This is my way of saying this is a lengthy review coming from a person who possibly does not know what he is talking about. After all, everyone is a critic.
“The Wizard of Oz” was originally released in 1939, but is re-released this week in Imax 3D for a one week run in preparation for its 75th anniversary.
What a wonderful experience to be able to munch on popcorn and sit with others in a darkened theater and watch this movie as if it was 1939. Many of you who read me may feel that I’m just an old fuddy duddy, taken in by a saccharin tale. But face it, not many movies get a re-release 75 years later. I may be a sweet-toothed movie nut, but this is one of the best movies of all time by the account of many greater minds than mine. What a delight to be able to write a review, as if the clock had spun back.
I will discuss the upgrades to this re-release near the end of this review. For now, I must extol the movie itself. I do not need to discuss the plot. We all know it. The timeless beauty of this work is the story telling itself. So simple and yet profound, it has been mimicked more times than one can count. Of course, the basic idea is taken from L. Frank Baum’s, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” a child’s book released in 1900. Turning that novel into a movie required a genius all its own. The original scripts ran the gambit. MGM feared that 1939 moviegoers were too sophisticated to bear a fantasy land, so the idea of a dream developed. Talking scarecrows and tin men seemed outlandish, so they considered having Scarecrow be a man so dumb that the only job he could get was to dress up like a scarecrow. The tin man was first envisioned as a hardened criminal that has been sentenced to live in a tin suit, which, over the years had softened him.
From a production point of view, “The Wizard of Oz” was the “Star Wars” of its day, a fantasy story of a little girl in a land far, far away. It was feared it would not do well, so it was not heavily supported. It was going to be one of MGM’s first Technicolor releases. Lo and behold, at the same time, Selznick International was in production of “Gone With the Wind.” There were very few Technicolor cameras available, and fewer people who knew how to operate them. “Oz” got the short straw, and was denied the Panavision camera. “The Wizard of Oz” opened originally to great reviews, but a poor box office draw. However, it was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, which it lost to “Gone With the Wind,” though it did win two Academy Awards, one for Best Original Song, “Over the Rainbow.” It was re-released a few more times during the 1940’s, making up the money it originally lost. In 1956 it aired on tv for the first time. That was the year I was born, I might add. From then on, it has become an annual favorite, and that says a lot in itself. It is not specifically a holiday movie, yet it is now a holiday icon.
Despite the script wrangling, the wonderful story we all now know evolved. What I particularly enjoy is its completeness. Everything is foreshadowed, and everything is concluded, with a few minor and meaningless exceptions. We all eventually realize that Scarecrow has a brain from the very start. The opening quote in this review shows that. Likewise, we all know that Tinman has a heart, and Cowardly Lion has courage. Additionally you recognize that Hunk is Scarecrow, and Hunk says things that lead directly to Scarecrow.
Hunk: “Now look it, Dorothy, you ain’t using your head about Miss. Gutch. Think you don’t have any brains at all.”
Dorothy: “I have so got brains.”
Hunk: “Well, why don’t ya use ‘em. When you come home, don’t go by Miss. Gutch’s place. Then Toto won’t get in her garden, and you won’t get in no trouble, see?”
Dorothy: “Oh, Hunk, you just won’t listen, that’s all.”
Hunk: “Well, your head ain’t made of straw, ya know.” Hits his own hand with a hammer.
But the foreshadowing goes way beyond this. Professor Marvel consults his genuine, magic, authentic crystal to look into Dorothy’s future. When Dorothy arrives in Oz, there are crystal balls everywhere, in Munchkinland, in the Witch’s Tower, in Emerald City. The characters are foreshadowed, the props are foreshadowed, virtually everything is foretold, and yet everything is a surprise. Toto starts the storm with Miss. Gulch and just as the Wizard is about to whisk Dorothy home, Toto leaps out of the balloon gondola, only to stir the pot yet again, right at the end.
While everything is foreshadowed, everything is resolved. We know what happens to the Witch, and just deserts too. We know what happens to our heros. We know that Dorothy has learned her lesson and found the meaning of home and friendship and love. It is story telling of the finest craft, letting you know what will happen long before it happens, leaving you guessing as it happens, and leaving you feeling complete when all is said and done.
One of the early scripts had Hunk heading off to college after Dorothy’s awakening. He and Dorothy exchange a good-bye, with a promise to write each other often, suggesting a love interest between them. Of course this was left out of the end film, but does explain more completely Dorothy’s farewell to Scarecrow, “I think I’ll miss you most of all.” However, as Scarecrow was the first met, and thus the most known to her, the line does not require further explanation.
The story is a full circle, spiraling in on itself like the tornado that sweeps Dorothy away. Each character foretells themself. But additionally, each character is only a slice of Dorothy herself. Dorothy has smarts, though she needs Scarecrow to help her see that. She has heart. She felt the pain that Professor Marvel used on her to send her back home. Still, she needs Tinman to help her realize her own compassion. And she has courage, being brave enough to run out on her own, and brave enough to run back home, though she still needs Cowardly Lion to bring out her strength when she swats him on the nose. Like Yin and Yang, the story is told within each character as each character tells the story. “And it’s funny, but I feel as if I have known you all the time. But I couldn’t have, could I?” But she had.
The re-release’s technical upgrades have their ups and downs. The Imax portion is amazing. The crisp quality of the projection, the large size, the re-mastered audio, brought out tiny things I had never before seen, and I have seen this movie at least thirty (30) times. I did not know that Tinman has a rivet on the bridge of his nose right between his eyes. I heard squeaks from his suit I’d never heard before, and layers upon layers within some sound effects that never came across on even the finest tv set.
The Imax 3D I found to be frightfully poor. It certainly must be a technical challenge taking a standard movie and converting it to a 3D process, but I have seen that done very well. However, I believe the Imax 3D is one of the older polarized-lens processes, and frankly it stinks. Not only is very little depth realized, the polarizing process forced the left eye to be noticeably darker than the right eye, which was a bit disconcerting. Minor tilting of the head made the weak 3D perspective shift in and out. I would have preferred that they avoided the 3D attempt and just gone with the Imax visual and sonic clarity.
A student asked me, “But what sense is there in seeing an old, 24-frames-per-second, 2D movie in Imax?” While it is true that the better format does not automatically make the quality better, some re-mastering and re-coloring did neaten things up. But the only real answer is, BECAUSE IT IS “THE WIZARD OF OZ!”
Worth the ticket. I had a wonderful time. You will too.