Adapted from L. Frank Baum's timeless children's tale about a Kansas girl's journey over the rainbow, The Wizard of Oz opened at Grauman's Chinese Theater on August 15, 1939. The film was directed by Victor Fleming (who that same year directed Gone With the Wind), produced by Mervyn LeRoy, and scored by Herbert Stothart, with music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. Dorothy was portrayed by a 4'11" sixteen-year-old girl who quickly earned her reputation as the world's greatest entertainer: the incomparable Judy Garland. Ray Bolger appeared as the Scarecrow, Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, Jack Haley as the Tin Man, and Frank Morgan in six different roles, chief among them the Wizard himself.
The Wizard of Oz received five Academy Award® nominations, including Best Picture (Outstanding Production), and captured two Oscars®—Best Song (“Over the Rainbow”) and Best Original Score -- plus a special award for Outstanding Juvenile Performance by Judy Garland. The film was an overwhelmingly popular and critical success upon its initial release and repeated its ability to captivate audiences when M-G-M reissued the film in 1949 and 1955. The film made a new kind of history with its network television premiere in 1956 on CBS. Nearly 45 million people tuned in for this initial telecast, marking the beginning of an annual tradition. Ever since, The Wizard of Oz has been shown virtually annually on network (and then cable) television; its magical story and heartfelt performances have enabled it to grow from a perennial classic to its current status as a treasured icon of popular culture.
Portions of this review appear in our coverage of 'The Wizard of Oz: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition.'
Portions of this review appear in our coverage of 'The Wizard of Oz: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition.'
When I was a kid back in the late '60s and early '70s, I looked forward to four banner days every year: Christmas, my birthday, the first day of summer vacation, and the annual network airing of 'The Wizard of Oz.' The latter was appointment TV before there ever was such a term. With no DVRs or VCRs to capture Dorothy's magical journey down the Yellow Brick Road, there was no other choice but to view the film in real time...or else wait an interminable 365 days until NBC or CBS showed it again. Though I don't recall much about watching 'Oz' (except sitting agape in front of the television and ducking out during the cyclone sequence – witches didn't scare me, but tornados sure did!), I do vividly remember the breathless anticipation that preceded each annual broadcast, and how it quickened my pulse and heightened the aura of this iconic adaptation of L. Frank Baum's enduring fantasy. No doubt about it, 'The Wizard of Oz' was a bona fide event, and while I couldn't always count on Santa Claus to leave what I wanted under the Christmas tree, I knew Dorothy and her trio of devoted pals would never let me down. Year after year, they delivered the goods, and with wide-eyed wonder I gratefully accepted the many gifts this special motion picture showered upon me.
Four years ago, Warner Home Video gave me – and the millions who share my enthusiasm for this timeless classic – the gift of 'The Wizard of Oz' in high definition, and back then, it seemed like the ultimate presentation. Yet times and especially technology rapidly change, and when WHV announced months ago it was preparing a 3D version of the 1939 musical fantasy, an uncharacteristic wave of excitement swept over me. Normally a dyed-in-the-wool purist - I hated the whole colorization trend of black-and-white movies back in the 1980s and have always been a stickler regarding the release of films in their proper aspect ratio - I was amazed I so whole-heartedly endorsed such brazen tinkering with one of Hollywood's most iconic and beloved motion pictures. Did 'Oz' need a 3D makeover? Of course not. But what classic film is better suited to one than this wondrous, magical tale? Though Victor Fleming's film is an undisputed national treasure and more than capable of standing on its own for decades to come, its fantasy elements and special effects certainly could be enhanced and complemented by 3D imaging, making the spectacle more immediate and involving. Sure, the idea is gimmicky, but why not try and extend the film's reach and impact? Of course, there's always concern when a corporation tampers with a work of art, but WHV takes such good care of and so greatly respects its classic catalogue, I knew the studio wouldn't attempt such a controversial undertaking if the finished product couldn't meet the highest standards.
