Return to Oz, the terrifying sequel to Wizard of Oz, isn’t just disturbing. It’s also a brutally sad movie that attempts to look at the long-term effects of childhood trauma through the lens of a young girl trying to return to a fantasy world that’s been completely upended. This weird Wizard of Oz sequel fits into the canon of scary Disney movies that were either ahead of their time or just completely misguided. Like much of what happens in the land of Oz, whether you think the dark Disney movie Return to Oz is a miscalculation or a secret treasure is a matter of perspective.
Scary children's movies are a necessity. They prepare kids for the dark world waiting for them upon entering adulthood and they help them understand that not everything has a happy ending. But Return to Oz may have been a little too dark. It’s a film that leans into its Jim Henson meets David Lynch aesthetic from moment one and doesn’t let up until the credits roll. Keep reading to discover the most horrifying things about Return to Oz and beware the Wheelers.
Princess Mombi's Disembodied Heads
Return to Oz is full of existential horror, open ended questions about childhood trauma and its relation to depression, and the death of youth, but it also has a room full of screaming heads. After escaping the Wheelers, Dorothy finds herself in the burned out ruins of the witch Mombi's castle where she hangs out playing the lute all day while swapping out heads. There are two scenes where Dorothy is lead down a hallway of disembodied heads. The first is when it's revealed that Mombi is swapping heads in order to suit her moods. The heads are the imaginary counterparts to the disembodied voices living in the cellar of the insane asylum - each one calling out for something that they've lost.
Even if you don't connect those semiotic dots it's still horrifying to see a character walk into a room full of living heads, pull off her head, and then attach a decapitated head onto her neck. For a child this is basically a scene from a David Cronenberg film. The only thing that can top it is during Dorothy's second trip to the head hall when she bumps into head number one before it begins screaming "DOROTHY GALE!" The rest of the heads follow suit, fueling the nightmares of anyone under the age of 12.
Dorothy's Stay At The Asylum Is Nightmare Fuel
When Dorothy is brought to Dr. Worley's asylum the audience finally gets to experience the terror of Return to Oz at its most unhinged. Yes, the rest of the film features men on wheels, a headless woman, and a godlike mountain, but none of those plot points are as horrifying as seeing an 11-year-old girl strapped to a table in preparation to have her brains scrambled. The only moments of "levity" in the first third of the film come when the audience realizes that everyone and everything that they see in the asylum will make an appearance in the land of Oz.
Unfortunately that's lost on any children in the audience who are no doubt confused as to why Dorothy is disassociating and allowing her personality to split in two. Once locked in her chamber by Nurse Wilson, Dorothy stays herself while becoming a small blonde girl (later revealed to be Ozma) who only appears in the dark or in Dorothy's reflection. To underscore the horror of the asylum each scene is soundtracked with the screams of disembodied voices coming from the cellar.
The Film Opens With Dorothy Suffering From PTSD
Return to Oz picks up a few months after Dorothy returns to Kansas after murdering the Wicked Witch of the West and she's incredibly depressed. She can't eat. She can't sleep. She's a wreck. It's like she's in her 30s. Dorothy has been convinced by her Aunt Em that everything she experienced in Oz was a figment of her imagination, but the memories refuse to fade. Dorothy's Aunt believes that the only way to fix her is by sending the girl off to an asylum.
Dorothy never really gets over her visit to Oz/PTSD from surviving a tornado that leveled the countryside. Throughout the film it becomes obvious that even if Dorothy doesn't have PTSD she's absolutely clinically depressed. While watching this film as a child you realize that something is wrong with Dorothy but you don't have the emotional language to pinpoint the issue. It's only on the off chance of a grownup re-watch that you realize the sadness that consumed Dorothy. She's not happy anywhere, be it OZ or Kansas. When she's home she has to invent a world for herself that isn't painted in soul crushing sepia tones and when she's in Oz she has to create deadly problems for herself.
Tik-Tok's Slow, Slow Death
Throughout the film Tik-Tok, the one man army of Oz, is Dorothy's protector. He saves her from the Wheelers, helps fight off Mombi, and uses his mechanical noggin to try and stop the Nome King. Unfortunately every moment he's on screen he reminds the audience of their inevitable deaths. When Tik-Tok first wakes up he not only explains what happens to Emerald City, but he explains how he came to be a broken down hunk of metal in a secret room. He tells Dorothy: "I called for help until my voice ran down. Then I paced back and forth until my action ran down. Then I thought until my thought ran down." At one point he brags, "I am not alive and never will be." It must be freeing to be aware of the inevitability of your death and simply not care.