What’s Over the Rainbow?: Continuing Tales and RETURN TO OZ
10 June 2012
Have you ever wondered what happened to your favorite fairytale character(s) after the story you know him or her from ends?
What types of people did Hansel and Gretel grow up to be? What happened to the seven dwarfs after Snow White became queen? Did Rapunzel ever cut off her locks? Rumpelstiltskin, where are you now? They are the characters of our childhood, but they exist in such a narrow circumstance.
Have you ever wondered what happened to Dorothy after she clicked her ruby heals and returned to Kansas? In the early 1980s, forty-six years after Victor’s Fleming The Wizard of Oz (1939), Walter Murch’s Return to Oz (1985) gave an answer to the Dorothy question. Murch’s film takes Dorothy’s story further, putting her right back in Oz with old and new friends. In addition, the film picks up at least one other character, a monster of Greek mythology, and, like with Dorothy, Return to Oz takes the Greek Gorgon’s story beyond the ancient myth.
First, Return Oz follows Dorothy’s (Fairuza Balk) accidental trip back to the land of enchantment and mystery. Taking place six months after The Wizard of Oz ended, Dorothy is suffering nightmares and insomnia from her traumatic experience in Oz. In hopes of curing Dorothy, Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) takes her to a doctor. Dorothy is supposed to undergo rather extensive, and risky, medical treatment, but on the stormy night of the procedure the hospital is struck by lightning and the power goes out. A mysterious blonde girl appears amid the darkness and convinces Dorothy she must escape from the hospital. During this escape, Dorothy gets separated from the girl and passes out. When she wakes, she has returned to Oz, and, oddly, her chicken, Billina (Denise Bryer), is with her. Dorothy learns Oz has lost its enchantment, and is now a desolate, decrepit land. Even the Emerald City, which once radiated as Oz’s metropolis, is now ruined. The Nome King (Nicol Williamson), who is made of stone and desperately wants to be human by stealing humanity away from others, trapped the good Princess Ozma (Emma Ridley), Oz’s rightful ruler and the blonde girl from the hospital, and surreptitiously took her ruling power. Under his cruel rule, Scarecrow, Tinman, and Cowardly Lion have all been turned to household ornaments, robbed of the humanity they once possessed. Also, a witch, Mombi (Jean Marsh), and her crew, a mischievous gang called the wheelers, work under the Nome King, helping him destroy hope, happiness, and life in what’s left of Oz. Unable to accept Oz’s unfortunate condition, Dorothy and Billina, along with new friends Tik-Tok (Michael Sundin/Tim Rose/Sean Barrett), Jack (Stewart Larange), and Gump, vow to restore Oz to its previously prosperous state by rescuing Princess Ozma, and saving Dorothy’s old friends Scarecrow (Justin Case), Tinman (Deep Rose), and Cowardly Lion.
While it’s obvious Return to Oz takes Dorothy’s story further, it’s less obvious that, through the character of Mombi, Medusa, the most infamous of the three Gorgon sisters in Greek mythology, also has her story taken further. In Greek mythology, Medusa was a beautiful Athenian priestess to the goddess Athena. According to popular interpretations of the myth, Medusa’s beauty lured the gaze the sea god, Poseidon, who just so happened to be Athena’s greatest rival. Poseidon raped Medusa in Athena’s temple, which infuriated the goddess. As revenge on both Poseidon and Medusa, Athena transformed Medusa into a horrible monster. Physically, Athena turned Medusa’s exterior appearance into a corpse-like hag, and transformed her hair into seething snakes. Beyond the exterior, Athena cursed Medusa so that every living thing Medusa looked at would turn to stone. Because she could not live around humans, without killing them at a glance, Medusa was exiled from Athens to live a life of isolation as a monster. As if that punishment was not enough, Athena sent Perseus (who may have been married to Medusa before her fateful metamorphosis—scholars debate this detail), to behead Medusa and return the seething, disfigured head to Athena. Perseus was successful in this quest, making Athena even more powerful for possessing a head which still had the cursed power to turn onlookers to stone.