And it does. What I wrote about the 2D Blu-ray edition of 'The Wizard of Oz' four years ago also applies almost word for word to its marvelous and revelatory 3D cousin. Without a doubt, 'Oz' in 3D is the same film we've always admired and cherished, but the impeccable conversion once again lofts it over the rainbow. If you think the 2D Blu-ray allows those of us of a certain age to recapture the exhilaration and bask in the awe we felt so strongly so many years ago, take a gander at the 3D version. And put some glasses on the youngsters who grew up with 'Oz' more recently on video and watch their reaction to this 70-year-old masterpiece. Like the pungent scent of poppies in the field that borders the Emerald City, this spectacular version of 'Oz' intoxicates the senses and - once again - revitalizes both the film and its loyal audience.
With its thrilling plot, lush Technicolor palette, unforgettable score by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, excellent performances, and impressive spectacle, 'The Wizard of Oz' is a heady enough mix on its own. Add not only high-def picture and sound, but also 3D, and it's a genuine trip. Yet despite all the external stimuli, the basic themes of Baum's tale – home, family, facing fears, empowering friends, unity against adversity – still resonate as heartily as they ever did, and the image's immediacy only increases their emotional power. Though on the surface, this well-known story of a young girl who runs away from her Kansas farm to protect her pooch, gets caught in a violent storm, and travels via tornado to a breathtaking land of Munchkins, wizards, and witches may seem like a typical children's adventure, director Fleming and writers Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf infuse it with such warmth, humor, suspense, and wisdom, it transcends the mold to become a far more substantive piece than songs like 'Ding! Dong! The Witch Is Dead' and 'We're Off to See the Wizard' would lead one to believe. Wisely, 'Oz' doesn't browbeat messages into us (until the final scene); they hide in plain sight and can be easily harvested or ignored. Some are a bit dated – Dorothy's vow at the end of the film to never go looking for her heart's desire outside the boundaries of her own backyard seems more than a little short-sighted in this feminist era – but most defy age and gender. As long as we're "young at heart," 'The Wizard of Oz' will continue to touch us.
As will the work of the incomparable Judy Garland. Though so many elements contribute to the success of a film, it's impossible to imagine any one piece of the 'Oz' puzzle having a greater impact on the film's viability and durability than Garland's performance. Without question, her simple yet stirring rendition of 'Over the Rainbow' ranks high on the list of milestone movie moments, yet this gifted 16-year-old actress brings so much more to the table than her mellifluous voice. Honesty and sincerity ooze from her pores; every word she utters is totally believable, and her pluck, vulnerability, innocence, and empathy instantly seduce the audience. From the opening frames to the "no place like home" coda, Garland keeps us transfixed, maintaining an intimacy that's rare in such an extravagant production. Her performance, more than any other, keeps 'The Wizard of Oz' contemporary, and allows the picture to connect with past, present, and future generations.
Garland's brilliance may dominate the film, but the performances of her co-stars certainly aren't chopped liver. On the contrary, Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, Jack Haley as the Tin Man, and Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion all rise above their cumbersome costumes and heavy makeup to file energetic, endearing portrayals. The rapport they create with Garland is nothing short of extraordinary, and the way the motley quartet bands together to assault the Wicked Witch of the West (still one of cinema's most frightening villains, thanks to Margaret Hamilton's inspired portrayal) almost puts Dumas' musketeers to shame. Billie Burke as the delightfully ditzy Glinda provides a bit of Hollywood glamor, and the underrated Frank Morgan plays multiple roles (can you name them all?), but none better than the befuddled title character.
Technically, 'Oz' still impresses. Though its hand-crafted special effects can't compete with today's CGI capabilities, they rarely look cheesy, and the sumptuous sets, costumes, and production design always keep the eye engaged. The clever, hummable tunes add buoyancy and wistfulness to the story, and Fleming, the unsung hero of this legendary production, corrals all the elements into a cohesive whole. Known for his coarse, macho veneer, Fleming masterfully infuses 'Oz' with a delicate sensitivity that's never cloying or hackneyed. And to think he went straight from this production to helming another little film you might have heard of – 'Gone With the Wind' – is nothing short of amazing. Though the one-two punch nearly killed him, the end result – two iconic blockbusters in the same year – remains an unparalleled (and herculean) achievement. Eat your heart out Spielberg and Scorsese.
