Foreign or Domestic – City Of Lost Children vs. Return To Oz

I’ve always enjoyed fantasy films. I grew up watching films like Labyrinth and Dark Crystal. In recent years other countries have turned out fantasy films with much darker themes, even being rated R. Most recently, Pan’s Labyrinth came to much acclaim. Directors like Guillermo del Toro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet have taken fantasy to places rarely seen in cinema. As such I began to wonder if an American made film came anywhere close to the levels of dark as Pan’s, or the film studied here The City Of Lost Children. I searched high and low coming up with little. Most good fantasy films like Time Bandits or Neverending Story all come from other countries. But through the rubble one film emerged that might stand up against these great foreign films. And that film is Return To Oz.

Director: Walter Murch
Notable Cast Members: Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson, Jan Marsh
Synopsis: Return To Oz takes place a few months after the original. Dorothy (now played by Balk) hadn’t been the same since and her Aunt and Uncle decides to send her to a hospital for shock therapy. Dorothy escapes the hospital and falls in a river only to wake up in Oz. Only things aren’t right here. The yellow brick road and the Emerald City have been destroyed. The Tin Man, the Lion and everyone else has been turned to stone and the Scarecrow is missing. So she sets off to find out what happened to Oz.

This time around she has a whole new enclave of friends and foes. Instead of Toto, her trust dog, she is joined by Billina her talking chicken. Along the way she meets Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead, and the Gump. Standing in her way are the creepy Wheelers who work for Princess Mombi who has the ability to change heads. She has a hallway of thirty or so heads making her one of the scariest villains in a children’s film. When Mombi is awakened and her headless body chases Dorothy down the hallway while all the heads scream, is enough to give any kids nightmares. But Mombi is not the big bad here, no that title goes to The Gnome King who is behind the destruction of Oz. Turns out he was a bit peeved when the emeralds were stolen from his mountain to build the Emerald City and he decided he wanted them back. Only Dorothy and her new friends can rescue Scarecrow and restore Oz to it’s former glory.

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro
Notable Cast Members: Ron Perlman, Dominique Pinon, Judith Vittet, Daniel Emilfork.
Synopsis:La Cité des Enfants Perdus, is a dark film with a few stories going on. Krank is a mad scientist who cannot dream. So with the help of several clones he kidnaps the children of the local town in hopes to steal their dreams. But the children are scared and he only has nightmares. La Pieuvre are Siamese twins who orchestrate a group of children to go steal for them. The leader of these thieving children is Miette. While out stealing they meet stronge man, One. One is upset because Krank has kidnapped his companion Denree, who he calls little brother. A religious cult called the Cyclops; men who give up their site and hearing for their religion are responsible for kidnapping the children. They then trade the children to Krank for equipment the Cyclops use that allows them to see and hear again. Feeling sorry for One Miette decides to help him rescue Denree. Confused yet? Along the way they meet Le Scaphandrier who turns out to be the original of Kranks clones and decides to blow up Kranks laboratory. All of these crazy stories come together in one strange and explosive ending that serves bettering being seen that being explained.

Comparison criteria:

1. Acting:

Return To Oz: This was Balks first starring role and for young girl her acting is pretty good. For those who have seen the original Wizard Of Oz (and seriously, who hasn’t?) she does a great job of capturing the character that Judy Garland made famous. The rest of the acting in the film is fine although there aren’t any real standout performances. This might have something to do with the fact that there aren’t that many other actors that actually appear in the film. All of here friends are puppets or people in suits which works great for the film but leaves little for acting. The only other actor with any mount of screen time is Jean Marsh who plays Princess Mombi and man does she nail evil to a “T”. However when you boil it down the acting in this film is exactly what you’d expect from an 80’s children movie.

The City Of Lost Children: The acting in this film is amazing! Ron Perlman known mostly for his English speaking roles nails One. His performance is a little over the top, but it fits the character and the film perfectly. Dominigue Pinon is turns in several fantastic performances as Le Scaphandrier and all the clones. He manages to give each clone personality to the point where if you didn’t know any better you’d think there were really six different actors. But the shining star of this film is Judith Vittet who is phenomenal as Miette. This is a pretty out-there film and much of the believability of it hinges on Vittet’s performance. If the acting were anything less that perfect the whole film would fall apart but Vittet is so believable that this entire fantastic film falls perfectly into place.

The winner: The City Of Lost Children.

