Villain Watch: The Nome King, Mombi, and The Wheelers (Return to Oz) 1985

While I’m raving about the marvels of Will Vinton and his amazing process Claymation, I thought I’d turn the attention on him again with this weeks Villain Watch with his masterful and brilliant character, The Nome King!

Return to Oz is a really great underrated Disney film from the 80’s.  It has its moments of humor, but its very creepy and dark, especially since the plot line deals with the clinically depressed Dorothy Gale, whose Aunt Em and Uncle Henry take her to see a psychiatrist that wants to put her through electro shock therapy.  And we’re talking shock therapy in the late 1800’s, when the lightbulb was only just invented.  She heres screams from the patients locked away in the clinic who have gone mad from the procedure.  The doctor (Nicol Williamson, playing both the doctor and The Nome King) presents himself on the surface a kindly older man with a pleasant bedside manner.  But he hides dark secrets of the results of his new therapeutic technique that has gone horribly wrong.

The Nome King presents himself in the same way as a manipulator, who makes himself sound reasonable and fair to people on the surface, only to hide his true dark and sinister agenda.  He’s practically destroyed Oz with the power of the ruby slippers, and he likes to play games with people, toying with their emotions.  He’s going to win regardless, and if he loses…well…then you’ll want to be as far away from him as possible.

Nome King is aided by his second in command, the terrifying head stealer Mombi (Jean Marsh, who also played the evil Queen Bavmorda in Willow).  She’s pretty much a substitute for the Wicked Witch of the West, but they both don’t have to compete in their goals to be absolute terrors.  Her violent raging temper reflects well opposite The Nome Kings calming manipulative demeanor.  She dons multiple personalities with the different heads she attaches to her body.  But despite whichever head she chooses, inside she’s still the same raging and cruel Mombi.  These two villains are on both sides of the same coin…who come off as a great menace to Dorothy and her friends.


Williamson does both the voice of the Nome King and plays the live action version in effects makeup.  Will Vinton’s team does an amazing job capturing Williamson’s gestures and facial expressions within the character.  He is incredibly expressive and emotional, and both performances between the animators and Williamson are seamless.  The mind boggles as the animators morph and shape the rock formations creating different interpretations for various expressions.  Theres a great piece of animation from one of the King’s minions, a nome on a flat granite rock that morphs into amazing believable expressions.  The Nome King is the biggest highlight in an already great film.

But the scariness doesn’t stop there.  Along with The Nome King and Mombi, there are The Wheelers, creepy circus like characters that have wheels for hands and feet, and they roll around chasing after Dorothy.  The destruction of Oz becomes a representation of Dorothy’s tortured psyche with all of the nightmarish creatures that inhabit it.  It’s a movie that would be more wise to introduce to older children, because if young kids were terrified by The Wicked Witch of the West, then this film takes that terror x10.

This is a movie designed for kids we’re talking about!  I don’t know what the politics of studios were like in the 80’s, but when it came to making movies geared towards children, there was definitely much more creative freedom and expression, where stories were told that were allowed to go to dark places.  I think that’s great, and it’s not just because I’m a sucker for dark material.  I like it because of the lessons they impart on children.  As a friend of mine once said, there are reasons why in fairy tales there are scary scenes, like Red Riding hood and the wolf, or the witch in Hansel and Gretel.  They are cautionary to warn children that there are dangerous people in the world who can manipulate them.  Today we hardly get characters that intense in animated films because so many people are overprotective of children, and studios fear the backlash parents and lower box office numbers if the movie seems to scary.  But how are kids supposed to learn then?  Isn’t that the point of these fairy tales?  Everything appeals to kids now based on blatant commercialism, and there’s so little in the way of good storytelling that ever manages to get into the film.

This film has not just one, but three great villains to inhabit the world, each of them being scary in their own unique way.  The director Walter Murch is a very well known editor and sound designer in Hollywood, but he really caught lightning in a bottle with this film.  The film got mixed reviews from critics because of its bleak and dark content, and didn’t fair to well at the box office.  It’s probably why this is the only film Murch did, which is a shame because in watching this film, he is an amazingly talented director.  It’s risen to cult status for the most part.  But for those who haven’t seen the film, it really has a great story, and the villains just sell it completely.  I’ve posted the YouTube video below so you can see the wonderful expressive animation created by Will Vinton and his team.  It is a really great film for kids and adults alike.


2 thoughts on “Villain Watch: The Nome King, Mombi, and The Wheelers (Return to Oz) 1985”

  1. You made an error here. Nicol Williamson is the one who played Doctor Worley and The Nome King, not Nigel Hawthorne. That said, Return To Oz is definitely an underrated film and your article about the villain characters in this movie is great as well.

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