"Beloved" describes 'The Wizard of Oz' to a T, but the film is also one of Hollywood's most influential and inspiring works. Books (the 'Harry Potter' series), music (Pink Floyd's 'The Dark Side of the Moon'), TV shows ('Lost'), and other films (the 'Star Wars' saga) have paid homage to, borrowed from, and blatantly ripped off countless aspects of this timeless tale. Yet somehow, the movie itself is never diminished, and the messages that moved audiences upon its initial release still provoke knowing nods, heartfelt tears, and soul-nourishing warmth today. Though it may not be as important or significant to the current crop of youngsters as it was to those in my generation, 'The Wizard of Oz' still wields tremendous impact, and possesses the power to engage, excite, and quietly educate viewers of all ages. And that's no small feat.
While I can't say 'The Wizard of Oz' has changed my life, I will state that Dorothy and her friends have enriched and shaped it in more ways than I probably realize. That's the magic of film, and this particular production, now presented not just in high definition, but - unbelievably - in 3D, arguably possesses more magic than any other in history.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Wizard of Oz' 75th anniversary 3D edition arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a 3D-enhanced sleeve. Both 3D Blu-ray and standard Blu-ray discs reside inside, along with instructions on how to download the Ultraviolet digital copy. Video codec is 1080p/MVC MPEG-4 (3D) and 1080p/VC-1 (2D), and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The original mono track is also included, but can only be accessed through the Special Features menu. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music and dialogue immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Despite my initial excitement over the prospect of a 'Wizard of Oz' 3D conversion, I'd be lying if I didn't also admit to a certain degree of concern regarding the entire enterprise. After all, any glaring missteps, either in execution or strategy, would instantly transform this treasured classic into a laughing stock, damaging its lofty reputation. So it was with a mixture of breathless anticipation and dread that I popped the 3D disc into my Blu-ray player to assess whether the wizards at Warner weaved motion picture magic or forever cursed one of my all-time favorite films. Almost instantly, however, I relaxed, as it became resoundingly apparent after only a few scenes that 'The Wizard of Oz' in 3D was going to be - quite literally - an eye-opening experience, filled with the same level of unabashed awe that distinguished my first ever viewing of the movie as a child.
Now I've seen several 3D conversions over the past couple of years, from animated features to blockbuster epics, and I can honestly say 'The Wizard of Oz' outclasses them all. First and foremost, the technicians who engineered the conversion completely honor the original source, so the 3D blends seamlessly into the film's fabric. Effects are employed sparingly and with a firm sense of purpose, gently enhancing scenes instead of shoving the image and projectile objects down our collective throats. Sure, there are shots that produce an astonishing sense of dimension - Dorothy's house crash-landing in Oz and the witch lighting the Scarecrow on fire are two notable examples - but mostly the 3D is employed to produce a greater sense of depth and immersion, and it succeeds brilliantly in that regard. One shot of Dorothy surveying the terrain of Munchkinland as the little people poke their heads up from among the dense foliage to catch a glimpse of their national heroine is truly breathtaking in the levels of depth conveyed.
And that's only the beginning. Numerous 3D elements are striking, starting with the opening title sequence, which possesses excellent clarity. Birds flying into the Gale family farm and chickens wandering across the yard exude a palpable presence, while bits of debris from the tornado swirl through the air. In Oz, Glinda's pink bubble looks sharper and flaunts more dimension than ever before as it glides into view, and the initial entrance of the Wicked Witch of the West becomes an eerily immersive experience. Amazingly enough, I feel the film's special effects look more realistic in 3D than in 2D, and close-ups of Dorothy, her three cohorts, and Toto, too, all sport more detail than in previous versions. The attack of the flying monkeys is a sight to behold, as is the cackling Wicked Witch writing "Surrender, Dorothy" across the sky with her broom. One can almost smell the poppies, which practically leap off the screen as they surround a sleeping Dorothy, while the depth down the long hallway that leads to the wizard's chamber is beautifully accentuated.
