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The land of Oz is still appealing, though not quite the same old place

It has taken Hollywood almost 50 years to pin a sequel on ``The Wizard of Oz.'' Now the venerable Walt Disney studio has taken up the challenge. Its ambitious ``Return to Oz'' isn't a musical and doesn't match the wit and magic of the 1939 original. But it's an appealing picture on its own terms, if you can overlook a couple of big miscalculations.

The movie starts with a provocative idea: that little Dorothy was really shaken up by her voyage from Kansas to Oz and back, and can't sleep nights as she relives the experience.

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Audiences in the '30s, with a depression to worry about, might have hooted at psychologizing like this; and even Aunt Em is less concerned about Dorothy's mental health than about her chores around the farm. But this sequel is a product of the '80s, after all, and the ``me generation'' likes some Freud in its fantasies.

In any case, Aunt Em takes Dorothy to an ``electric healer'' for some therapy. While he seems nice, he's really a dangerous quack with a yen for shock therapy and an itchy finger on the power switch. Our heroine is helpless in his grasp.

These early scenes are the best in the movie -- tautly filmed, and extra scary because they're rooted in the real world. But we all know why we're here, and soon the story gets down to business, whisking Dorothy back to Oz during an escape from the mad doctor.

Here the story weakens, right when it should get stronger. The suspense drops off. The action becomes more fantastic but less involving. Nagging questions come up -- how did Dorothy's pet chicken get here, anyway? -- and the first Oz-type villains we meet, called Wheelers, look too clumsy to be very menacing.

Happily, the movie picks up again as Dorothy confronts a wicked princess and meets the evil Nome King, whose heart of stone beats inside a body of rock. Excellent performers bring these characters alive (Jean Marsh and Nicol Williamson, respectively) and the special effects are spookily believable, especially in Princess Mombi's dazzling yet macabre palace.

What nearly spoils ``Return to Oz'' is a huge mistake in the sidekick department. Like a good TV sitcom, the original ``Wizard'' surrounded the heroine with delightful and amusing companions. Who doesn't remember the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion -- and the amazing men who played them -- as vividly as Dorothy herself?

The sequel gives Dorothy a new set of friends, but traps the actors in rigid costumes that make them look and move like puppets. Not one has an expressive face or body: Tik Tok is a robot; the Gump is a walking sofa with a stuffed moosehead tied on; Jack Pumpkinhead is just what his name says, and can't move so much as his eyes.

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In this sort of company, Billina the hen takes the acting prize, wings down. Even when Dorothy's original pals make a cameo appearance, they've been stiffened up and depersonalized like the others. Looks like a victory for the Nome King to me, since his specialty is turning people into objects.

Leaving aside this problem, and a half-baked plot twist at the climax, ``Return to Oz'' is diverting enough to while away a summer afternoon, especially if you have a youngster (old enough to handle a PG rating) in tow. The director was Walter Murch, sound editor of such inventive films as ``American Graffiti'' and ``The Conversation,'' and his talents give a special sophistication to the ``Oz'' soundtrack.

Other assets include eye-filling cinematography by David Watkin and some stunning work by production designer Norman Reynolds and art director Fred Hole. Effects involving the Nome King are in the clever Claymation process, presided over by Will Vinton.

In all, it's no masterpiece like the ``Wizard'' of old. But it has enough conviction to recall the spirit of L. Frank Baum -- it's based on two of his 14 ``Oz'' books -- and the Disney people have clearly given it their all. It's bound to be with us for a very large portion of the warm-weather movie season.

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