Expectations can be a tricky thing to manage, and 1985’s Return to Oz is a great example of this. As a “sequel-in-part” to the beloved 1939 Technicolor music The Wizard of Oz, moviegoers and critics were doubtlessly expecting something as breezy and singsong from Return to Oz. What they got instead was a deliciously dark take on Oz and a relatively faithful adaptation of original author L. Frank Baum’s third Oz novel, Ozma of Oz. While the 1939 original wasn’t without its moments of darkness, Return to Oz‘s psychiatric hospital, head-stealing witch, and Will Vinton-animated demonic Nome King were too much for people with the wrong expectations. It died a quick box-office death as part of Disney’s disastrous flirtation with large-scale dark fantasy in the summer of 1985 (opening just one moth after The Black Cauldron), and Return to Oz had to wait for home video to find its adherents among devotees of dark 1980s fantasy films.
The post-Star Wars salad days of the 1980s were a time when many composers were able to try their hand at large-scale sci-fi/fantasy scores, and for Return to Oz the producers made an interesting choice: David Shire. Shire had a rich history of working in film, television, and musical theater as a composer and arranger, but there was little in his back catalog to recommend him for an epic dark fantasy (much less one based on a universally-beloved property). Though classically trained, Shire’s scores had mainly been gritty, realistic affairs like The Conversation and The Taking of Pelham 123; he was probably best-known at the time for Saturday Night Fever. The only sci-fi/fantasy film of any note he had tackled prior to Return to Oz was 1984’s 2010: The Year We Make Contact, which had featured a rich orchestral denouement but had been largely synthesized. Nevertheless, Shire was inked to the project and, with a substantial budget at his disposal, recorded his score with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Shire provides a lush score, largely string-led, that is rich with complex, long-lined themes and motifs. His main idea in the score, introduced in “Dorothy Remembers” and given its fullest outing in “Finale and End Credits,” is a dark yet gorgeous string fantasia reminiscent of the most troubled parts of Trevor Jones’s The Dark Crystal and David Newman’s The Brave Little Toaster. The amount of clarity and depth in the orchestrations is particularly impressive, with the LSO acquitting itself particularly well. For all Shire’s use of electronics before and after, they are a relatively minor part of the overall sound, primarily limited to shimmering synths to back the acoustic ensemble, with some menacing textures in “Dorothy and the Nome King” as the only time they take center stage.
Return to Oz isn’t an action film, but there are moments of surprising depth and power. The towering organ-led “Flight in the Storm,” for instance, resoundingly accompanies the asylum escape sequence. “The Defeat of the Nome King” mixes intense and swirling strings with fierce and atonal music for the special effects sequence at the end of the film. “The Flight of the Gump” offers much lighter and optimistic action, a thrilling piece of major-key escape music that recalls the soaring music John Williams would later write for Prisoner of Azkaban. The music is thematically rich as well (and even moreso in the movie), with distinct motifs for Oz, Ozma, Tik-Tok, Mombi, the Gump, and the Nome King constantly weaving in and out of the work.
Despite the dark fantasy aspects of Return to Oz being the primary attraction of the score (and, for many, the film), it is not the only component of the score. Shire also composed a bright ragtime piece to represent the brighter side of Oz, as heard in the concert cue “The Return to Oz Rag March.” It’s a fine piece of music on its own, and the only time that Shire’s music even approaches the affable sound of The Wizard of Oz, but it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the score’s lush fantasy sound. In several tracks, most notably “The Defeat of the Nome King,” the sudden shift to the Rag March gives the music a schizophrenic character, and compared to the lighter music in “The Flight of the Gump” the various appearances of the Rag March seem abrupt and rather jarring. The choice of ragtime is a little odd in and of itself, perhaps a nod to the musical style that was most popular during Oz author L. Frank Baum’s 1900-1919 career writing the books, but Shire implements the idea with gusto.
Sadly, David Shire would never have the opportunity to write in such a hugely symphonic fantasy mode again; while there are a few sci-fi projects on his later resume like Short Circuit and episodes of Amazing Stories, his career declined rapidly throughout the 1990s and what little work he was able to get was closer in tone to The Conversation than Return to Oz. And despite the high quality of Shire’s score, the movie’s box-office failure has made its music difficult to come by for years. One of the few scores released by electronic music label Sonic Atmospheres, Return to Oz was pressed to LP in 1985 in a 50-minute presentation, but the score was difficult to find from the outset. It fell to independent musical label Bay Cities to finally release the score on CD in 1990, but even then relatively few copies were made and the album tends to fluctuate wildly in price as copies become more or less scarce. Still, the album–any album–is well worth seeking out by lovers of high-quality, lush, and dark 1980s fantasy scoring (a sound that is in short supply these days).