Monday, November 04, 2013

Would you please check my head for signs of spoiling?

The stuff nightmares are made of.

Return to Oz is one of my favorite movies ever.  I'm convinced most people who say they don't like the film have likely never seen it, or they're simply die-hard Judy Garland fans who can't accept an Oz that's not in three-strip Technicolor.  But if you were a kid within the last 35 years, the odds are pretty high that you like it—and even higher that you love it.

The movie has beautiful art direction, one of the finest scores in its genre, topnotch acting, quotable lines a-plenty (one of which is the title of this post), and Academy Award-nominated "practical" visual effects like puppetry, animatronics, stop-motion animation, matte paintings, big real sets on big real sound stages, and absolutely no "computer-generated" anything. This movie had a gigantic influence on me when I was getting into production design.   Oh, did I's also deliciously creepy!

Jack Pumpkinhead mechanized "trolley puppet" operated by Jim Henson's son, Brian.

But I'm not about to argue the film's merits because, here on my blog, things I like are unanimously accepted to be 100% awesome from beginning to end except for the scenes with the Wheelers.

Some backstory: In the spring of 1985, the Disney Studio had high hopes for a summertime blockbuster.   As was the custom in those days, there were consumer products and promotions galore tied to the release.  There were Little Golden Books, Topps bubble gum cards,  plush hand-puppets from Smuckers Jelly, an obligatory Dunkin' Donuts "Munchkins" tie-in, and even a New York engagement at Radio City Music Hall, complete with a musical stage show starring the Rockettes®.   

Meanwhile here in Anaheim, Disneyland's Entertainment-Art Department was drawing up plans for an "Oz" addition to the Main Street Electrical Parade with brand new music tracks by Don Dorsey and, most exciting of all, a float displaying some of the actual character costumes and puppets used in the movie itself.

Oh admit it... Given half the chance, you would put the pumpkin on your head too.
And so, here's the honest reason for this post....I've secretly hoarded the following photos for over 25 years, and it's time to share them with the world. As several enormous boxes from England's Elstree Studios arrived in Los Angeles, the shredded newspaper used as packing material was removed and the contents laid out for photo documentation.  Let's start with one of my favorites, Jack Pumpkinhead!

The Jack Pumpkinhead costume
There were actually three life-sized Jacks in the film; two were puppets and one was a 7-foot body costume worn by a skinny street mime named Stewart Larange.  The pumpkin head was cast rubber, and the actor was able to see out through the narrow slice of Jack's teethy grin.

"Shoulder joints" designed to look like wooden sticks lashed together with twine, stuck out through holes in Jack's polka-dotted shirt.

Shoulder "joint"

The little sprig of silk leaves placed on Jack's vest (above) must've broke loose from the pumpkin stem on top of his head.  I'm doubtful it ever got replaced properly.

Rubber "bark" texture surrounds Jack's leggings...and check out those fantastic handmade shoes with jute laces. I want a pair of those!

The human performer's neck and chin were obscured in a leather wrap, also resembling wood bark.


These incredible long rubber gloves look just like stick 
arms, and have more faux wooden joints at the elbows.

Fascinating stuff, huh?  The craftsmanship in every detail of these characters is so good.

So, going back to our story....the movie, unfortunately, was not the whopping success it was hoped to be and, combined with the now-infamous episode of the Electrical Parade "Oz" float nearly burning up, the characters were packed back into their boxes and stored in Disneyland's offsite Olive warehouse for several years, basically forgotten.  In 1988, I helped prepare several of the characters—the Gump, Tin Man and Tik-Tok—for their journey to Orlando for display at the soon-to-open Disney-MGM Studios park.

But Jack's crate sat around in the warehouse for a few more years, until... at a Halloween event in 1995 I was shocked to witness this "high-spirited specter" in green leotards dancing in a "go-go cage" in Tomorrowland!  By this time, his true identity was so obscure, he could easily be dismissed for any old go-go dancing jack-o-lantern.

But not for long.  A whole generation of little kids had already been collectively freaked out by the movie (thanks to home video) and were in the process of growing up haunted by nightmares of headless princesses, insane asylums run by evil doctors, and Emerald citizens turned to stone.  Today the movie has a massive following (some would say a "cult") and I believe the unique appeal of "Return to Oz" will eventually earn it classic status. As recently as this past August a collection of  props and costumes were exhibited as part of a larger "Oz" display at the D23 Expo in Anaheim.   Jack's head was there, too, wide-eyed and grinning—and with absolutely no signs of spoiling.


Read Part Two: The Tin ManRead Part Three: The GumpRead Part Four: Tik-Tok


davidbird said...

Great article and amazing photos of the costume! I enjoyed the movie too! I loved the mechanical aspect of some of the steampunk style way before its time.

Davelandweb said...

Love this movie; it gets dark and a little creepy, and does a nice job of introducing some characters from the book.

Susie said...

RETURN TO OZ! This was is my favorite movie! Yes it IS terrifying but in all the best ways. I want to hug tick tock.

Bill Jones said...

Great article... fascinating . I love this movie as well. I think it is more faithful to the work of L. Frank Baum (not that the MGM isn't wonderful

Britni Brault said...

For a recent 80's themed gallery show I was going to create a headless Mombi, surrounded by her different encased heads, but I didn't know how much of a following the movie had. I chose something different but I am sure I will have another opportunity. Thank you for the post.

Kevin Kidney said...

Thanks everyone!

Britni, you should definitely do a Mombi piece. I'd love to see that!

Dan fuso said...

Return to Oz doesn't get hlf the kudos it deserves. They brought to life Jack, TikTok the Gump and Billina perfectly! Some say its too scary, but they must have forgotten how scary the wicked witch of the west and the winged monkeys were in the original! Love this movie!

Daniel E. Smith said...

I am totally with you Kevin. I have always loved "Return to Oz". I so loved the score also that I searched for a recording of it and was at first unsuccessful because Disney had evidently dismissed it. Having seen the Electrical Parade "Oz" section I tracked down a cassette copy of the parade version that came from the float.(I still have it) That had to suffice for a time until David Shire, the composer, produced his own album release of the sound track. A stunning recording. Thanks so much for the article. I look forward to reading more.

Bridget Dash said...

Can't be helped

Ian Juhl said...

I loved this movie and the Judy Garland one as been on tv so much I don't even care to see it. I love it when old treasures are rediscovered. Thanks for sharing.

makman said...

Thanks for posting this, it was a film that was a joy to work on. (I also got married halfway through the production). This was the first time I worked with Brian Henson and we went on to do many more movies together.

makman said...

By he way, I'm in that procession photo. The short guy in blue on the left.

Rich T. said...

Thank you so much for posting this photo record! I love Return to Oz, especially the character designs. The asylum scene might have been a bit too mature-themed (I can't imagine Baum being okay with that bit), but the film's got so many strengths that RtO definitely deserves to be considered a Disney classic.

Jane Albright said...

Completely looking forward to the Return to Oz theme conventions of the International Wizard of Oz Club in 2015. Some of us cannot get enough!

Alex Blasingame said...

Wonderful pictures, thanks for sharing! Return to Oz is one of my favorite movies too. I used watch it on Laser Disc all the time when I was a kid.

What's wrong with the Wheelers? You behave!