, p.79]
Everyone who grew up with the full range of the Oz books is deeply in Murch's debt. However, the framework surrounding Return to Oz is dark and, I suspect, terribly frightening for very young children. [21 Jun 1985, p.1]