But, since Athena transformed Medusa from woman to monster, is it possible that even without her disfigured head Medusa’s her body could remain alive? A useless body stumbling around in isolation? It is possible within the fairytale world; after all, we all suspend our disbelief for stranger things.
Return to Oz’s Mombi continues the Medusa myth by suggesting what Medusa’s life might be like post-beheading. In fact, it’s not just post-beheading, it’s also thousands of years later, in the 1800s, when Return to Oz takes place. First, Mombi has the unique ability to steal women’s heads and wear them as her own, because hers has somehow become detached from her boy. True, she possesses her original head, which doesn’t quite fit with Medusa’s myth. However, Mombi’s real head, in case #31, is kept behind mirrored glass; all the other heads are kept behind clear glass, so they are visible to Mombi. Because her real head is the only one concealed, it suggests Mombi wants to hide this head, perhaps because she does not think it as beautiful as her others. If we approach Mombi as a continuation of the Medusa myth, it stands to reason Medusa got her head back, likely after Athena had no use for it. Perhaps it no longer has its cursed powers, or perhaps the Nome King took the head’s powers, which is why he can turn people to stone but Mombi cannot. Either way, Mombi has her head, but does not like to wear it. Maybe she avoids it because of the wild, snakes-like curls springing from it. Seems like Mombi’s original head brings up some hard feelings for her.
Another connection to the Medusa myth is Mombi’s extreme vanity. Her palace is full of mirrors and grand furniture befitting royalty. She spends her days fussing over her appearance and wandering around her golden rooms. In her stunning and immense dressing room, Mombi entertains herself with her collection of heads in their glass cases. Some women change their clothes, but Mombi changes her heads and gazes at herself in all the mirrors. This excessive vanity is exactly what got Medusa in trouble in the myth. Moreover, Mombi vainly surrounds herself with luxury, even though she lives all alone in a decrepit land.
This is yet another connection to Medusa; Mombi lives in isolation. She is completely cut off from the world. Some of the only things outside her palace are stone statues. The statues represent people who have been turned to stone. The film says the Nome King turned the people to stone, but, nevertheless, Mombi has made herself at home among these stone corpses. In Medusa’s myth, countless people dare come to Medusa’s lair to behead her before Perseus is successful; thus, Medusa is accustomed to living amid stone corpses. If Mombi is Medusa’s continuation, it makes sense she continues to live amid these stone corpses. In fact, some of the stone statues are missing heads, signifying Mombi took the heads of these women prior to their death. The connection to Medusa is made stronger because these headless statues are Greek-like, meaning the bodies of the women are dresses in traditional Greek garb.
The only other thing outside Mombi’s palace are the wheelers, frightening and troublesome creatures who have wheels for hands and feet. The wheelers wear helmets, and these helmets look just like Medusa; the helmets reveal horribly disfigured faces and have longs snake-like cords as hair. Because the wheelers work for Mombi—they are her pawns—wearing the Medusa image on their helmets is another reference connecting Mombi with Medusa.
Certainly Mombi is not a perfect continuation of the Medusa character from Greek mythology, but the similarities between the two are undeniable. And, it makes sense; in a film that is designed to continue a character’s fictional journey, it’s clever to have characters from other stories (or myths) pulled in, allowing elements of several character’s stories to be continued as well. Even the character of Jack in Return to Oz seems to be the physical inspiration for Jack in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Again, the parallels between the two Jacks are far from perfect, but The Nightmare Before Christmas’ Jack brings the connotation of Return to Oz’s Jack to the forefront for viewers. This idea of continuing characters is a comforting thought, as it suggests the infamous, memorable characters of yesteryear will, in some way, continue into the future, and are able to adapt to a new generation of audience expectations.