Wizard of Oz, The (United States, 1939)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Wizard of Oz, The Poster

For veteran director Victor Fleming, who began making movies during the black-and-white, silent era, 1939 represented the pinnacle of his career. Not only did Fleming's Gone with the Wind claim the Best Picture Oscar, but his other big feature, The Wizard of Oz, took its first steps towards becoming one of American cinema's best-known and most beloved motion pictures. (It's worth noting that Fleming had help from several other directors on Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, but, in the end, he was given sole credit for both.) Indeed, The Wizard of Oz is one of only a handful of films that nearly everyone is familiar with.

Throughout the years, there have been dozens of live-action films, stage plays, animated features, and TV programs based on L. Frank Baum's classic Oz stories. To one degree or another, almost all have been influenced by Fleming's telling of the tale. Although the 1939 version was not the first filmed adaptation of the book (the Internet Movie Database lists at least two silent movies, including one with Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man, that preceded Fleming's), it is without a doubt the definitive one. When anyone thinks of The Wizard of Oz, they see Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, and Jack Haley, and hear "Somewhere over the Rainbow" and "Follow the Yellow Brick Road."

1998 has already seen a theatrical re-release of Gone with the Wind, and now The Wizard of Oz joins it. This version of Oz is being touted as a "Special Edition," although those expecting to see new scenes of Toto gnawing at the Scarecrow's legs or Dorothy playing Hide-and-Seek with the Munchkins will be disappointed. No extra material has been added. The print looks great, but the Technicolor was already re-invigorated for a previous laserdisc release. The only really noticeable improvement this time around is the soundtrack, which has been converted from the original mono to digital surround sound. Still, is that enough to justify calling this a "Special Edition?"

Probably the most interesting aspect of The Wizard of Oz comes from interpreting what really happens during the bulk of the film. The story opens by introducing us to Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland), a young girl in Kansas who finds her wanderlust stirred by dreams of going "somewhere over the rainbow." When a tornado strikes the farm where she lives with her aunt and uncle, she is knocked unconscious. Upon waking up, she finds herself in the magical land of Oz, where she journeys in the company of a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a Tin Man (Jack Haley), and a Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) to defeat the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) and find the all-powerful Wizard (Frank Morgan), who has the power to send her home. But is this a real trip, or is it all a dream? A strong case can be developed for either possibility, although it's ultimately up to each viewer to make up his or her own mind. Whichever way you lean, it doesn't detract from the movie's boundless capacity to entertain.

The Wizard of Oz belongs in that exclusive category of films capable of equally enchanting children and adults. In fact, the basic formula was so successful in The Wizard of Oz that Disney borrowed it as the framework for their recent wave of animated pictures. If there's something familiar about the structure of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, etc., that's because the approach of mixing light comedy and adventure with catchy musical tunes (while frontloading the music and concentrating on adventure late in the story) is not original. Recognizing how well Oz played to all audiences, Disney adapted the skeleton of the classic for their own use.

Of course, there's more going on in Oz than just that. At the core of the story is a theme that speaks to children and adults in similar, yet different, ways. Dorothy's dream may be to travel to a far off land, but, when she finds herself there, all she wants is to go home - to a place where she's safe, loved, and warm. This is a dilemma that all children face - the desire to cut the apron strings balanced by the overpowering yearning for the comfortable and familiar. As adults, we can watch The Wizard of Oz and fondly remember our own pilgrimage from childhood to adulthood and how, in many ways, it mirrors the one Dorothy is taking.

Another aspect of The Wizard of Oz that immediately arrests the attention is the film's use of black-and-white (actually brown-and-white) and the vivid hues of Technicolor. All of the scenes that transpire in our mundane world are presented in the most drab manner possible, but, when the setting shifts to Oz, the grays and browns are replaced by brilliant reds, blues, oranges, and yellows. It takes a rare movie to make a viewer even think of it as "black and white" or "color," but, because The Wizard of Oz puts meaning into appearance (much like the recently-released Pleasantville), the nature of the visual composition become crucial.

The special effects in The Wizard of Oz do not look like the special effects in Armageddon or Godzilla. No computer animation was used, so they're far less elegant. In many cases, they look like special effects. You can see where the yellow brick road ends and the matte painting begins. When the Scarecrow has been torn apart, you know exactly where Bolger's body is. The Wizard's balloon is clearly not real. It doesn't matter, though. These effects are good enough to sketch the outline; our minds fill in the rest. The Wizard of Oz takes on a life in our head that it never quite attains on the screen. Because of the power of imagination, the film transcends the limitations of the techniques used to craft it.

Over the years, The Wizard of Oz has been subjected to the kind of scrutiny reserved for only the greatest of motion pictures. Volumes have been written about it, analyzing everything from its look to the urban legends that have sprung up around it. (The best known, that there's an electrocuted stage hand in the background of a forest scene, has been thoroughly debunked.) Ultimately, however, it doesn't take a lengthy study to understand why multiple generations find the movie so compelling. Not only is it wonderfully entertaining, but the issues it addresses, and the way it presents them, are both universal and deeply personal. And therein lies The Wizard of Oz's true magic.

Wizard of Oz, The (United States, 1939)

Ranked #76 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1