I just know that the cinematic purists are out there right now weeping bitter tears of despair. They must be thinking: How could anyone allow for a 3D conversion of The Wizard of Oz, which, since its original 1939 release, has become a perennial favorite and is widely regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made? I suppose they have a point; on narrative, characteristic, and thematic levels, the 3D conversion was unnecessary – a gimmick that was applied, I have no doubt, because 3D films are currently a very popular trend.
But one must also consider the visual level, and this is where the Chris Pandolfi you know, who’s generally dismissive of the 3D process and almost always advises readers to save their money for traditional 2D presentations, begins to weaken in his resolve. That’s because the film has been restored exclusively for IMAX screens, and IMAX projectors are the only ones I know of that successfully allow for a watchable 3D experience. Not only is the picture not dim, we actually feel immersed.
Consider the moment at the end of the song “Follow the Yellow Brick Road/You’re Off to See the Wizard,” after the Munchkins have trailed a bounding Dorothy (Judy Garland) to the edge of Munchkinland; the scene cuts to a shot of Dorothy and the Munchkins looking off into the distance, where the yellow brick road appears to crest several cartoonishly round hills before disappearing over the horizon. When watching the original 2D version of the film, it’s plainly evident that the distant landscape is merely a painting on the wall of the soundstage, and we can clearly see where the physical road ends and the painting begins. This new 3D version corrects this by making the line separating the two look like a natural dip in the road, and it really does seem as if some of the painted hills are closer to us while others are farther away. There’s a convincing sense of depth perception.
In spite of the drawbacks 3D conversions can potentially cause (and often do), this is the most beautiful The Wizard of Oz has ever looked and sounded. The picture contains not a single scratch, dust speck, dirt smudge, or printing defect. The soundtrack contains not a single hiss, pop, click, or droning buzz. Everything is bright, colorful, and crystal clear. I was hoping there would be extra credits added to the end of the film acknowledging those involved with this particular restoration, simply so that I would know whom to praise. Sadly, there weren’t any extra credits. Whoever was involved, they have outdone themselves, and I sincerely thank them for their efforts. This rerelease is not only a prime example of the importance of film preservation, it also makes what I believe to be a compelling case for the ways in which 3D can successfully be utilized, even if it happens to be added in postproduction.
But let’s set the latest advancements in technology aside for the time being, along with any arguments over whether or not applying 3D to a classic film is cinematic blasphemy. I think we can all agree that The Wizard of Oz is a wonderful movie, plain and simple. Part of the reason it has endured for over seventy years, I believe, is that it tells a children’s story without playing down to its audience. It can be exuberant fun, as in moments when Dorothy, the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Tin Man (Jack Haley), and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) skip down the yellow brick road singing merrily, but it can also be scary and exciting, especially in scenes with the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), who threatens not only Dorothy’s life but also that of her defenseless dog, Toto. And its sense of humor is so much more sophisticated than it might initially seem. To illustrate my point, carefully consider the Scarecrow’s speculation that “some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?”
But there’s more to it than that. Dorothy is, I would argue, an easy character for children to identify with. At one point or another during our childhoods, many of us believed that our loved ones didn’t understand us, that we would have been better off running away. On the same token, if we ever found ourselves lost, scared, lonely, or threatened, we would immediately crave the comfort of their embrace and the reassurance of their protection. Above all, we would long for the familiarity of home. Initially, Dorothy believes that something is missing from her life, and she yearns to be in a place somewhere “Over the Rainbow.” But after a gigantic tornado magically transports her to Oz, she embarks on a journey driven solely by her desire to return to her farm in Kansas, because as beautiful as much of it is, Oz simply isn’t home. She must also come to grips with how much she underappreciated her Aunt Em (Clara Blandick), who she believes is dying.
This re-release has been marketed as a celebration of the film’s seventy-fifth anniversary, although if you do the math, you’ll find that only seventy-four years have passed. I suppose it doesn’t matter. The film itself is the important thing. Few people, if any, are going to agree with the decision to convert The Wizard of Oz to a 3D format, which is understandable given the fact that it was probably based more on marketability than on how it would benefit the story. However, I firmly believe its presentation in IMAX redeems the thinking behind it. Yes, I know it isn’t like me to recommend seeing a film in 3D, certainly not this passionately. And yes, I know that a 3D conversion – or any kind of conversion, for that matter – goes against everything cinephiles hold dear about tampering with the classics. My sincerest wish is that you can put aside your prejudices and go in with an open mind. You might be surprised.