2. Story:

Return To Oz: This film continues the adventures of Dorothy in the land of Oz. L. Frank Baum wrote several Oz books and this film pulls from two of them. The story here, as outlined above, is pretty straightforward. Dorothy is back but everything is in turmoil and it’s up to her and her new friends to save the day. They go from situation to situation until finally coming face to face with the Gnome King. I think where the story gets interesting in this film is before she arrives at Oz. She is still messed up from her first visit, so much so that she gets sent to a hospital for shock therapy. How disturbing is that? Not that many kids’ films where the hero is threatened with shock therapy. The hospital is very creepy as well. If you’re paying attention all the elements that come into place in Oz are introduced in this hospital. The squeaky wheels of the bed are the same squeaks of the Wheelers, for example. If poses the question, as in the first film, did all this really happen or was it all just in her head? The characters in the film are fairly flat and seem only there to further the story. The arc of the film is built around the situations that Dorothy and her friends get into rather than an actual plot, although there is some of that thrown in for good measure.

The City Of Lost Children: There is a lot going on in this film. There are many characters and each is fully realized. We are given intimate details about even the smallest characters that brings a frightening sense of realism to this truly bazaar film. At it’s heart, this film is about the relationship that builds between One and Miette as they search for Denree. But it’s also so much more than that. It’s about the kids trying to free themselves from La Pieuvre, it’s about Krank trying to dream again, it’s about the hidden past between Krank and Le Scaphandrier and the clones. It’s not a traditional film in any sense of the word but it’s such a fully realized world and story that it completely sucks you in.

Winner: The City Of Lost Children.

3. Originality:

Return To Oz: As stated above and as commonly known, the Oz films are based on the books by L. Frank Baum. So already there are originality points lost there. Having not read the books myself I can’t say how much was added to the film. However, just based on some of the crazy shit that goes on in this film it gets originality points for that easy. And while Balk does a good job of emulating Garland’s performance of Dorothy she brings a darker edge to the character, which is a nice change. In fact the whole film is much darker and scarier than it’s musical predecessor.

The City Of Lost Children: This is an original story by the filmmakers. It’s a very original imaginative and fully realized world. Never before have I seen a film like this one. Frankly, I don’t really know what else there is to say.

Winner: The City Of Lost Children.

4. Soundtrack/Scoring:

Return To Oz: The score for this film works fine, it’s scary when it needs to be scary and it’s nice when it needs to be nice. But there is nothing stand out or memorable about the score. As I’m writing this a couple days after rewatching the film I’m having a hard time even remembering what it sounds like.

The City Of Lost Children: The score for this film is very sparse. Huge chunks of time will tick by without a note of music. But then just at the right moment the violins and other string instruments will kick in and give just the right emotional tone needed for the scene. The music is beautiful and stays with you long after the movie is over.

Winner: The City Of Lost Children.

5. Genre Moment: One of the great things about fantasy films is that most of them are very different and unlike other genres there isn’t a defining moment that is similar in every film. So I shall simply point out one memorable scene for each film.

Return To Oz: The most memorable and terrifying moment in this film is when Dorothy has to sneak into the Mombi’s bedroom while she’s sleeping to steal her key and get the powder of life they need to bring their moose-couch to life. As Dorothy reaches into the case containing Mombi’s original head it wakes up and all the heads along the hallway begin to scream. Dorothy grabs the powder and runs. Mombi’s headless body chases her down the hallway while the heads continue to scream. Damned if I know a scarier scene in a kids film than that. Seriously, that scene alone gave me nightmares as a kid.

The City Of Lost Children: The opening scene of Lost Children is a memorable and disturbing one. We open on a series of creepy toys and quickly learn we are in a child’s room, the child in question is in his crib. As he looks over by his fireplace we see Santa Clause come crawling out. Santa produces a toy and so far all seems well until more Santas begin to enter the room, and soon the child is surrounded by Santas and crying. He jumps out of his crib and runs for it. The film gets more and more distorted until we are thrust back into the strange reality of the film.

Winner: Return To Oz.

6. Long Term Effect:

Return To Oz: As far as the cinematic world goes this film left no impression. I’ve never seen a film and thought, “Wow, that’s just like Return To Oz!” However, everyone I’ve ever talked to who’s seen this film knows how disturbing it is. In college a bunch of friends and I rented it. One friend wound up in tears she was so traumatized. Not many films have that kind of effect.

The City Of Lost Children: Jeunet has a very unique look to his films. There is a definite Gilliam influence in there but as far as influence goes I’m not sure this film has had any either. It’s barely 10 years old now Jeunet does not have a dozen’s of copycat directors running around like some other directors.

Winner: Return To Oz.

Le Grand Finale:

The Winner: In the not so close score of 5 to 2 our winner is: The City Of Lost Children!!!!!!!