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This week marks the re-release of The Wizard of Oz in 318 theaters nationwide to promote a Blu-ray re-release next month. The new version, a painstaking 3-D IMAX restoration of the 1939 classic (which was originally released one week before World War II broke out in Europe and was not a huge success at the time), is a visual marvel and a great way to catch up with the film if you haven’t seen it in a few years. Here are a few things that are wonderful about Wizard (and one that’s pretty lame).
1. It’s fast-moving without being jumpy.
Oz gallops right along from adventure to adventure — the Kansas scenes, the introduction of the witches and the Munchkins, the friendship with Scarecrow and the others, the Emerald City and the Wicked Witch’s castle. There’s barely a chance to catch your breath before the next episode of peril (or the next sparkling musical interlude). Yet the movie is composed of relatively long takes. There are only 650 edits in the entire movie — less than one-third as many as you would expect to see in a contemporary equivalent. It’s a film that consistently rewards the uninitiated with surprises (and the repeat viewer with dazzling set pieces that rank among the most justly famed images in the history of film) without any wasted moments.
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2. The special effects are amazing.
Today we consider visual effects from 1989 to look stale and dated and false, but the obviously painted backdrops of The Wizard of Oz merely enhance the old-timey, storybook quality. (The movie was a nostalgia piece even in 1939, with the opening titles reminding viewers that they had been enjoying the story since 1900 in book form. The same characters also inspired a popular 1902 Broadway show.)
Thanks to the terrific set decoration, the Kansas scenes actually feel like a struggling Depression-era farm and the approaching tornado is black and menacing– completely convincing, even with the level of detail given by the IMAX processing. The scenes in the witch’s castle are equally frightening and dark, with the images inside the crystal ball flitting dreamily from hopeful (Dorothy’s family searching for her) to upsetting (the Wicked Witch unexpectedly appearing as a reminder that she monitors everything Dorothy does). Even the scenes of the phony “Great and Powerful Oz,” a projected skull with flaming torches beneath it, are dazzling and surreal.
3. The physical comedy is a treat.
Ray Bolger (Scarecrow), Jack Haley (Tin Man) and Bert Lahr (Lion) were all trained, veteran stage vaudevillians who knew how to get laughs from the cheap seats with bodily movement alone. The scene where Scarecrow, a boneless fellow, shows how wobbly he is when allowed to stand on his feet again shows some master clowning.
Haley goes the other way just as delightfully when Tin Man teeters over to one side and the other with stiffness, and Lahr’s pathetic facial gestures and hilariously non-intimidating brandishing of Lion’s tail win the audience over and establish the self-effacing nature of the character in seconds.
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4. Margaret Hamilton.
The woman who made an indelible impression as the Wicked Witch of the West suffered second and third-degree burns during her character’s pyrotechnics-fueled exit, but it was worth it.
Her Miss Gulch is already chilling as a small-town busybody and dog hater who gets the picture moving by taking Toto away. Who could ride a bike with such prim severity? It was the perfect prelude to the green-faced villainy that has haunted children’s dreams for three-quarters of a century. Without a terrifying Hamilton, the movie would have lacked the stark horror that makes its happy ending so effective.
But. Here’s one big flaw in the story….
1. The Wicked Witch captures Dorothy, realizes she’ll have to kill her to get the Ruby Slippers, muses “how to do it” — then decides not to do anything.
Instead she inexplicably gives Dorothy a reprieve — the hourglass — and leaves the girl completely alone with a vague plan to come back and kill her later when time runs out. The script doesn’t even bother to come up with an excuse to get her out of the room. Why would she put off killing Dorothy when she’s been trying to get the slippers for the entire movie? No reason, except the script needs a delay so Dorothy’s friends can break in and rescue her.