Whether anyone realized it at the time or not, Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) is the quintessential Hero’s Journey protagonist, a wistful youth looking beyond the horizons of her farm to some land ‘over the rainbow,’ anxious to travel there and experience something more than life on a farm. The choice to sternly delineate the depressingly dustbowl world of Kansas through depressing sepia tones remains an inspired one, making it all too easy to sympathize with Dorothy as she busts out into the best song ever written directly for a film. Garland herself, though aging a bit for the older viewer who become all too aware how much older she is than the character she is playing, is still perfectly at home in Dorothy’s gingham dress–overwrought emotion and all–as a member of “Oz’s” vaudeville performing troop of a cast (all of whom are completely over shadowed by Frank Morgan’s various appearances from Oz on down). On IMAX, every inch of “Oz’s” pre-widescreen full Academy aspect ratio is shown to its best with the seams rarely showing; due in part to the way the 3D conversion builds an illusion of depth the original film–shot entirely on soundstages with large painted backdrops–never managed. It allows much of the film’s original effects to play as evocative wonders and terrors the way they did back in 1939, particularly the tornado that whisks Dorothy off to Oz itself.
I suspect it’s as much to producer Mervyn LeRoy (and his cadre of directors, notably George Cukor and Victor Fleming) vision of the story–and its stature as a network television perennial–as to the collective unconscious Campbell quoted that we owe the recurrence of the Journey in Hollywood fantasy ever since, trailing after Dorothy as she starts down the Yellow Brick Road to meet a Wizard who will help her and the motley crew she has gathered along the way. Apart from the occasional stops for song and dance routines, “Oz’s” narrative proceeds efficiently from sequence to sequence, integrating the new characters without ever slowing down. Though introduced early on in Kansas, it’s easy to forget the same actors are portraying their fantasy world counterparts, particularly Bolger and Haley whose makeup is so good it still holds up during IMAX size close-ups. It’s Lahr’s leap onto the screen as the Cowardly Lion that makes the most impact, particularly in 3D where his forest kingdom actually becomes dark and menacing.
The real highlight of “Oz” (like most films of its type) is the world building to support that journey; in “Oz” it is entirely, wonderfully visual in a way few fantasies have been able to match, culminating in the art deco wonder of Emerald City where Dorothy and her friends discover they will have to face the Wicked Witch they have been running from. It’s there that Harold Rosson’s Oscar-nominated cinematography is given its greatest workout amid yellow road, the scintillating green towers, and their multi-colored denizens. It’s also where the combination IMAX hits its biggest bumps, showing the city as the painting it is and the 3D has its greatest successes. The long endless hall leading to the Wizard’s chamber is truly endless now, emphasizing the feeling of tension and dread as the quartet link arms and march forward into literally the next stop on the classic Heroes’ Journey, the dark forest surrounding the Wicked Witch’s fantastic model castle (looking more frightening than it’s ever been).
An attack by flying monkeys, who continue to be potent nightmare fuel for young children, quickly changes the hunt to a rescue as the remaining companions must face their own internal shortcomings and the audience must face the fact that despite the strength of her pipes, Dorothy is not a worthy enough hero for the story she is in. Besides occasionally showing the age of the film’s still impressive technical wonders, re-examining “Oz” this way also shows up the flaws it’s always had, the biggest one being Dorothy herself. Because she is sharing her Journey with several larger than life supporting characters, she can (and does) easily move to the background when things need doing; she has dreamt about leaving a world where she has no agency in her life to travel to a world where she still frequently has no agency in her life–but it’s pretty, so who cares. Her purpose is to provide moral direction for the doers of the film–Scarecrow and Tin Man and Lion–but she comes off like the Planeteer with the power of Heart who just seemed kind of useless most of the time; It’s only in her scenes with Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch (the only actor who seems capable of out scenery chewing Morgan) that she gets to do anything. Unfortunately, ‘anything’ keeps turning into sitting on the ground crying.
Still, whatever the minor faults that may be exposed by re-examination, “Oz’s” strengths are emphasized as well, reminding us why even after all these decades “The Wizard of Oz” has the reputation it does, and that it still deserves it. This dreamy allegory has become the bedrock for film fables and with good reason; it’s the blueprint for fantasy film story-telling, a blueprint all too often left unread in a corner somewhere. That makes this 75th anniversary re-release a good time to return to it and remind ourselves, even here in our mundane, sepia-toned lives, just how fantastic well done storytelling really is.