Best of all, those responsible for the conversion resisted the temptation to thrust objects at the audience. Glinda's wand at times ever so slightly protrudes, as do the branches surrounding the witch's castle, but that's about the extent of projectiles. Superimpositions, such as Glinda commanding the snowfall that awakens Dorothy, Toto, and the Cowardly Lion from the debilitating poppies, are both crisp and dimensional, and the poppy field itself exhibits what seems like an even wider expanse than ever before.
According to the WHV press release announcing this ambitious undertaking, "The 3D conversion was a long and complex project which Warner Bros. initiated with a very high resolution (8k) scanning of the original Technicolor camera negative. The restored 2D image was then transformed by creating a depth-map of each frame to construct 3D imagery and determine distances from the viewer’s vantage point. This was followed by the long process (with the use of a rotoscope) to further refine viewer distances and fully layer shapes and objects." Maintaining the 3D images for 'Oz' was also more challenging than for recent films due to the greater length of shot that typified films of Hollywood's Golden Age. The average shot for today's films lasts a mere 72 frames compared to the 1,800 or more frames per shot in 'Oz.' (For a more detailed account of the 3D conversion of 'Oz,' check out Michael Palmer's recent HDD feature article.)
Much like the previous 2D Blu-ray transfer, the 3D version features a lovely grain structure that adds appropriate texture without engulfing the picture. A bit of excess grain and a smattering of noise occasionally creep into isolated shots, but I think their appearance might be due more to the 3D processing than any transfer anomalies. Contrast is pitch-perfect from start to finish; black levels are rich and inky; colors are deliciously lush without showing any garish, over-pushed qualities that tend to plague unregulated three-strip Technicolor transfers; fleshtones are spot on; and patterns, especially the criss-cross design on Dorothy's iconic white-and-blue gingham dress, remain rock solid throughout the film's course.
Detail levels are extraordinary. The previous Blu-ray exposed the freckles adorning Dorothy's face, but this one highlights every nook and cranny of Munchkinland, the Emerald City, and the witch's stark castle. Shadow delineation is superior, with no noticeable crush shrouding any objects, and no banding or pixilation crop up either. Watch this amazing 3D transfer once, then watch it again and pick up even more subtle shadings and bits of isolated dimension. Rarely do experiments like this turn out so well, so leave your reservations at the door, and enjoy this fabulous 3D conversion from Warner.
There's also a 2D Blu-ray included in this set, and after close examination between this disc and the 2009 transfer, I really can't determine any distinguishing factors that differentiate one from the other. I don't know for sure that the image hasn't been mildly tweaked since 2009, but both have the same VC-1 encode (Warner now uses AVC, and has for a while, so that could be a tell-tale sign that they're the same) and selected scenes look identical. If there are differences, they're practically imperceptible, so if you don't have 3D capability in your home theater setup and already own the 2009 release, there's really no need to double dip at this time. For a more detailed evaluation of the 2D transfer, click here to read my review of the 2009 release.
Warner has switched up the audio just a tad on this new release, replacing the previous Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. (The original mono and a music-and-effects track also can be accessed via the Special Features menu.) While I've always preferred DTS-HD MA over Dolby TrueHD, the differences here are negligible, because it's the same lossless track simply presented in a competing format. (Fidelity is possibly a bit more pronounced here than in the previous version, but that's the only difference I could detect.) The 5.1 option certainly offers the most sonic bang for one's buck, adding welcome dimension to many aspects of the film. Warner technicians have done yeoman's work sprucing the audio up, and the result is a robust, nicely nuanced effort that complements the glorious visuals well.
