The plot focuses on an insomniac Dorothy, who returns to the Land of Oz only to discover that the entire country and its inhabitants are facing near extinction at the hands of a villainous king who dwells in a neighboring mountain. Upon her second arrival, she, alongside her pet hen, Billina, befriend a group of new companions, including Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead and the flying Gump. Together they set out on a quest to save Oz and restore it to its former glory.
Released on June 21, 1985 by Walt Disney Pictures, the film performed poorly at the box office, grossing $11.1 million in the United States against a $28 million budget, and received mixed reviews from critics. However, it performed well outside the U.S and is considered by fans as a more faithful adaptation of the book series than the 1939 classic, and has since acquired a cult following. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects.
In October 1899, six months after returning home from the Land of Oz, Dorothy Gale is melancholic. Her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry take her to Dr. Worley, known for his electrotherapy treatments, and leave her under the care of Nurse Wilson. During a thunderstorm, the lab suffers a blackout and Dorothy is saved by a mysterious girl. They escape with Nurse Wilson in pursuit, and fall into a river. Dorothy clambers aboard a chicken coop, but the other girl appears to have vanished underwater.
Upon awakening, Dorothy finds herself back in Oz with her chicken Billina, who can now talk. They find the Emerald City in ruins and its citizens (including the Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion) turned to stone. Pursued by Wheelers (humans who have wheels instead of hands and feet), Dorothy and Billina hide in a room accessed by a glyph key Billina earlier had found. They meet a mechanical man, Tik-Tok, who explains that King Scarecrow has been captured by the Nome King, a rock entity who is responsible for the Emerald City's destruction. The three visit princess Mombi in hopes of getting more information, but she is working with the Nome King and imprisons them.
Dorothy, Billina, and Tik-Tok meet Jack Pumpkinhead, who explains he was brought to life via Mombi's Powder of Life. Dorothy uses the powder to vivify the Gump, the head of a moose-like animal whose body they put together using two sofas, palm leaves, a broom, and rope. Using the Gump as transport, the group escapes and flies across the Deadly Desert to reach the Nome King's mountain. In his underground domain, the Nome King tells Dorothy that the Scarecrow stole the emeralds from him to build the Emerald City, and should be punished. He does not listen when Dorothy protests that the emeralds preceded the Scarecrow at the city. The Scarecrow has been turned into an ornament, and the group has three guesses each to identify which one he is, or they will be turned into ornaments themselves. The Gump, Jack and Tik-Tok each fail and are turned into ornaments. The Nome King gives Dorothy the chance to go home unscathed since he has her discarded ruby slippers, but Dorothy refuses to use them to leave her companions.
On Dorothy's last guess, she locates the Scarecrow, having deduced that people from Oz turn into green ornaments. The hunt for green ornaments yields Jack and Gump, but the enraged Nome King, who has trapped Mombi in a cage, confronts Dorothy and company and transforms in a monstrous form where he eats the Gump's couch body. He tries to eat Jack, but Billina, hiding in Jack's head, lays an egg in fright and it falls into the Nome King's mouth. Due to eggs being toxic to Nomes, the Nome King and his subterranean kingdom crumble to pieces all around Dorothy and her friends. Dorothy finds the ruby slippers and wishes she and her friends be returned to a restored Emerald City. There, they mourn the loss of Tik-Tok until Billina notices a green medal stuck to one of the Gump's antlers; Dorothy uses one more "guess" and Tik-Tok materializes.
At a celebration, Dorothy is asked to be Queen of Oz but refuses, realizing she must return to Kansas eventually. She learns that the girl who helped her escape the hospital is Princess Ozma, Jack's long-lost creator, and the rightful ruler of Oz, who had been enchanted by Mombi at the Nome King's request. Ozma forgives the no-longer-magical Mombi. She takes her place on the throne and Dorothy hands over the ruby slippers. Billina opts to stay in Oz. Ozma sends Dorothy home, promising that Dorothy is welcome to return.
Back in Kansas, Dorothy's family finds her on a riverbank. Aunt Em reveals that Worley's hospital was struck by lightning and burned down, and Worley died trying to save his machines. They see Nurse Wilson, arrested and locked in a cage on a horse buggy. Upon returning to the farmhouse, Dorothy sees Billina and Ozma peering at her through her bedroom mirror. When Dorothy entreats Aunt Em to come to her room to see Ozma, Ozma silently instructs her to keep her and Oz a secret.Fairuza Balk as Dorothy Gale
Nicol Williamson as Dr. Worley/Nome King
Jean Marsh as Nurse Wilson/Mombi
Piper Laurie as Aunt Em
Matt Clark as Uncle Henry
Michael Sundin & Tim Rose as Tik-Tok (puppeteers)
Sean Barrett as Tik-Tok (voice)
Mak Wilson as Billina(puppeteer)
Denise Bryer as Billina (voice)
Brian Henson & Stewart Larange as Jack Pumpkinhead (puppeteers)
Brian Henson as Jack Pumpkinhead (voice)
Lyle Conway & Steve Norrington as The Gump (puppeteer)
Lyle Conway as the Gump (voice)
Justin Case as the Scarecrow
John Alexander as the Cowardly Lion, Wheeler
Deep Roy as the Tin Woodman
Emma Ridley as the Girl at the hospital/Princess Ozma
Pons Maar as Lead Wheeler, Nome Messenger, and one of Nurse Wilson's assistants
Sophie Ward as Mombi II
Fiona Victory as Mombi III
Bruce Boa as Policeman
Tansy as Toto
Walter Murch began development on the film in 1980, during a brainstorming session with Walt Disney Productions production chief Tom Wilhite. "It was just a fishing expedition on both of our parts," Murch remembered. "But one of the questions he asked was, 'What are you interested in that you think we might also be interested in?', and I said, 'Another Oz story.'... And Tom sort of straightened up in his chair because it turned out, unbeknownst to me, that Disney owned the rights to all of the Oz stories. And they were particularly interested in doing something with them because the copyright was going to run out in the next five years."