Most of the sound is front-based, but faint surround action occasionally kicks in, usually during extended scoring sequences. Details, such as the chirping baby chicks on Uncle Henry's farm and Dorothy's shrieks when she's carried away by the flying monkeys, are crisp and distinct, and some hefty low-end accents that I don't recall on the DVD's DD 5.1 track significantly punch up the action. When Dorothy's house crash-lands in Oz, a palpable rumble shot through my living room, and when the witch shuts the castle doors as Dorothy and her friends try to escape, another burst of bass emphasized the entrapment. The tornado sequence envelops well, and though it's loud and frenetic, there are enough distinct elements to keep it from becoming a cacophonous mess. In addition, the wizard's amplified bellowing possesses a wonderful hollow tone, as does the echoing empty chamber of the Tin Man's chest.
Dynamic range is wide enough, and 'Over the Rainbow' has never sounded more full-bodied and resonant. The rest of the score also benefits from excellent fidelity and pleasing tonal depth, and dialogue and lyrics are crystal clear, so even if you don't know the movie by heart like I do, you'll understand everything with ease. All crackles have been carefully scrubbed away, though I did notice a bit of hiss during quiet moments. Such imperfections, however, are understandable given the film's advanced age, and are merely brief lapses in an otherwise high-quality track.
If you plan to upgrade from the 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition,' be forewarned. Not all of the extras from that substantive release have been ported over to this more streamlined 3D edition. The supplements included here are not skimpy by any estimation; the selection just isn't complete. (Of course, for 'Oz' fanatics like myself, there's a 3D 75th Anniversary Collector's Edition that does contain all the previous supplements in addition to some unique collectibles at a premium price. Unfortunately, High-Def Digest did not receive a copy of that sumptuous box set for review.) So if you care about extras, read the following carefully to see just what is included and what isn't before you chuck a previous release. The commentary and trailers appear on both the 3D and 2D discs; all other special features reside exclusively on the 2D disc.
If you're a 3D enthusiast and revere 'The Wizard of Oz,' it's impossible not to be dazzled by this high-quality reimagining of one of Hollywood's most beloved and enduring films. 'The Wizard of Oz' in 3D is not just a gimmick; it's an immersive, eye-filling, often wondrous cinematic experience that will thrill and delight those willing to accept its transformation. Is this an essential upgrade? Absolutely not! 'The Wizard of Oz' has been released on home video more times than Dorothy could ever dream of clicking her heels, and it surely will be recycled over and over again in the future. If you're happy with your current 2D Blu-ray of 'Oz' and don't much care for 3D, then by all means stick with that edition. Any differences or improvements in the 2D disc here are imperceptible. But if you have a 3D setup, by all means pick up this terrific release. There are few 'Oz' fans more protective of the movie's legacy and purity than I, and yet I whole-heartedly embrace this 3D rendering, which has been produced with the utmost care, respect, and sensitivity to the film's original vision and presentation.
In the final thoughts section of my 2009 review, I wrote about how Warner's initial high-def remastering of 'Oz' "reignited and enhanced my passion for this captivating fantasy...[making] 'Oz' come alive like never before." Well, Warner has done it again. This 'Oz' is without question more "alive" than at any other time in its history, thanks to exceptional video and audio transfers. (A sizeable supplemental package, including a terrific, all-new documentary, augments the disc, but only a portion of the extras included in the 2009 collector's edition have been ported over to this release.) Of course I will still watch the film in 2D and enjoy it every bit as much as I ever did, but I'm excited to own the 3D version, so occasionally, instead of just watching Dorothy travel to Oz, I can go there with her.
Because so many home video editions of 'The Wizard of Oz' exist, and because 3D is still somewhat of a niche market, I don't want to classify this release as a "must own." If you're an 'Oz' junkie like myself, grabbing this disc is a no-brainer, but for those who simply enjoy the movie and/or respect its status as a cinema icon, the 3D version is not an essential purchase. It does, however, come extremely highly recommended and will make a fantastic addition to anyone's film library.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.