The film is based on the second and third Oz books, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904) and Ozma of Oz (1907). The element about Tik-Tok being "The Royal Army of Oz" derives from Tik-Tok of Oz (1914), in which he is made the Royal Army of Oogaboo, and also makes frequent cries of "Pick me up!" That book was itself based on a dramatic production, The Tik-Tok Man of Oz (1913). Murch also used the book Wisconsin Death Trip as a historical source for the film.
Murch took a decidedly darker take on Baum's source material than the 1939 adaptation, which he knew starting out would be a gamble. Between the development period and actual shooting, there was a change of leadership at the Walt Disney studios (with Wilhite being replaced by Richard Berger), and the movie's budget increased. Once shooting began, Murch began to fall behind schedule, and there was further pressure from the studio, leading to Murch being fired as director for a short period. George Lucas and other high-profile filmmakers including Francis Ford Coppola supported Murch in discussions with the studio, and Murch was reinstated and finished the film.
The film was developed and produced without the involvement of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio behind the 1939 film. No approval was necessary, because by 1985, the Oz books on which it was based were in the public domain, and the subsequent Oz books had been optioned to Disney many years earlier. A large fee was paid, however, to use the ruby slippers, which were still the intellectual property of MGM at the time (as they had been created specifically for the 1939 film to replace the Silver Shoes of the original stories).
The film received mixed reviews upon its release. The film-critics aggregator Rotten Tomatoes records 55% positive reviews based on 22 reviews. Those who were familiar with the Oz books praised its faithfulness to the source material of L. Frank Baum. However, many critics described its tone and overall content as slightly too dark and intense for young children. "Children are sure to be startled by its bleakness," said The New York Times' Janet Maslin. Canadian film critic Jay Scott felt the protagonists were too creepy and weird for viewers to relate or sympathize with: "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." "It's bleak, creepy, and occasionally terrifying," added Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader. It earned $2,844,895 in its opening weekend, finishing in seventh place. It ultimately grossed $11,137,801 in North America.
The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects, but lost to Cocoon. Fairuza Balk and Emma Ridley were nominated for Young Artist Awards. It received two Saturn Award nominations for Best Fantasy Film (lost to Ladyhawke) and Best Younger Actor for Fairuza Balk (who lost to Barret Oliver for D.A.R.Y.L.).
The film's interpretation of Oz is featured in the Storybook Land Canal Boats attraction at Disneyland Paris. Amelie Gillette of The A.V. Club frequently refers to its dark nature as unsuitable for its intended audience of young children despite it being one of her favorite movies growing up.
Family Films Productions is producing a documentary about the movie, Remembering Return to Oz. The film features cast and crew sharing memories about the film. The film features the director Walter Murch, alongside Gary Kurtz, Paul Maslansky, David Shire, and other crew members. Fairuza Balk, Emma Ridley, Pons Maar, and other cast from the 1985 are also being featured. A short film, "Reflections in the Mirror" which is being labeled as a "spin-off" to Disney's Return to Oz was produced in August of 2017. A young man named Randy (Randy Bruce) knows that the Land of Oz is calling his name as he has a big obsession with the 1985 film, Return to Oz. After he goes to sleep - he goes on a journey and mysteriously finds different objects from the Land of Oz throughout a park. Later in the dream, we meet (older Randy) (Jason Smither) it is about 15 years later and Randy (now older) still enjoys the Return to Oz film. During the dream, he encounters even a headless witch. The film stars Randy Bruce as young Randy and Jason Smither as Randy 15 years later. Michael Williams, Producer of Ozland & The Atoning has praised the film saying, "Reflections in the Mirror" is an affectionate look at "Return to Oz" from the perspective of a true fan. It makes you want to revisit the original cult classic.
The film has been released to VHS, beta, laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-Ray over the years. The initial release, to VHS, laserdisc, and Beta, occurred in December 1985 shortly after the theatrical release, with the VHS initially priced with a list price of $79.95. Disney reissued it in 1992 with alternate cover art. In 1999, Anchor Bay Entertainment, who had obtained the home video rights to several titles from Disney's live-action catalogue, issued the film on full-screen and letterbox VHS, as well as a DVD release featuring both versions. All three releases featured an intro by Fairuza Balk before the film and an interview featurette with her after it. All three versions went out of print shortly after their release.
In 2004, Disney released their own DVD, which dropped the Anchor Bay disc's fullscreen version and added anamorphic enhancement for 16:9 TV's for the widescreen version, upgraded the audio to 5.1 surround, retained the Anchor Bay disc's extras, and added four TV spots and a theatrical trailer. In 2015, Disney released a 30th Anniversary Edition of the film on Blu-Ray exclusively through the Disney Movie Club, featuring a newly remastered and cleaned up transfer and DTS Master Audio 5.1 sound, but none of the bonus features from the 2004 DVD.